People say, “Vince, is the XFL going to be real?” Boy is it going to be real. – Vince McMahon
I don’t think in my entire career in sports broadcasting I was ever more wrong. We all were. – Dick Ebersol
Here’s a story for you. On February 3, 2001, I was in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was there to see a non-televised WWE house show event. That same evening was doubly important to Vince McMahon and those invested in his success, as it was also the XFL’s debut night on NBC. I recall vividly being extremely interested in both, and I also remember WWE putting the pre-game and Vince’s comments on the field on the Titantron, so all in attendance could see the league’s inception.
The crowd cheered wildly, and then we went back to watching the evening’s card, which included the home state Hardy Boyz battling Edge and Christian, and new WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle squaring off with the late Chris Benoit. Upon returning to my house from the show, I sat down to watch the XFL, which I had set a tape for prior to leaving for the Coliseum. Before the first game was over, I was already bored.
As Vince stated in ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary, “This Was the XFL,” what I saw that Saturday night was indeed football, but it was “football in a different way.” That “way,” in most respects, could best be described as subpar trash.
I was also 21 years old and I’ll admit to you, I liked the idea of busty cheerleaders who were told to bounce and play stripper or private escort in front of me. Honestly, even at 38, I can’t say I’m AGAINST the idea, even if it’s not polite to say so. Jesse Ventura and Jerry Lawler were announced as football color analysts, which raised my curiosity more than anything else, and Jim Ross would join them almost immediately.
This is one of my all-time favorite 30 for 30 installments. It’s just so much fun to watch, and because most people don’t really understand or know some of the minute details, backstories, triumphs, and mistakes of the one-season XFL, there’s a lot you don’t know that you will learn from the story of Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol’s redheaded stepchild.
Director Charlie Ebersol, Dick’s son, begins his retelling of events with a quick, rapid-fire two minutes featuring some of the criticisms, mixed in with highlights, some skin, a ton of violence, and several newspaper clippings, which is a visual tactic he employs throughout the film. Following the intro, we hear of the rise of both Ebersol and McMahon, two men who first came together when Ebersol helped spearhead the start of Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC. Dick helped Vince raise his production values, assisted with Wrestlemania, and worked very closely with the young promoter.
By the mid-90s, Dick Ebersol was the biggest name in sports media. Sports Illustrated named him the most powerful man in sports, as he controlled AFC action for the NFL, not to mention the Summer Olympics and an incredibly lucrative NBA at the height of Michael Jordan’s popularity. In 1998, the NFL asked for 500 million dollars a year for a contract, and Ebersol had the guts to do what virtually no one else could: He told the National Football League to kick rocks.
Almost immediately, Dick and those underneath him began looking for an alternative football league. During this same time period, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation found itself in the center of a professional wrestling and sports entertainment boom unlike anything the industry had seen before. Both the WWF and it’s main rival, WCW, were doing impressive ratings numbers, and even Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling was selling out buildings all over the country, despite over-extending itself financially.
Ebersol and Vince would come back together just two years later, when just two months after the XFL was officially announced on February 3, 2000 at the now closed WWE New York restaurant in Times Square, NBC became the league’s joint partner. Vince said, “Those who enjoy the NFL will fall in love with the XFL,” and when asked if this was an attempt for McMahon to be seen as legit, his response was priceless.
“May I never be thought of as fuckin’ legit.”
When the league was announced, there were no teams, no stadiums, no players, and initially, no television deal. It’s at that point that Charlie Ebersol begins to include more and more interviews in the documentary. The list of those who sat down to talk to him is mightily impressive. Both McMahon and Ebersol are all over This Was the XFL, as are former NBC Sports President Ken Schanzer, NBC football director John Gonzalez, and a fleet of sports personalities, including Jerry Jones, Bob Costas, and Peter King.
And then the actual TALENT from the league itself, from Orlando Rage general manager Tom Veit to New York-New Jersey Hitmen head coach Rusty Tillman. Play by play voice Matt Vasgersian, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, and sideline reporter Jonathan Coachman explain how it felt to be a part of the broadcasting team. Tommy Maddox, Paris Lenon, and yes, Rod “He Hate Me” Smart talk about their roles on the field as actual XFL football players. Smart, in particular, is fantastic.
But, the unquestioned star of the documentary is Matt Vasgersian, who recounts being demoted to the “B-Team” by McMahon after just one performance, which featured a somewhat risque upskirt shot he didn’t know how to properly handle. He wasn’t perverted enough for Vince, and he wasn’t careful enough for Dick. That’s one instance of many where he stands out in the doc. He tells you exactly what being that close to the XFL and Vince McMahon in 2001 was like.
Vasgersian is both informative and hilarious, not to mention unbelievably candid, and though the ESPN version will be censored for language, the original is not. Matt is rather colorful in some moments, to say the least. He is a SUPERSTAR in this thing, and it’s difficult not to come away with a better impression of him after watching the film.
