By 1999, the once-mighty Monday Night Football was bottoming out, and in several demographic categories, notably young males, the NFL was losing out to professional wrestling on smaller networks and cable. Critics claimed that the “no fun league” was sanitized and hardly watchable. The week after the memorable Rams-Titans Super Bowl, the WWF’s parent company WWFE, rolled out plans for a new football league, the XFL. WWFE announced that the XFL would take up residence in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Washington, San Francisco and two cities to be named later.
The league was dogged upon its arrival, with sportswriters prognosticating that the league would feature the same scripted theatrics that the WWF showcases, only on a gridiron. Writers compared it to the USFL and other failed leagues, while WWFE chairman Vince McMahon invoked memories of the pre-NFL merger American Football League. Over the course of 2000, the XFL worked on establishing much-needed credibility. At first, when the league was little more than McMahon’s idea, it seemed far-fetched. The addition of Olympic network NBC as a partner virtually silenced the folding chair and steel cage jokes that had already been recycled ad tedium by sportswriters. Credibility was further cemented with the hiring of reputable sports executives, general managers and coaches, nearly all of whom came aboard stating that if the XFL were not real, they would not be in it. As the league as a whole took shape, with the draft, player workouts, ticket sales and uniforms, it was soon treated, albeit with skepticism, as legitimate.
The WWF built its success as a marketing machine, and marketing was to drive the XFL to success. The XFL staged its announcements in the XFL cities as they were visited by the WWF’s traveling show. First, cities were announced, then coaches and other personnel, then team names, then uniforms, then players. As the season approached, the interest continued to grow. The XFL received press coverage that was unprecedented for a startup league. Of course, that McMahon and his marketing machine were able to pull it off did not surprise anyone.
The XFL’s aim was to produce a more entertaining game than the NFL. The XFL aimed to speed up play, produce higher scores and encourage player individuality and celebrations that had been snuffed by the NFL. They planned to put microphones and cameras “everywhere,” and the game announcers would sit in the stands. The uniforms were to be flashier and the stadiums would be dressed up. Among the rule changes announced were a one foot inbounds rule for complete passes, disallowing field goals for points after touchdowns, reviving the bump and run, outlawing fair catches, eliminating ‘in the grasp’ QB protection rules, kicking off from the 25 and reducing the play clock to 35. Scrimmages in January 2001 were observed so that rule changes could be tweaked, although they would be subject to further tweaking even during the season.
McMahon predicted that the league would rival the excitement of the Roman gladiator days, and would eventually expand to become larger than the NFL. The NFL took note but spoke little. Possibly in response, Monday Night Football hired comedian Dennis Miller and miked players for replays at halftime. The ump-cam was introduced, placed on the bill of the umpire’s hat. Ump-cam footage was used on replays only, though.
Well aware of the mass of financial nightmares that killed several leagues before it, the XFL sought to contain costs with a single-ownership structure, like Major League Soccer. The players were to come from the ranks of those who would just barely miss making the NFL. The XFL would not pay as much as the NFL, but would award salary bonuses for winning, ‘just like in real life.’ The XFL continually insisted that in no way would they be in competition for players or fans. While in the planning stages, WWFE created a 50-50 partnership with NBC to operate the league. NBC had been in negotiations with Dave and Frank “USFL” Dixon and Time-Warner to form a football league to replace the NFL after the network excused itself from the NFL TV rights bidding war. The partnership gave the XFL a Saturday night prime-time slot, beginning six days after the Super Bowl. The XFL also scored television contracts to broadcast on UPN (which has announced that it would become the Paramount Network) and on cable’s The National Network, née The Nashville Network. TV was clearly the driving force behind the league. The cities eventually chosen by the XFL were a mix of large TV markets (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco) and major cities without the NFL (LA, Orlando, Birmingham, Memphis and Las Vegas).
