Do sports qualify as entertainment, or are they news? That usually depends on who’s telling the story and why. At a very basic level, a football game is a public event, which print and broadcast reporters cover like any other: by relaying facts, offering analysis and historical context, and weaving in corroborating quotes from both neutral and partisan observers. But for the TV networks carrying that game, it’s also a product they’re selling—which limits how much journalists working for that network can be objective and honest about what’s happening on the field, in the locker room, and in the executive suites.
In 2001, NBC and World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon all but eliminated the boundaries between creating spectacles and covering them when the two organizations teamed up to produce and promote a new professional football league. The trendily named “XFL” was designed to solve two problems—neither of which was really all that serious. For NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol, the XFL was a chance to bring football back to a network that had lost the rights to the NFL, and which was still feeling the ratings repercussions of no longer airing America’s most popular sport. For McMahon… well, it was harder to pin down what he hoped to get out of the whole venture, outside of a massive ego stroke.
The latest 30 For 30 episode “This Was The XFL” does a fine job of breaking down what went wrong in the league’s first and only season, but has a harder time explaining why it needed to exist in the first place. Director Charlie Ebersol—yes, Dick’s son—kicks off the documentary with a zippy history of the NFL on NBC, with a digression into the fruitful longtime business relationship between the network and the WWE. Frankly the setup moves too quickly, and leaves too much out—about how and why the NFL became such big TV business and how hard it is for a newcomer to join such an exclusive club. (Plus, the interviews in this opening and throughout the doc are distractingly shot, with arty cutaway angles that add only flash.) The biggest blank in the episode is McMahon, who in modern-day interviews seems only mildly humbled by the disaster that was his brainchild. “This Was The XFL” leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but the big one is, what makes a guy like McMahon tick?
For those looking for contemporary resonances—especially given McMahon’s vocal and financial support of President Donald Trump—“This Was The XFL” provides plenty, even if it never makes those connections directly. The scenes of McMahon introducing and hyping his league in press conferences and interviews have an uncanny resemblance to Trump on the campaign trail, sounding like a fired-up talk-radio caller, insisting that something well-liked and measurably successful is actually terrible. At the turn of the millennium, McMahon picked up on the old-man complaint that “football ain’t what it used to be” and insisted that with his flair for showmanship and understanding of what “tough” looks like, he could create a version of the game that would be more violent, more dramatic, and more fun.
As it turned out, all McMahon really had in mind before he announced the XFL was a vague ideal, and only a handful of specific ideas for how to change the game. At its best, this doc illustrates the folly of trying to reverse-engineer an organization as massive and time-tested as the NFL—especially when the creator begins the endeavor by insulting and dismissing those who know how to make it work.
A lot of the pleasure of “This Was The XFL” stems from pure schadenfreude, watching how what McMahon and company came up with turned out to be either dangerous or unpopular. In one of the first games, “the scramble”—a first-to-get-the-football-decides-possession innovation that replaced the NFL’s coin toss—led to a season-ending injury. NBC made a big deal in promos about how the XFL had “no fair catches” and how the cameras and microphones would “take you places where the NFL is afraid to go.” But in execution, eliminating the fair catch led to more kickoffs where the returner just let the ball drop and roll (rather than the daring runs and hard hits McMahon and company envisioned), and invading the privacy of coaches, players, and cheerleaders led either to genuinely surly and uncomfortable confrontations or awkwardly staged pro-wrestling-style sketches.
“This Was The XFL” isn’t exactly critical of the league. Charlie Ebersol’s tone is more bemused, and even sympathetic. The documentary includes upbeat interviews with Jay Howarth, who helped design the skimpy cheerleader uniforms, and Rod Smart, the Las Vegas Outlaws running back who took advantage of the league’s “nicknames encouraged” jersey policy to introduce himself to the world as “He Hate Me.” Various NBC marketing folks all pat themselves on the back for generating enough curiosity about the league to pull in 54 million viewers on opening night—about double what they’d promised advertisers.
But it’s indicative of the “shit happens”-level analysis of “This Was The XFL” that the league’s stellar debut is ultimately recast as a case of bad luck—just like when the XFL blimp crashed or when a key early game was delayed due to a faulty generator. In this case, when the poor quality of play on night one didn’t live up to the hype, the initial huge TV audience turned the league off for good. That failure is presented here more as an unfortunate glitch than a systemic screwup. At times, it seems like this doc is more interested in celebrating the XFL’s better ideas—like adding more dynamic field-level cameras and putting teams in underserved markets like Las Vegas—than in examining how misbegotten the whole concept was in the first place.
To be fair, Ebersol does include dissenting voices, including vintage clips from an openly skeptical ESPN, an interview with XFL play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian (who annoyed McMahon with his on-air honesty about the cruddy football and corny WWE theatrics), and veteran NBC Sports personality Bob Costas. The latter was protected by his longtime boss, Dick Ebersol, from having anything to do with the XFL, and in the new interviews Costas rips apart McMahon’s whole premise that the brain-trauma-prone NFL was too “sissified.” More gripping is an extended clip of Costas interviewing an increasingly irritated and combative McMahon, who blames the dishonest media and “guys like you” for cheering on the XFL’s failure.
But perhaps because this episode was put together by the son of one the XFL’s two major partners—who himself was good friends with the other one—a lot of cogent critiques go under-argued, if they come up at all. The details of how the league rose and fell are all entertaining to watch, and the archival clips will be of interest to sports fans who bailed on the XFL after week one. But there’s so much more that could’ve been said here about the arrogance of a wealthy blowhard trying to bend an American institution to his will, and about the complicity of a mainstream media more interested in money than integrity.