Thursday, March 9, 2017

What Might've Been: XFL Football (2001)

Aside from being filthy rich, the only other thing that WWE CEO/Chairman Vince McMahon and President Donald Trump have in common is that they both were involved with short-lived football leagues. Trump had begun building his global brand, if you will, when he fielded a team in the USFL in the early 80's. That league lasted a couple of years and had a juicy national television contract with ABC & ESPN, before the two networks were joined together via acquisitions by the Walt Disney Company.

McMahon, meanwhile, had a dream of developing a winter football league, with the idea of keeping interest in the sport hot after the Super Bowl finished the NFL's season. Unfortunately, since this was during the Attitude Era, and since McMahon was already getting heat from the Parents Television Council for the content of his programming, the XFL was doomed virtually from the jump.

Recently, ESPN marked the belated 15th anniversary of the league's lone season with a 30 For 30 documentary, but it's better to think back and try to figure out just where the XFL went wrong.

McMahon managed television contracts with NBC, TNN (now Spike TV, soon to be the Paramount Network), and UPN. He felt it was necessary, however, to have some of his wrestlers cut promos to support the league, and split up Monday Night Raw commentators Jim Ross & Jerry Lawler, assigning them different partners. Due to issues not related to the league, Lawler left before the first month was over. Ross was paired with then-Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Granted, the two of them had NFL commentary experience, with the Falcons and Buccaneers, respectively (insofar as I know, Ventura didn't work any Vikings games), but so accustomed as they were also to calling wrestling matches, the fear was that they and Lawler might feel out of place. Current ESPN announcer Jonathan Coachman was also a play-by-play announcer for the XFL. McMahon also took a chance and had his daughter, Stephanie, do interviews with fans in the bleachers, in contrast to her role in WWE programming as the then-storyline trophy wife to her now-real-life husband, Triple H. As it was, flooding his XFL broadcasts with WWF/E talent proved to actually be a detriment more than a luxury.

Why was that? Media gadflies such as Phil Mushnick of the New York Post, who at the time was also writing a weekly column for TV Guide, wouldn't give the new league even half a chance because of McMahon, and the pre-established bias against his promotion. NBC executive Dick Ebersol, a friend of McMahon's, helped found the league, and ran into trouble almost immediately, as one game ran into overtime, threatening the start of an episode of Saturday Night Live. That's the risk you take with live sports in primetime, something that's been around since the dawn of television.

Let's go back to the very first nationally televised game between the New York-New Jersey Hitmen and the homestanding Las Vegas Outlaws.

Hitmen coach Rusty Tillman was a respected special teams coach in the NFL. Can't recall whether or not he would land another coaching job upon returning to the NFL. Matt Vasgersian, now with Fox & MLB Network, worked some of the Sunday games for either UPN or TNN, so the experience didn't damage his career all that much.

The presentation was typical McMahon. Some innovations, such as the roving overhead camera, were adopted by the NFL in due course. Some players, including Rod "He Hate Me" Smart, also found NFL jobs.

The lesson? If McMahon restrained himself and stayed out of the way, maybe the league succeeds.

Rating: B--.

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