A decade ago today, the XFL — the Vince McMahon–founded football league that believed coin flips and fair catches were for wusses — began its one and only season with a pair of games, one of which featured your New York/New Jersey Hitmen taking on the Las Vegas Outlaws. McMahon’s league promised hard hits, sexy cheerleaders, and all-access broadcasts, even if the final product never quite found the right balance between sports (a number of rules differed from those used by the NFL) and entertainment (wrestling’s Jerry Lawler worked the booth in some games, while shock jocks Opie and Anthony hosted an NBC pre-game show).
We attended one Hitmen game that season — an early March contest at Giants Stadium against the Los Angeles Xtreme. The game marked the halfway point of the Hitmen’s schedule, but already there were indications that the league wasn’t long for this world. As we entered the stadium, an employee was distributing free programs just inside the turnstile. This isn’t an uncommon practice — the Jets have done it for years — but someone asked the stadium employee why the programs were free. His response? “Because the XFL sucks.” Not everyone on the game-day stadium staff was psyched about extreme football, it seems. The ticket we’d purchased a few weeks earlier put us in the very first row — the kind of seat one could only dream of purchasing for an NFL game.
But here’s something else we remember from that game. Live microphones meant that the players could, at times, be heard over the stadium’s loudspeakers. And after what must have been a particularly noteworthy gain, Hitmen wide receiver Zola Davis announced to those in attendance: “I am a playmaker! [Beat.] I make plays!!” If nothing else, it became a running joke on the drive home. But in hindsight, that we could hear him say it at all points to an area in which McMahon’s league had the right idea: If done properly, fans like access.
McMahon’s broadcasts used every gimmick available to cover the game in a different, if not necessarily extreme, way. Some of these — like the cameras mounted on wires above the playing field — became staples of football broadcasts. Others — like the helmeted cameramen getting shots from on the field itself — didn’t quite catch on. But the idea of giving the viewer at home — and in XFL’s case, the fan in the stadium — access to what’s said on the field, or on the sidelines (or, in theory, at practice or in training camp) was one worth exploring. HBO’s Hard Knocks, after all, has produced some captivating television working off this basic concept, except with the advantage of being able to edit the raw footage and audio into a tight hourlong broadcast.
Starting a rival league to the NFL — even during its off-season — is probably not the best investment. And a decade later, the XFL is probably remembered more for Rod Smart’s “He Hate Me” jersey than for anything that happened during game play. (The Xtreme won the league’s only championship, in a contest dubbed the Million Dollar Game because the players on the winning team split that amount of money.) Ultimately, that’s where the XFL failed: Pyrotechnics and access and scantily clad cheerleaders and even some different rules can do only so much to capture the attention of sports fans. And in the end, asking fans to support an inferior professional league — in big-time stadiums, no less — was asking too much. At least those that did tune in, as evidenced by the photo above, got a unique view of the action.