As the summer of 2000 approached, rumors began circulating on the internet about the cities, team names, colors, coaches and stadiums. Speculation focused largely around the two “unnamed” cities. It was rumored that accomplished former Colts coach Ted Marchibroda would coach in Memphis and Buddy Ryan would head up the Chicago team. One self-styled insider announced that the XFL names would in fact be Birmingham Bloodhounds, Chicago Skyscrapers, Las Vegas Gamblers, Los Angeles Terminators, Memphis Pioneers, New York Nighthawks, Orlando Orcas, and San Francisco Condors. Some of these names were reported in the mainstream media. The alleged Buddy Ryan selection made headlines on the day of the Chicago team announcement. Some of the rumors proved to be correct, among others the substitution of Miami and Washington. The internet facilitated rumor investigation, as users discovered that WWFE had reserved domain names such as chicagoenforcers.com, laextreme.com and nychaos.com, and had applied for trademarks for team names such as “Maniax” and “Hitmen.”
The XFL dropped the big one in July 2000, when it was announced that legendary Chicago Bears linebacker and sub-legendary actor Dick Butkus would be the coach of Chicago’s then-unnamed team. Like the NBC announcement, the Butkus announcement was a stunning PR move, giving the league a huge boost and shoring up its credibility. Butkus lent his reputation to the league as a league spokesman during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which ultimately resulted in his promotion to director of rules and discipline, a position created especially for him. For many of their other coaches, the XFL raided NFL Europe, taking half of their coaches and adding decades of football experience.
Recruitment of players began early, with players able to sign up via the internet. Indeed, applications flooded in for the startup league. Players, too, had trouble taking the league seriously. Many of the players had mixed feelings about the league, unwilling to become part of a circus-type show like the WWF. The presence of reputable coaches, some who gave up prime coaching positions, helped to further enhance credibility. There was Galen Hall, who gave up the NFL Europe champion Rhein Fire, and Jim Skipper, who left a coaching position with the NFL Giants the season they went to Super Bowl XXXV.
The XFL unveiled its team nicknames and helmets on August 24, 2000, although as mentioned before, nearly all had been discovered and reported by the media. The reaction to the names and uniforms was initially mixed. On the one hand, it was acknowledged that the names were on the cutting edge, being at once futuristic and apocalyptic, but they were a serious departure from traditional football names. After the press gave a positive reaction to the “Rage” helmet and logo, Orlando GM Tom Veit was quoted as saying “you’re just glad we’re not the Maniax.” Except for the Maniax (see the Maniax’ team page), the names did not prove to be controversial.
The first XFL draft, styled “Player Allocation and Selection System” (P.A.S.S.), was held in October 2000. All eligible players were signed by the league and put into the league’s talent pool. The draft was split into two parts, the territorial round, where teams were able to take players from the three area universities assigned to them, and the open round, where all of the teams were able to select from the talent pool. An additional draft was held in December for players who were still under contract to other teams during the October draft, meant for CFL players, except that all were under contract until February. Trades were permitted, and teams would continue to be able to pick players out of the talent pool if they needed one. After the territorial selections were made, the L.A. Xtreme drafted QB Scott Milanovich first in the overall draft.
Hype over the league continued to build up as the millennial NFL season wore on. NBC ran ads showing “extreme training,” where receivers caught footballs fired out of a cannon, a lineman practiced blocking on a semi truck, and a runner ran through a desert on fire as bombs exploded around him. Other commercials featured cheerleaders half-naked in a dressing room and cheerleaders dancing in skintight shorts. In an article in ESPN magazine, McMahon touted that cheerleaders would be encouraged to date players (some NFL teams prohibited it), and announcers would corner cheerleaders and ask them about their intimate moments. He later modified this position by saying player-cheerleader dating simply “would not be prohibited.” Rumors about outrageous XFL promotions such as cheerleaders giving fans lap-dances during games were circulated, given credence by McMahon’s reputation for outlandish utterances.
The November announcement that the league had hired Jesse Ventura, the sitting governor of Minnesota and former WWF wrestler, as an announcer, brought a considerable amount of attention to the league. Ventura had agreed with the league that the XFL would not exploit the governor’s office, and Ventura assured that his Saturday night duty would in no way interfere with his duty of running the state. He pointed to the fact that he coaches high school football in the fall, as a way of showing both that he is knowledgeable about the sport, and that attending a football game once a week did not interfere with his gubernatorial duties.
