The “opening scramble”, inside the cheerleader’s locker room, and “He Hate Me.” These are probably the first things that come to mind when you think about the original XFL. But ahead of the debut and/or return of the XFL this weekend, let’s take a quick look back at the original, how it all came to be, and why it was gone so soon.
The day was February 3rd, 2000. In addition to being my 5th birthday, this was the day that Vince McMahon officially announced starting a new football league, his new football league, the XFL. The announcement was one that made business and sports headlines, but also one that left a lot of questions. What would this new league be and look like? McMahon had no franchises, no coaches, no players, no stadiums, no television deals, nothing. What he did have however, was a bombastic arrogance, albeit charming, and the “Midas touch”. Or at least that’s what the business world thought. You have to remember this was in the midst of the Attitude Era, a boom period for the WWF. The company was coming off their best business year in 1999 with record profits, creatively was attracting an audience with ratings averaging consistently at a near 6.0, and these metrics would only continue to escalate into the year 2000. The company had just gone public, launching an initial public offering (IPO) on October 19th, 1999, with an issuance of stock valued at a then $172.5 million. Needless to say, the company was on fire, and this is exactly why Dick Ebersol and NBC believed the joint venture with McMahon and the WWF would be a worthwhile investment. And the bombastic McMahon held no punches back at that initial announcement press conference. He asked what had happened to the game of football, calling the NFL the “No Fun League”, and declaring the XFL would be the “eXtra Fun League”. He basically said that the NFL had become “soft” with too many rules. He brought in Dick Butkus, one of the greatest and most intimidating linebackers in pro football history, essentially as the embodiment of old school hard-nose football. He sold it as a sports version of “Survivor”, with each game being an episode built around characters filled with drama. Time would tell if this new venture for NBC and McMahon and the WWF would be a success or not.
In the coming months, the XFL would announce eight teams in two divisions, made up of major markets and some not served by the NFL. However, unlike the NFL which used a franchise model with individual owners, all eight teams in the XFL would be solely owned by the league itself. They would have extensive television coverage of their games on NBC, TNN, and UPN. They announced who the coaches would be and then held a draft on October 28th and 29th, and then another supplemental draft on December 29th, to build the rosters. With all eight teams ready to begin playing, and television coverage across three different level of networks, the XFL would kick off on February 3rd, 2001, both my 6th birthday, exactly one year to the day of the announcement of the league.
The first game between the New York/New Jersey Hitmen and the Las Vegas Outlaws on NBC was watched by an estimated 14 million viewers. The opening night drew a rating of 9.5. The opening week games actually delivered double the ratings that NBC had promised advertisers. However, this incredible start would not last. By the second week, the ratings had dropped to a 4.6, and would continue to fall for the rest of the season. And, although the first week numbers were impressive, the action on the field was anything but. One of the co-founders, Dick Ebersol himself would say after the fact that he was disappointed with the opening game’s poor quality of play, and how it essentially gave him a gut feeling that this league was doomed to fail. Bob Costas, long-time NBC sportscaster, was perhaps the most critical of all against the league. He did not like Vince McMahon’s “approach” to football, calling it what you would get if you combined mediocre high school football with a tawdry strip club. This criticism led to the infamous interview between Costas and defiant McMahon on Costas’ HBO show “On the Record” in which to say McMahon got heated would be an understatement. You can check it out. By the third week, the league was forced to alter the playing rules to speed up play even more, after Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live (SNL), was angered after a double overtime game and a power outage due to an unfuelled generator caused SNL to be pushed back nearly 45 minutes. This episode in particular was expected to draw higher ratings with Jennifer Lopez as host. As a last-ditch effort to save declining ratings, NBC and the XFL would promote behind-the-scenes footage into the cheerleader’s locker room at halftime of the week 6 game between the Orlando Rage and the Las Vegas Outlaws. This would end up just being a ruse sketch, that would ultimately be the final “risqué” stunt of the season. The XFL Championship, also known as the Million Dollar Game, would be on April 21st, 2001 between the Los Angeles Xtreme and the San Francisco Demons, with the Xtreme defeating the Demons 38 – 6. This game would draw a rating of 2.1, compared to that of 9.5 in the opening game. All told, both NBC and the WWF each lost a reported $35 million on the venture, only getting back 30% of their initial joint $100 million investment. Really it was a season full of jokes, mockery, and ridicule from the mainstream sports media towards the idea of the XFL. The XFL would cease operations after just one season due to NBC not agreeing to broadcast a second season due to low television ratings. Vince McMahon would officially announce the closure of the XFL on May 10th, 2001, in what was believed and thought to be the end of the XFL. Key words being believed and thought.
Fast forward to January 25th, 2018. This was the day that Vince McMahon announced that the XFL was coming back. However, this was a much different announcement from McMahon, at least presentation wise. For one it was his newly established, Alpha Entertainment, that McMahon was making the announcement under. Instead of the bombastic arrogance, he made it clear that this incarnation of the XFL would be much different than the original, and was much more subdued. Like the original, the new XFL will be a single entity owning all eight teams, as opposed to the franchise model with individual owners. The new XFL will have television coverage of their games on ABC, ESPN, and Fox Sports. However, unlike the original, the new XFL, at least as or right now, is completely separate from the WWE. Financially, McMahon has invested a lot more into this incarnation, prepared for at least three years of losses. He has surrounded himself with more football-centric people, with actual knowledge of football operations, in particular Oliver Luck as the Commissioner. Now, whether this is McMahon attempting to right the wrong of his biggest career failure or just thinking that another football league is a better idea and viable in 2020 is unclear, and like the original only time will tell if this new incarnation of the XFL will be a success or not.