As XFL Representatives scout the future of pro football and their league, at this past weekend’s College All-Star games. I found myself thinking about the past and how surreal this whole XFL return thing really is. I keep having 2001 flashbacks.
Let’s jump back into Doc’s DeLorean one last time. The world was so different in 2001. Specifically, the online universe. Back then, if you were a fan, you only had chat rooms and message boards. There was no real coverage by sports media outlets. So, all the fans had was the league website, some newspaper articles, and some fan sites.
Sites like XFLBoard.com provided fans the opportunity to follow, interact and write about the league. No podcasts or internet shows. There weren’t even any weekly radio talk shows back then. The WWF at the time, was heading into the sports world and there was no real coverage of the league by the mainstream sports media. A sports franchise headed by a wrestling company didn’t really help create the impression of legitimacy. Alternative football leagues have a hard time, as it is, getting coverage by the mainstream media to begin with. Let alone a wrestling company. Any coverage of the original XFL was done so in a mocking fashion. After the first couple of weeks of the season, it was almost impossible finding any weekly highlights on ESPN or any serious recaps or analysis of the teams, players, or games on any sports media outlet.
An example of this was week one in the original XFL. As a sports fan for over three decades, I would be hard pressed to recall a more electrifying atmosphere for a season opener than the one that took place between LA and San Fran. When the San Francisco Demons defeated The LA Xtreme in their home opener at Pac Bell Park. San Fran won the game 15-13 with the clock running out. The over 38,000 fans that packed the stadium, were as loud as any group of fans, for any game I’ve ever witnessed. For a first-time league with mostly unknown players, to get that type of immersive response out the gate was unreal. The game wasn’t pretty but it was intense. A great back and forth game with tremendous drama. The presentation clicked on all levels. Some of it was over the top, but you actually felt like you were on the field and in the stands. If the XFL had opened their league on NBC with this game, the first impression of the league may have been different than the one created by the sloppy and one-sided Outlaws-Hitmen opener on NBC.
The league and The Demons-Xtreme game actually made the front cover of Sports Illustrated at the time. A great honor except that the XFL was blistered on the cover and inside the magazine. The headline read “Cheap Thrills”…. With the underneath caption reading “Will sleazy gimmicks and low-rent football work for the XFL?”…… It didn’t get much better inside the magazine. The drama, innovation and fun attached to the Demons-Xtreme game was mostly overlooked.
To be fair, some of the negative sentiment towards the XFL was warranted. The league puffed out it’s chest about being the big bad wolf and then got treated as such by the mainstream sports media. Nearly two decades ago, I actually got a chance to sort of become a part of that media, thanks to this very website, when I covered the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. Who knew back in 2001, that writing for a website that covered the league could get you access to games and a press pass to interview players and coaches?
Here I was barely in my 20’s, stepping inside a press box for the very first time, at what was then known as Giants Stadium. It was Week 7 of the XFL Season. Despite being 2 and 4, The Hitmen were still in contention for a playoff spot with 4 weeks to go in the regular season. The 3 and 3 Memphis Maniax were also involved in a playoff chase of their own in the western division. I was so excited and fully invested in the season. Despite the fact that the interest in the league was dying down even amongst its biggest supporters. I had been to every Hitmen home game and sat in the stands with the rest of my fellow tri-state football fans. The league may have been on its last legs heading towards it’s impending death but I was so caught up in the moment, that i wasn’t looking at the league as a gloom and doom operation.
With an XFL press credential in hand, I rode up the elevator into the press level at Giants Stadium. I had never experienced a game from this prospective. After proudly showing my press pass to a member of security, I headed into the press box. There was a decent number of local sporting press there. As is the custom, there is no cheering allowed in the press box. Hindsight being 20/20, I probably should have, but didn’t expect the lack of interest or enthusiasm from the press on hand. The scribes that were on hand, took more interest in the catered buffet than they did the actual game. It was a really nice layout but i was more interested in taking in the experience and following the game than getting second helpings of baked ziti.
The one league related conversation that I had with a reporter was how he had information on how the Chicago Enforcers were going to relocate to Milwaukee because of Soldier Field renovation later in the year. It turned out to be true. League reps were looking into different locations, had there been a second season. This reporter didn’t see year two even happening and had no real interest in this game or the XFL itself. I found out on this evening, first hand how unimportant and insignificant the XFL was to the local media.
The interest for me at that moment, while watching the field through a massive glass encasement in the press box was the actual game. The Hitmen had yet to win a home game. Despite that, NY/NJ could remarkably put their playoff hopes into their own hands by winning. The paid attendance for the game was 22,000 but the live attendance was only 15,781. The weather was bad but the crowd on hand was great. They were rewarded with a great last second victory, that saw the Hitmen score a touchdown late to win the game 16-15. The Memphis Maniax, despite having an up and down season, that eventually saw them finish at 5 and 5, came into this game with the league’s #1 ranked offense. They were kind of a Jekyll and Hyde type team. They would get off to great starts and then falter late in games. This would be the ammo, I needed when entering the team’s locker rooms after the game. I was so wrapped up in the league that when Birmingham lost to The Outlaws in the other Saturday night XFL game. I knew how that loss opened the door for the Hitmen to control their playoff destiny if they won out. A heartbreaking home loss to Chicago would eventually derail the teams hopes of making the playoffs by seasons end.
When the game ended, I headed to the team’s locker rooms. It was just me and a couple of other writers. They were looking to get it over with fast and for some quick sound bytes. I was looking for real reactions. The Hitmen were in good spirits after the game. When I informed New York Defensive Lineman Israel Raybon that the Bolts had lost. He enthusiastically responded, “We have it all in our hands now.”
When I headed into the visitor’s locker room. I knew that the other writers weren’t going to ask anything substantial. Here I was a 20 something year old kid, who was lucky to even have this type of access, getting ready to grill a seasoned and well-respected pro football veteran in Maniax Head Coach Kippy Brown. I was going to ask him why his teams had a tendency of collapsing late in games. In this particular game, Memphis led 15-3 before blowing the lead and losing. I had read in the buildup of the game, how Memphis players were talking about how hard Kippy was working them in practice. So, I attributed their late game collapses to it. It was probably not the greatest angle to take but at the time, it seemed plausible. Looking back, I was probably reaching a bit.
This is what I wrote on this very website back in 2001, of my exchange with Kippy Brown after the game. When asked if conditioning was a factor in his teams second half breakdowns, Brown took a defensive approach and stated, “These players aren’t working hard enough, ask them if they lost because they worked too much.” Boy, was Kippy Brown mad when I suggested his practices in pads may have been a reason for his team’s second half collapses.
- Read Mike Mitchell’s article from 18 March 2001 – The Hitmen Outlast the Maniax
Regardless, whether my analysis or questioning was off base or not, I was told by the players and coaches on that night, that they appreciated that a member of the “media” was taking their league and games seriously. Most of the players and football personnel that were involved in the original league were treated, as if what they were doing didn’t matter or wasn’t important. The old XFL is gone forever. While most see Version 1.0 as a failure, there are so many fans who see it differently, myself included.
With news coming out this week, that the XFL plans to unveil their television rights/digital streaming package in the next few weeks. Probably during Superbowl week. The league will be officially starting a new chapter. There are so many more ways for a product to get exposure in 2019, then there was back in 2001. It’s a vastly different media world. The league figures to be much different this go around. The coverage and treatment of it might still end up being the same, but it will be more accessible for fans to follow the league this time. No press pass needed.