Training camps convened in Orlando (Eastern Conference) and Las Vegas (Western Conference) in January of 2001. The early indications showed Memphis and L.A. as the strongest teams. The rosters were trimmed bit by bit and teams scrimmaged against one another, executing a fixed number of plays in each meeting. Some full games were played out, with the league watching to see how their rules changes looked in practice, and NBC tweaking its television coverage for the upcoming debut. Television coverage was publicized as an “all-access pass,” and the “ultimate reality TV show.” The announcers and cameras would not be restricted. Two helmeted and padded cameramen with steady-cams were to stand on the field to record the action, from in the huddle, in the locker room, and even in an ambulance on the way to the hospital if someone got hurt. Announcers would be allowed to approach a coach in the middle of a game to inquire into the logic of a certain tactic, particularly if it failed to yield a result.
Meanwhile, on January 9, 2001, an XFL-football blimp crashed in Oakland, California. The blimp had been in town to fly over the AFC Championship game between the Raiders and Ravens. Winds carried the blimp away from its handlers, causing the pilot and a student pilot to eject. The blimp then carried on and landed into a sailboat restaurant. Pictures of the twisted blimp on the ground were all over the media, with reporters wondering aloud if this was an omen of things to come. Conspiracy theorists postulated that Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis shot the blimp down. ESPN’s website suggested that perhaps McMahon shot the blimp down, on account of the publicity that it generated.
The revised rules were released on January 16, 2001, generating a great deal of interest and curiosity. Specifically, two of the least interesting portions of the game, points after touchdowns, and punts, were drastically overhauled. Extra points would have to be scored via a play from scrimmage, and in the event of a turnover it could be returned by the defense for a touchdown of their own, for a point. Punts became live balls after 25 yards, although punting team players could not cross the line of scrimmage before the punt was in the air. No fair catches were allowed either, but a 5-yard protective “halo” around the receiver would prevent him from being blindsided while catching the punt. With the rule, the XFL claimed it was the home of “the most exciting fourth down in football.” The “in the grasp” rule was scrapped; the QB was deemed down when forward progress was stopped. The XFL disallowed head slaps, but allowed the bump-and-run down the whole field. The offense would be allowed to have one man in forward motion outside the tackle, as was done in Arena football. Coin tosses were history. Instead, a ball would be placed at the 50-yard line, and one player from a designated position on each team would race out to the ball. The first one to get control of the ball would get to choose between kicking and receiving.
Overtime rules were extremely lengthy. Dubbed the “Can you top this?” overtime, teams would get up to four downs from the opponent’s 20 yard line to score. If the first team scored, the second team would have that many downs to score as well. These rule changes, along with shorter halftimes and a shorter play clock promised to shorten games to about 2:45, to wedge the entire game into the 3 hours it was allotted on NBC Saturday nights, and never would it interfere with the start of Saturday Night Live.
In advance of week one, Las Vegas oddsmakers put out lines on games and chances of winning the championship. Oddsmakers had been so impressed with the competitiveness in the scrimmages they watched, they had decided to abandon the “wait-and-see” policy and issue lines up front (although they did impose betting limits in the beginning). The Los Angeles Xtreme were the favorite to triumph in the first season going into week one, followed by the Rage and the Maniax, while the Enforcers were 12-1 longshots to win the crown.
The 2001 Super Bowl between the Giants and the Ravens was a yawn-fest compared to the previous Super Bowl. It was one of the lowest-rated Super Bowl games in history and one that featured a record-setting number of punts. This of course highlighted the tedium of the fair catch, and in the following week, anticipation of the XFL was very high. By the time the league got underway, the league had a nationwide two-thirds recognition factor, but there were many misconceptions about the league. Sportswriters constantly highlighted that the league was a minor league, and many people still believed that it would be scripted. Some thought that the league would be an overdose of entertainment covering up poorly played football. And, of course, a lot of attention was paid to the cheerleaders.
