• Sports

The Uncomfortable History Of Vince McMahon’s 'XFL,' The XTREME Football League That Failed Miserably

In the fall of 1999, Vince McMahon, the outspoken head of the World Wrestling Federation, began formulating a plan for a new football league that would directly compete against the NFL. Briefly named the Xtreme Football League, but quickly rebranded as the XFL (the "X" doesn't actually stand for anything, but presumably implies extremeness), the league promised to combine old-school smashmouth football with the over-the-top production elements - like scantily clad cheerleaders and "kayfabe" (staged events that are presented as "real") - that had helped the WWF become wildly popular in the 1980s and 1990s. It would be fun, exciting, and out of the box - a huge contrast to what McMahon called the "No Fun League."

Entering a 50/50 partnership with NBC, the old XFL started out with a bang. But the poor quality of play, combined with negative publicity that highlighted the league's emphasis on aggression and titillation, caused momentum to flag. Few people took the XFL seriously as a football league. By the end of the season, TV ratings were in the tank, and both the WWF and NBC had lost millions. When NBC pulled out of its partnership with the WWF at the end of that initial season, the XFL folded. McMahon called the venture a "colossal failure."

McMahon unexpectedly resurrected the XFL in 2020, but deliberately tried to avoid the same type of play and publicity stunts that populated the old XFL. This time, McMahon claimed, the league would be all about the football. And, oh yeah - there weren't any cheerleaders, scantily clad or otherwise.

  • Photo: Airman 1st Class Nicholas Pilch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    WWF Chairman Vince McMahon Announced, 'This Will Not Be A League For Pantywaists And Sissies'

    If Vince McMahon's original plan to buy the Canadian Football League (CFL) had come to fruition, we may have never gotten the XFL. But when that plan fell through, he turned his attention to the WWF starting its own league.

    Future XFL president Basil DeVito first heard about Vince McMahon's idea of forming a new league in a meeting in late October 1999. About three months later, on February 3, 2000, McMahon held a press conference in which he announced that the XFL would debut exactly one year later. In the news conference, McMahon derided the NFL for being soft, and promised the XFL would be different.

    "Where is the kind of football that the NFL used to be? Where is my smash-mouth, wide-open football?” McMahon asked, adding, "It's gone." "We will take you places that the NFL is afraid to take you, " McMahon promised, "'cause quite frankly, we're not afraid of anything." When a reporter asked if the XFL was his quest to go legit, McMahon replied, "May I never be ever thought of as f***in' legit." He went on to say, “This [the XFL] will not be a league for pantywaists and sissies. This will be a blast."

    In November 2000, six months after the partnership between the WWF and NBC had been announced, Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports, laid out the network's plans for the XFL by comparing the league to NBC's groundbreaking show Saturday Night Live (a show that Ebersol himself had helped develop):

    When "Saturday Night Live" started, it was the one show in television that changed everything at that time because... the language of television changed. The people, other than curse words, began to talk like they did in real life, instead of back in "Ozzie and Harriet" days. And I look at this league in much the same way. The "SNL," Gilda, all those people who worked for me and Lorne Michaels in those early years, they weren't known. Because the public was so taken with how different it all was. And the reality TV concept of this league, the in-your-face, really, feeling, the emotion, will allow the public an opportunity that they've never had before.

    With the XFL scheduled to start play exactly one year after that February 3, 2000, introductory news conference, the WWF and NBC were working on very tight deadlines in terms of getting teams, stadiums, coaches, and players. Asked by a reporter in the summer of 2000 what the XFL's game plan was, McMahon replied, "Well, it's sort of a mystery, quite frankly." 

    The training camp opened in December, about two months before the regular season was to begin. That same month, there was a league meeting where McMahon and Ebersol explained the XFL's game plan to the coaches and players. McMahon told the audience, "The way we're representing the game is revolutionary." Ebersol added, "this is the ultimate reality TV."

  • NBC Had Just Lost Its NFL Broadcasting Rights And Was Desperate For A Replacement

    From 1965, when it obtained the broadcast rights to AFL games, through 1997, NBC had telecast pro football games for 33 consecutive seasons. But when the television contract came up for re-negotiation in early 1998, CBS outbid NBC for the rights to telecast AFC games, and then ABC won the rights to the Monday Night Football games (FOX kept the rights to NFC games). NBC's streak came to an abrupt end.

