After broadcasting the 1998 Super Bowl, NBC lost its package of NFL games. It would be without big-time pro football in its lineup until Sunday Night Football began in 2006—unless you count three seasons of the Arena Football League (2003-2006) and the, well, complicated experience NBC had in 2001 with a little startup called the XFL.
The new league was the brainchild of NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol and WWE wrestling league founder Vince McMahon. The talent was below the level of the NFL, the game play was sloppy and the spectacle around it—extreme cheerleader close-ups, Jesse “The Body” Ventura in the broadcast booth, a blimp crash—often in resulted in what looked like the worst combination of football and wrestling.
It was over after one very brief, very troubled season.
The new ESPN film This Was the XFL, which is part of the 30 for 30 documentary series, is a fun dive into the XFL’s misadventures and the single friendship behind it. Director Charlie Ebersol—Dick Ebersol’s son—connected with Playboy.com to talk about what went wrong and why a new challenge to the NFL might have a much better chance to succeed.
But first, check out an exclusive bonus scene in which former XFL cheerleader Shannon Beach recalls how she found herself in the pages of Playboy.
Dick Ebersol is your father and probably the most famous producer in TV sports. Why did you want to make a documentary about something that was kind of an embarrassment for him?
When I first pitched it to ESPN and later pitched it to Vince McMahon and my dad, I told them that the film I was most interested in making was the story about their relationship with each other. They created Saturday Night’s Main Event together around the time I was born, and the ratings dwarfed anything that had ever come before during that time period. When the XFL came along and it didn’t work, it was the first time I had ever seen Vince and my dad fail at something. I really wanted to do a case study of what it was like to have a good idea—it did huge ratings the first night—and then deal with its failure.
What did you say when you asked them about doing interviews for the film?
I said, “You guys dealt with failure as a partnership and as friends better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and I want to tell that story.” I have started a handful of businesses; some of them worked, and some of them didn’t work. That’s the nature of business. When I talked to my dad, he said he thought there was a lot of value in doing what he called “an autopsy” on the XFL 15 years later.
There probably weren’t many filmmakers who would have been able to convince both of them to participate, but you come at the film as a close observer. What do you think about it as a work of access journalism?
I think you’re probably right that I was the only documentary maker who would have been able to convince both of them to do it. There’s no point in doing a documentary about the XFL if you can’t talk to both of them, because the XFL came from both of them. It was important for them to understand that I wanted to do an unflinching look at what didn’t work. I was in a unique position, but I felt—and it was very stressful—a real responsibility to not make a film about how great my dad and Vince are, but why the XFL didn’t work.
From a viewer’s standpoint, what was the difference at that time between watching an NFL game and watching a WWF—now WWE—broadcast?
The fundamental difference between what Vince McMahon produces and what everyone else produces is that Vince puts the fan first. He listens to what the fan is reacting to and adjusts accordingly. When he created the XFL, he knew that fans would want to know more and see more and feel more. A lot of what he talked about was the arm’s-length relationship the NFL had with its core fans and not bringing them into the process. A lot of what the television audience is meant to get out of a WWE event is in-your-face access to the wrestler and the storylines. The NFL was the exact opposite of that. It wasn’t until the XFL proved that the skycam wouldn’t get in the way that the NFL adopted the skycam.
I felt a real responsibility to not make a film about how great my dad and Vince are, but why the XFL didn’t work.
The NFL wants people to follow natural storylines in its broadcasts, doesn’t it?
I don’t think so. If you watch an NFL pregame show or game broadcast, they’re very carefully crafted. The NFL—and all the sports leagues, but especially the NFL—doesn’t want the broadcast companies to focus on who was drunk-driving or who was in a fight. They want to limit the access to keep those negative stories from happening. Vince McMahon is the opposite of that; he likes the natural drama that comes out of those situations. The NFL wants all of the drama to be on the field. They don’t want the live mic of Tom Brady screaming at a lineman for blowing the coverage on the last play, which is the inner drama.
I knew that the skycam came from the idea of looking like Madden NFL, but I didn’t know before seeing the film that the skycam came from the XFL.
My dad used a skycam at NBC for an Orange Bowl in the 1980s, and the NFL and NBA both said, “No way.” They said it would interfere with the game. When the XFL premiered the skycam, the NFL’s head of TV operations was in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and told Don Ohlmeyer at Monday Night Football that the NFL would never ever allow that in the NFL. And six months later it was in the NFL. The skycam revolutionized broadcasts by making them look more like the video games that their target demographic were playing.
You see Vince McMahon in the documentary talk about getting rid of the fair catch and building a more exciting league than the NFL—smashmouth football. Does it make you think about how much more we know now about traumatic brain injuries?
The number of people who are actually concerned with concussions vs. the number of people who want that out of the dialogue are disproportionately represented in the press. Fifteen years ago, UFC fights were illegal in New York and New Jersey because some critics thought it was too violent. The UFC just sold for $4 billion, and there’s a big countercultural reaction to perceived political correctness. I think the XFL would do better today than it did 15 years ago because it would be more physically violent than the NFL.
How entrenched do you think the major sports leagues are from new leagues or new sports displacing them at some point?
Not that safe. The UFC proves that people who understand live-event marketing, who have the capital to back it up, can challenge major sports. The XFL failed because it didn’t get the right level of expertise in football operations. If the XFL had the level of expertise that Dana White has with the UFC, the XFL would have had a much better chance at competing with the NFL. Had the XFL given the teams six months to train, the quality of play would have made for a much better product. The success of Silicon Valley isn’t just innovation; they have the ability to be nimble and fast with a lot of money to disruptive businesses. If you look at what Travelocity did to travel tickets or what Zillow did to the real estate market, you can kill your predecessor. But if you don’t shore up the core talent, it won’t work.
Would a business plan for a new league to take on the NFL look like the XFL plus picking off some big names from the NFL?
My dad and Vince McMahon both firmly believe that stars would have made a difference, like what the USFL did with Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker and Steve Young. I don’t necessarily think you need much of that, because I don’t see it as competing with the NFL. I think you could do it as a spring league in partnership with the NFL owners. You would need a lot of money to back it and a genius promoter like Vince McMahon to really build out the branding around it so that it doesn’t become second-rate football.
Do you think the NFL’s lower TV ratings this season were mostly attributable to noise from the presidential election, or was it some other reason?
I really think it was the election. If you look at the ratings for the playoffs, they’re way up from where they were during the regular season and up from the playoffs last year. I’m interested to see the Super Bowl ratings. The New England Patriots are a big draw, but no one knows what the Atlanta Falcons will do to the ratings because they’re not as well known as a national team.
If for no other reason, people should watch the first two minutes of the film to see the Rock and his 2001 fade haircut when he appears at one of the XFL games.
The Rock did so many funny things around the XFL. His initial announcement and the stuff he did leading up to the games that you see in the film are priceless.
This Was the XFL premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ESPN.