I was at a NATPE press event in Las Vegas back in January 2001 when a cheerleader, who looked like she could be a character actor in a Stormy Daniels movie, handed me an XFL ball cap.
“This is stupid. It’s not going to work,” I thought, tuning out Vince McMahon’s bellicose promises to mix the toxic masculinity of pro wrestling with a game that was already plenty tough and intrinsically violent without gimmicks.
Of course, as last year’s ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “This Was the XFL” revealed, if not for a few miscalculations, bad timing and some bad luck, I might have been very wrong.
Reading McMahon’s brief vision statement on his $100 million plan to revive the XFL, I can’t help but take the World Wrestling Entertainment impresario more seriously this time. He seems to grasp some of the key mistakes made in 2001. The teams were hastily assembled and poorly trained when they hit the field in February of that year. The core product—the football—stunk in the beginning. McMahon is targeting a 2020 start, giving his eight teams a lot more time to prepare this time around.
McMahon seems done trying to awkwardly meld the macho specter and gimmickry that has worked so well in the WWE onto pro football, which doesn’t need it. A true sports media visionary who leveraged live events, then linear pay-per-view, and now a megasuccessful, globally distributed SVOD business, to build WWE into a Nasdaq asset with a $2.63 billion market cap, McMahon is clearly capable of learning from mistakes.
Ditto, by leaving out the cheerleaders, he seems to also get what works and what is just toxic baggage in the #MeToo era.
Oh, and not to be overlooked, he clearly gets that the media business has transformed from something that can quickly damn a promising sports programming experiment with a few bad Nielsen overnight ratings. In 2001, with a handful of broadcast and cable channels licensing the vast flora and fauna of college and pro football, the game felt cluttered on TV.
Now, with live sports—specifically, live football—providing one of the few means to draw a live mass audience, the commodity is more precious. Doubly so, when you consider that there are now a bunch of major digital platforms—who don’t give a sleeper hold about Nielsen ratings—trying to write huge checks to the NFL to establish their video businesses.
I mean, we’re living in an era in which NBCUniversal and CBS Corp. are each paying $450 million to share a Thursday night NFL game schedule … not only with each other, but with the league, that also shows the games on its own network, as well as digital platforms. And they’re paying all that money, only to watch the ratings go down.
And the more I think about it, the more I love the winter timing of the XFL season. We football fans get to mainline the college football bowl season, then the NFL playoffs … and then we’re cut off. A lot of us aren’t tired of watching football at this point. In fact, our interest is just peaking.
In the 30-for-30 doc, McMahon concedes that one of his key XFL regrets was not laying out NBC Sports impresario Bob Costas, portrayed in the doc as a pointy-headed, vitriolic opponent of the league who thought it tarnished NBC’s brand image. This time around, McMahon will not be hindered by network notes and haters.
So yeah, that pimply-faced Mediaweek junior reporter who caught McMahon’s presser 17 years ago may have thrown a little cynical teenager shade at the XFL. But this fleshy, grizzled middle-aged FierceCable editor is all in!
Here are five things I think McMahon should consider:
> Really speed things up: I loved McMahon’s remark that he was going to try to get the game down to two hours. I envision a running play clock that doesn’t stop for first downs, incomplete passes and plays ending out of bounds. And cut the time in between plays to 20 seconds. (Everyone will be in the no-huddle!) Of course, teams need some means of stopping the clock. Give each side six 30-second timeouts each half. We’ll still come out way ahead on time.
> Ditch the video reviews: Spend good money to poach NFL officials. Back them up. And get rid of all of those painstaking reviews. Want to know why it takes four hours to watch a game these days? We have to stop every other play for video review. I say empower the officials. Put human error back in a game played by humans.
> Keep on innovating: The XFL is credited with bringing us that camera that floats in the air on a cable above the players, and McMahon seems to have derived a rep for innovation based on that alone. But he has a real opportunity to change a game badly in need of some evolution. How about we ditch kickoffs? They produce a disproportionate amount of player injuries. And can we find a better alternative to field goals and extra points, which aren’t really that congruent to what the game is when you really stop and think about it?
> Be the safer alternative: We’re seeing just the tip of the iceberg in terms of CTE. Despite its concussion protocol, the NFL knows it has a problem that isn’t going away soon, with helmet-on-helmet violence that colored the game through the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s stuck in the league’s throat. Truly take the helmet out of tackling. Make the XFL a fun, wide-open, spread-out game, full of safer, one-on-one tackling in space using rugby-style techniques.
> Really get rid of the politics: I read an interesting take from Sports Illustrated “Monday Morning Quarterback” columnist Conor Orr this morning, suggesting that McMahon—whose wife is in the Trump administration—is making a cynical play to leverage the same base the president pandered to when he attacked NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem several months ago. For his part, McMahon said that social and political statements like that won’t be part of his reconstituted league. Fine. But how about we get rid of everything political and really focus on the game? How about we not have the National Anthem, which has turned into a catalyst for argument during this highly polarized era? And let's get rid of military jets flying above stadiums. And when we salute heroes at halftime, why don’t we mix in a teacher … or a cop … or a firefighter? You want politics out of the game? Take ‘em all out. Better still, in the No Fun League era of perfectly managed parity and muted player voices (we don't want distractions!), let the players be themselves. Bring back the Merediths, the Stablers ... the He Hate Me's. Encourage individuality and create stars.