Finally, on February 3, 2001, 366 days after the initial announcement, the league kicked off in Las Vegas and Orlando. Vince McMahon welcomed the sellout crowd, proclaiming in his ringmaster style, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the XFL!” NBC unveiled its hyped coverage during the first game between New York/New Jersey and Las Vegas, with Matt Vasgersian and Jesse Ventura providing commentary, as the Outlaws sunk the Hitmen. The game was a 19-0 Las Vegas blowout, and the network cut away in the second half to the Orlando – Chicago game where the Rage was holding on to a thin lead with the Enforcers threatening. Memphis barely held off Birmingham for the only visiting team victory.
The best game of the opening weekend was the San Francisco Demon’s upset of the preseason favorites, the Los Angeles Xtreme. The Demons overcame a one-point deficit at the very end, driving the ball downfield with no timeouts and under two minutes left. On a third and one with forty seconds left, the Demons failed to convert for a first down, which would have stopped the clock to move the sticks. On fourth and one with twenty seconds, cameras recorded the confusion, as QB Ron Pawlawski shouted “Mayday! Mayday!” while the Demons’ field goal unit scrambled onto the field with time running out. The ball sailed through the uprights as time expired to give the Demons a 15-13 win.
NBC and UPN made good on all of their promises. The coverage featured close-up shots of cheerleaders, locker room halftime, fast pace, on-field taunting. The ratings were a mild surprise, with the game earning NBC a 10.1 overnight rating, and a final rating of 9.5, far above the promised ratings. However, reaction was mixed. Some writers panned the league’s showiness, dissed the cheerleaders, and put down the lack of sportsmanship. Vince McMahon was the focus of most of the attention, drawing criticism from sportswriters
Sports Illustrated, featuring the new league on its cover after week one, enthusiastically harped on the level of play, comparing it to an elegant table setting used for serving chili dogs. Others welcomed the new league, praising its innovative style and the genius of the creators.
Changes were made for week two. Matt Vasgersian was assigned to the back-up game, while excitable WWF announcer Jim Ross, was promoted to the spotlight game, where he was teamed with Jesse Ventura. The league promised to cut down on the use of the “X-cam,” the camera suspended behind the offense, and to use the traditional sideline camera more. In week two, Memphis, New York and Los Angeles witnessed successful home openers. On TV, NBC featured a better game, a two-overtime, come-from-behind victory by the Xtreme over the Enforcers. As expected, ratings dropped by about half, and attendance fell in Orlando’s second home game. Nonetheless, sportswriters predicted doom for the XFL.
On NBC’s primetime game, ratings headed downward all season, in spite of games that were undecided until the very end. UPN and TNN got a huge boost from the XFL, however. Attendance fell to below 20,000 in Birmingham and Memphis, on the day many stayed home to watch the Daytona 500, in which Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the final lap. Critics of the league who blasted the presentation delightfully penned that the XFL was getting what it deserved, and predicted that the league would not finish out the season. Late-night comedians joked about how boring the games were.
For the most part, the advertisers (Stacker nutritional supplements, Spaulding, and among others) stuck with the league, although Honda backed out. The U.S. Army, which had been pressured into puling its ads off WWF shows, claimed that the XFL ads touting its internet series on basic training were having a positive impact. But because of the low ratings, NBC had do dole out make-up time.
Meanwhile, the competition in the league was improving, with most games staying close until late. After week three, the Demons, Xtreme and Outlaws were tied for first in the west. Memphis underachieved in its first few games while an Outlaws-Xtreme rivalry appeared to be developing. The Rage was dominating in the east. Birmingham was showing steady improvement. The Enforcers fell to 0-3 in three road games in spite of impressive play from its offense. The Hitmen elevated its backup quarterback in an attempt to shake things up.
Even with rivalries forming and play improving, the ratings continued to slide. Defenses improved faster than the offenses, and scoring declined. This led the league to kill the bump and run, resulting in marginally higher scores.
