I went to a sports bar yesterday. That’s not wildly aberrant behavior—the joint I go to has good, cheap sandwiches that come with onion rings—except for the fact that, for the first time in half a decade, I was there to watch the (less) great (than professional wrestling) sport of professional football, as presented by Vince McMahon and the XFL.
God, the XFL. I was a WCW kid, which meant that the 2001 iteration of the XFL was like watching the team I hated do a victory lap around the corpse of my beloved, and what I remember of it, other than the He Hate Me jersey and XFL MVP Tommy Maddox being pretty goddamn good in Madden football, is how bad the league’s roll out was. I loved football, and the prospect of their being more of it after the Super Bowl had me super excited, but there’s Vince McMahon hyping the XFL by saying “if the NFL is the ‘no fun league,’ then the XFL is the ‘x-tra fun league,’” or Vince McMahon saying “THIS IS THE XFL” like he was firing Steve Austin, or the XFL Blimp crashing, or the myriad XFL/WWF crossovers that managed to make both entities look as cheap and miserable as the critics of that time accused McMahon’s enterprises of being.
In 2020, the XFL has the baggage of being a Vince McMahon presentation, but he is wisely far removed from the periphery. His name was dropped once during the DC Defenders/Seattle Dragons game I watched, but that was in reference to how he’d prefer a riskier, high-octane style of offensive playcalling, which is what the league’s rules are geared towards. Contrary to what most of his critics say about him, McMahon is quite capable of learning from his mistakes. He’s had 19 years to sit with the failure of the XFL, which happened simultaneously with his greatest triumph, and if one of the issues of him running a legitimate sports organization was his visage, he knows well enough to remain invisible and let the game thrive or die on its own.
The revolution begins.
So the debut game of the new XFL didn’t have the pyro, the Rock promos, or the pro wrestling commentary teams of its forebearer. Outside of its Super Bowl ad and social media accounts, I can’t recall much in the way of promotion. Instead of presenting itself as a competitor to the NFL, the XFL asks that you consider it a supplement, a little treat for the football obsessed who cannot live without football, a game where the stakes are a shot at proving you belong in the bigger league and/or proving how much you love the game.
How did it work? Well, at Uncle Ernie’s, I was the only person who had the game on a television. I don’t watch football as often as I used to, but it’s easy enough to fall into the rhythm of a game, to spot bad coverage and play execution, and the rule changes were either easy to comprehend, like the league’s adoption of the NCAA’s catch rules, or easily explained, like the league’s after-touchdown extra point scenario being a normal play rather than a field goal, worth one, two, or three points based on where the scoring team elects to spot the ball.
This alternate angle of that @XFLDefenders trick play TD
— XFL (@xfl2020) February 8, 2020
I was in the middle of telling my friend that I’d go for three points every single time when one of the bar staff looked at our table and said “Oh shit, is that the XFL?” Suddenly, the game was on two screens. The revolution had begun. Two guys came into the bar, saw the game on one of the bigger screens, and said “Football! Is there anything better?” One of the bartenders said “The NFL, probably,” and everyone laughed. But people were actively watching the game. From my TV to the TV behind the bar, the XFL slowly took over other screens at Uncle Ernie’s, and while it never took over from wall to wall, nobody asked to change the channel, and everybody either watched it intently or let it play in the background. It felt like real football, which is a spectacular achievement for a league launched in the shadow of a colossal failure that felt less like a real game of football than a round of arcade classic NFL Blitz.
The at-home experience.
I couldn’t catch the rest of the game live, but I spent last night watching the replay on the ESPN app, which meant experiencing the whole presentation. Like the original XFL, this iteration of the league is consciously trying to innovate on that end of the game. In 2001, that meant creating wholly unique camera shots that are now standard practice in NFL and NCAA games. In 2020, that means “unprecedented access,” which is code for live interviews in the immediate aftermath of plays, often while players and coaches are trying to call plays.
Sure, it lead to the charming deployment of the word “fuck,” and Jim Zorn, the sleepy dad head coach of the Seattle Dragons, was caught on mic saying “oh Gosh, guys” in the wake of a key turnover, but for the most part the practice of micing up/interviewing players and coaches on the field sucks. Football is an adrenaline-fueled game, and most people who are hopped up on physical activity aren’t in the habit of eloquent analysis of their just-passed fuck-up. Worse than that, micing up the coaches means that their actual playcalls, every intricate piece of information about a given play, is out there for the opposition to scout. This is the trade-off for the microphone connection between a coach and his offense to remain on at all times, but it’d be wild if Zorn ever gets to call his 21/22 Top run again without the defense immediately recognizing the play as it lines up.
The other aspect that felt more off-putting than charming was the presence of odds calculated by Caesar’s Palace, specifically the point spread and over/under, which serve no purpose beyond trying to legitimize the league by assuring people that it’s possible to gamble on it. I’m no Puritan—I know that every sport, even those who’ve shied away from it, is fair game when it comes to gambling. But imagine Troy Aikman taking a break from the action to talk about what the oddsmakers think of the Kansas City Chiefs’ chances in tonight’s game, then leaving those odds up on the screen the entire time. It feels like such a small-time move, and really detracts from the air of legitimacy the league is reaching for when it reminds you of the NCAA records its players set, or the spring one of the quarterbacks spent with the New York Jets.
Is the XFL a viable football league?
It depends. The game between the Defenders and the Dragons was thrilling in parts but often mediocre, and the narrative of the game was that both teams were largely strangers to each other until recently. Some people believe, clearly, as DC Defenders coach Pep Hamilton walked away from a four-year contract as the assistant head coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines for a shot at XFL glory, but if the league’s narrative is that half of every roster is comprised by NFL hopefuls while the other half is there for the love of the game, eventually the NFL hopeful part of the equation is either going to leave the XFL for something better or accept their fate and take the same punishment as their peers in the NFL for far less money. I don’t think it’ll be possible to figure out whether or not the XFL means anything until the league is at that point, which is a consequence of McMahon’s unusual bet-hedging.
I don’t think I’ll be watching in the future—nothing on display in the first XFL game was enough to rouse me from the deep slumber of being a lifelong fan of the Detroit Lions—but it is a relief that what’s on offer isn’t Football, WWE Style. If Vince McMahon is patient and keeps himself out of sight, he might just have something. It won’t be the NFL, and it won’t sweep the nation, but if he manages to resurrect a universally scorned brand and make it a viable business, it’ll be a signature achievement in a career full of them. My hope is that it’s successful enough for Vince to turn his eyes towards three more letters left languishing in his past. Give me more of the WBF. Give me more of the World Bodybuilding Federation.