This Was the XFL does a great job in taking you inside the league, the strategies, and the machinations that both put it on the air and eventually put it out of its misery. You’ll see the backstories of one of the more unbelievable technical gaffes in sports television history and Vince’s lack of football know-how, and you’ll even watch a blow-by-blow recap of the infamous 2001 HBO interview between Bob Costas and McMahon, which left scores of people in and out of pro wrestling wondering it it was just two guys cutting promos on one another in a different setting. Both Costas and McMahon explain their roles in the contentious segment, and it’s clear strong feelings remain, or do they? (Yes).
Costas comes across like a complete elite as he talks about how much distance he tried to place between himself and the XFL, which he believed might destroy the credibility of Dick Ebersol and the entire network. But hey, he did BASEketball, so he’s got that going for him.
Others are more cordial, and even Bob admits some of the innovative techniques of the XFL have led to a much better football experience across the board. It was the XFL that brought the sky cam, focused on mic’ing up players and coaches, and offered more access to athletes and sports than ever before. Jerry Jones may have been the most complimentary of the XFL, which isn’t entirely surprising.
And then there are WWE yes men like Jonathan Coachman, who does his damnedest not to say anything remotely critical about the XFL, despite his current occupation. He does say a few words about the poor quality of the football at the outset of the league, but that was about it. He dated one of the cheerleaders, which he mentions in a tongue-in-cheek boastful manner. He’s always been a good guy, but as I watched him speak, I started saying to myself, “All right bro, come on. That’s ridiculous.”
He clearly has no interest in ruffling feathers that might cost him access or favor with WWE, even when what he’s selling is patently absurd. This is where Vasgersian shines, because he couldn’t possibly be more brutal when necessary.
One other criticism I have of This Was the XFL echoes one I have for many documentaries and many television shows. You will hear bed music underneath at least 85 percent of the film, and half of it is entirely unnecessary. I don’t need tunes when people are talking and telling stories. It’s more effective to stay quiet and place the complete spotlight on the interviewee. It’s an artistic choice, but other than highlight reels, montages, and a few spots where it makes sense, I always gravitate to directors who choose to use music sparingly.
That gripe aside, this is a fast-paced, thoroughly interesting, wildly entertaining 77 minutes, from “This…is..the X-F-ELLLLLLLLL” all the way to Rod Smart telling the sad story of how he found out the league had been canceled. The entire thing is the story of an increasingly pathetic automobile accident, but it’s presented with a balance of seriousness and levity. It’s a humorous tale, but it’s also one with its share of sadness and drama. Charlie Ebersol nails this aspect of the presentation beautifully.
This Was the XFL isn’t the deepest or most emotional of stories, and on the 30 for 30 drama scale, it’s definitely on the lighter side, but I adored it. It was pure entertainment, but it’s such an interesting and obscure piece of sports and pop cultural history. The documentary ends with an Ebersol-McMahon reunion dinner, where the two share a drink and a laugh about what Vince now calls a “colossal failure.” The two even discuss whether they should give it another shot in some form.
Virtually every interview is good, the content is varied, and Charlie puts his finished product together in a viewer-friendly format. The best 30 for 30 films are the ones that either tug at your heartstrings or are infinitely rewatchable. Fantastic Lies might be the best recent example of the former, and This Was the XFL is absolutely the finest example of the latter. I’ll DVR it and it will be on my Netflix list forever. It’s something I’ll watch in the background of my life for years to come.
It’s not too long, doesn’t dwell or dawdle, and it never wears out its welcome. Plus, you’ve got a former XFL cheerleader recalling and confirming that Vince McMahon encouraged the girls to date the players, which she loved because they were all “hot delicious pieces of man flesh.”
This Was the XFL is a blast, and you’re going to freaking love the Real Hollywood Story of this “lowlife garbage.”
Jay Howarth was brought in to work with the cheerleaders, although I don’t think she had anything to do with the hot tub and the strippers hired for the Los Angeles Extreme. She was yet another stellar interview subject, and her description of how she originally landed the job is the perfect way to end the review and leave you ready to watch the documentary. When Vince asked for her vision of the job and the women she would be working to turn into stars, here was her response.
“Boobs boobs boobs! What’s wrong with a shapely set of legs and a heart shaped ass?”
Vince then replied, “Nothing’s wrong with a shapely set of legs and a heart shaped ass,” and she got the job. He might have been wrong about the XFL and he might have been wrong about eliminating the fair catch and starting games with dangerous semi-rugby scrums, but most watching tomorrow night (including me) will admit he wasn’t wrong on that reply.
Underneath all the hype and the ad campaigns with cameras trained on cleavage and hips, wrecking balls and explosions, there was nothing there. All the way down to the league name itself, where the “X” wasn’t short for anything, the generator tank was empty. It wasn’t the Xtreme Football League, it wasn’t the Xtra Fun League, it was just the XFL.
And then it was the EX-FL.
But it’s a trip down memory lane damn sure worth taking Thursday night on the four letter. Enjoy.
I’m @JMartOutkick. He hate me, he hate me, and when I run past him, he hate me too.