As ratings on NBC tanked, the media jumped on the league. The XFL made adjustments to its broadcast and attempted to liven things up. They switched to a more traditional sideline camera angle, they brought back Vasgersian and installed Mike Adamle as the booth’s third man. The league hyped a week 6 a segment where cameras would be placed in the cheerleader’s locker room. After Jesse Ventura made some critical remarks about Rusty Tillman in week 4 in Chicago, the league played up a Ventura-Tillman feud, even rearranging its broadcast schedule to put New York’s next game on. Tillman did not bite, explaining in a newspaper interview that he was never interested in WWF-type theatrics. The feud was short-lived. When the Enforcers met the Hitmen on NBC in week 9, Ventura spoke little about Tillman.
As the first season came to a close, the public image was that it would not return. This was brought about largely because of negative media coverage of the bad ratings on NBC as well as criticism over the gratuitous display of cheerleaders. Nevertheless, on every front but Saturday night NBC coverage, the league appeared to be a success. Attendance averaged over 20,000, and ratings on TNN and UPN were very pleasing to those networks. Early on, NBC proclaimed that it would honor its two-year commitment, but later claimed that they would look very seriously at its options. McMahon intimated that the WWF wouldn’t hold their partner’s “feet to the fire” and make them honor the commitment. The indication was that the XFL would retreat from prime time and use the plan originally advanced, putting the XFL on cable and syndicated broadcast before making the jump to prime time.
The football itself had shown drastic improvement. The Hitmen and Enforcers both changed their losing ways, as Orlando steamrolled over the rest of the league. Birmingham sank to dead last after a 2-1 start. In the west, Los Angeles excelled but the Demons and the Outlaws put in uneven performances. Memphis, for all its potential, never came together as a team and put in a lackluster performance with some highlights, including a sweep of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Xtreme won the first XFL Championship, christened the “Million Dollar Game,” played on April 22, with ratings only slightly up from the regular season.
After the season, NBC publicly expressed its disappointment over the XFL experiment. Columnists wrote post-mortems and danced on the grave of the XFL. It was a virtual certainly that the league would not return on Saturday night, and likely not on NBC at all. The league hoped that UPN and TNN would carry the league on. TNN stayed put as a cable partner, but UPN played hardball, attempting to leverage its position as potential XFL savior to renegotiate its WWF deal. The WWF would not accept such a deal, and on May 10, 2001, the XFL was officially discontinued, with a joint conference call by Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon announcing that the league could no longer sustain the losses.
Proposals to buy the league were rumored, when the Vancouver Sun reported that individuals interested in purchasing league-owned video equipment were told to wait, that the league itself may be bought outright. Former NFL quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Warren Moon were rumored to be interested in buying the league. New forms of the league were even rumored, with Las Vegas moved and Orlando restructured. XFL fans hoped for a return, but nothing ever came to be.
Why did the XFL die after only one season? Jesse Ventura blamed negative media coverage, and that has some truth to it. The hype was heavy, and viewers expected something a little more “Extreme.” When those who wanted “extreme” only got football, and those who wanted football got comedy skits and braggadocio, everyone was disappointed. The XFL consisted almost entirely of sub-NFL players that had been together as teams for little over a month. The league did not live up to the hype, something which could have been avoided if the league had first developed a small following on a small network, rather than exploding onto prime time before the product was fully ripe. Any goodwill that was earned before the season had been soiled. The business decision to discontinue the XFL was a smart one, because there was a big possibility that the league would not have finished a second season had one begun.
As a season ticket holder, I enjoyed all five Enforcers
home games. The crowds were very energetic and enthusiastic.
The football was good- the first Enforcers home game
was on week 4, plus it got better as time went on. The
TV coverage did not capture the stadium experience,
and were therefore not as enjoyable. Nevertheless, the
XFL could have found a niche, but whether NBC and WWF
were willing to bear the risk to try and win it over,
and whether they would have been profitable in the process,
is unknowable. The next spring league that comes along
could learn a few things about marketing and presentation
from the XFL (as could the NFL), but the XFL did not
have the prime-time product, regardless of how it was