    All of a sudden, NBC had a huge hole in its programming and the network scrambled to fill it. One idea was for NBC to team up with Time Warner to form their own football league. But NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol was a good friend of Vince McMahon's; the two had previously collaborated on the wrestling programs Saturday Night's Main Event and WrestleMania. When Ebersol heard McMahon announce his plans for the XFL and learned that the league did not have a broadcast contract, he asked his old friend not to make any deal until Ebersol could meet with him.

    On March 29, 2000, it was announced that the WWF and NBC would be 50/50 partners in the XFL, with the network carrying the games in primetime on Saturdays from February to April. Some in the media suggested this move signaled NBC's desire to reach males aged 12 to 24, a demographic that was a major part of the WWF's fanbase.

    "In Vince McMahon, we believe we're getting the best promoter to that audience," Ebersol said.

    But while Ebersol had trust in McMahon's plan, other NBC executives such as Ken Miller, the President of NBC Sports, grew worried as months went by and it became evident that there was no clear plan on what exactly the XFL would be. The network needed it to be a legitimate football league, especially as the XFL was attempting to take on the goliath that was the NFL.

    McMahon remained confident. "America will embrace the XFL," he claimed. "When they see our brand of football, I think they're going to say, 'jeez, I sure wish the NFL was like this.'"

  • A Blimp Advertising The XFL Crashed Into A Waterfront Restaurant In Oakland About One Month Before The League Made Its Debut

    On January 10, 2001, people in Oakland, California, got to witness an unusual event: A pilotless blimp emblazoned with the XFL logo meandered over the Oakland Estuary before crashing into a waterfront restaurant after its gondola got caught on the mast of a sailboat.

    The blimp, which had been hired to fly over the Oakland Coliseum during the Raiders' home playoff games, had been flying over San Francisco when rain and high winds led to the pilot's decision to return to Oakland Airport. He and a student pilot jumped from the airship after being unable to safely land it, and when the ground crew was unable to anchor the blimp, it was carried off by the strong winds. The unattended blimp traveled about five miles before crashing into the front of the Oyster Reef restaurant.

    "The problem was on landing at the airport," Oakland airport spokeswoman Jo Murray said. "There was a pretty severe gust of wind, and the ship got away from them. An airship moves with great mass, and it's very difficult to control."

    After spotting the blimp, Diana Foster followed its path in her car. "It was so low over the houses, and the wind was carrying it a lot, too," Foster said. "The whole side of the blimp was rippling. It looked like it wasn't full." She described the downed airship as "looking like a beached whale," part in the water and part atop the roof of the Oyster Reef restaurant.

    No one was seriously hurt, and the restaurant had minimal damage. The blimp, however, reportedly suffered around $2.5 million in damages.

    McMahon later wryly admitted that maybe the blimp crash should have been seen as an omen for what would end up happening to the XFL.

  • XFL Commercials Featured Everything From Exploding Minefields To Showering Cheerleaders

    From the beginning, XFL promotion relied heavily on two things: aggression and titillation.

    In one early, tongue-in-cheek commercial, players "in training" are shown fleeing from a huge fireball, lifting up a Mack truck, and being hit in the stomach by a giant wrecking ball - this last bit occurring while the voiceover solemnly tells the audience that no fair catches would be allowed in the games.

    John Miller, the marketing executive who headed up the XFL promotional team for NBC, later explained that the "no fair catches" image of the player getting hit by the wrecking ball was used in most of the early commercials because "it was very easy for the football fan to understand that if there was no fair catch, then this would be rough and tumble football." The early promos sold the aggressive, no-holds-barred idea so well that Ebersol later stated he'd heard of market testing in which responders thought the linebackers would actually be allowed to use chairs to attack offensive players.

    Another early commercial showed provocative images of cheerleaders with the tag line, "Don't worry... we'll teach them how to cheer."

    Later, amid declining ratings, NBC and the WWF came up with the idea of a skit that would be a "behind-the-scenes" look into the Orlando Rage's cheerleaders' locker room. In the sketch, which was heavily promoted by the network, one of the cameramen is knocked out; the ensuing dream sequence involves scantily clad cheerleaders and a surprise cameo from Rodney Dangerfield. The league received a significant backlash for what was seen as its attempt to use cheerleaders and implied intimate relations to boost slipping ratings.