Newest ‘30 for 30’ looks back at the catastrophic XFL

Courtesy of ESPN Films | ESPN Films first aired the documentary on Feb. 2 as it recaptured the rise and rapid fall of the XFL.
Courtesy of ESPN Films | ESPN Films first aired the documentary on Feb. 2 as it recaptured the rise and rapid fall of the XFL.
Courtesy of ESPN Films | ESPN Films first aired the documentary on Feb. 2 as it recaptured the rise and rapid fall of the XFL.

By Adam Lindner | Asst. Sports Editor

In the latest installment of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series, film director Charlie Ebersol takes a look back at perhaps the biggest blunder in the history of professional sports. The now-defunct XFL, created to provide football fans with an alternative to the traditionally conservative and hypocritical NFL, certainly didn’t lack publicity and controversy of its own. Co-founder Vince McMahon infamously donned it the “Xtra Fun League,” a comical contrast to the moniker given to the NFL, the “No Fun League.”

Following the 1997 season, the NFL’s television contract with NBC had just expired. With the NFL now demanding a contract that would cost NBC $500 million per season for the rights to the AFC conference’s games, NBC projected an annual loss of $100 million per year. Unable to reach a deal, the NFL signed a contract with CBS, which still owns the television rights to AFC games to this day, which in turn left NBC without football to show on Sunday afternoons.

With NBC’s sports division slowly declining in ratings, NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol, father of film director Charlie Ebersol, longed for something innovative to garner viewers and boost ratings once more. After hearing of his good friend Vince McMahon’s proposition to launch a brand-new football league, Ebersol contacted McMahon, the owner of the WWF at the time, and soon a partnership was struck between NBC and the newly-formed XFL.

Set to kick off in March of 2001 following the end of the NFL’s season, and with no teams, owners, stadiums, or players in the beginning stages, the XFL’s first steps were focused on marketing the image that they wished to project of hard-hitting, smash mouth football, partnered with extremely risqué cheerleaders.

To gain more intrigue and to differentiate itself from the NFL, the XFL announced the banning of the traditional coin toss in favor of a race between two opposing players for possession to begin the game. The fair catch rule was negated as well, welcoming nasty, physical hits on punt returns.

In addition to fundamental rule changes, the XFL allowed its players to create their own nicknames to have written on the backs of their jerseys. Among the most distinguished was Las Vegas Outlaws’ running back Rod Smith, or as more commonly known, “He Hate Me.”

The documentary did a fine job of explaining the business-side of the sport venture while also focusing on what made the XFL so enthralling, even to this day. With key figures like Dick Ebersol, Vince McMahon, XFL announcer Matt Vasgersian, NBC figurehead Bob Costas, and XFL player Tommy Maddox, who would later go on to play quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, providing exclusive insight and authentic, personal recounts of the rise and fall of the XFL, each viewer will walk away impressed.

Not only was I entertained, but I learned a lot about the growth of NBC that can be largely attributed to Dick Ebersol’s brilliance, the popularity of wrestling because of the innovative Vince McMahon in the ‘80s, the NFL’s television dealings, the friendship and business partnership between Ebersol and McMahon, an intriguing expansion football league that tanked after only one season, and more.

As is precedent, ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series delivered again with this film, highlighting the rise and fall of the XFL. Though a colossal failure, the venture didn’t tarnish the relationship between Ebersol and McMahon at all, as both remain great friends. I’d recommend the film to any sports fan interested in such a racy, outlandish attempt of a league.