Review: This Was the XFL
The story of the XFL is an incredible one. WWE CEO Vince McMahon had an idea for a football league that would be rougher, funner, and, yes, more extreme than the NFL. He would bring his own brand of sensationalized entertainment, combining the violence, brashness, and sexuality from his own wrestling organization. McMahon was so brazen in this endeavor that he announced the concept of the league a full year before its launch, with no network, stadium, or player deals on February 3rd, 2000. 15 months later, the league would be formed, games would be played, and ultimately the entire thing crumbled — much like how the XFL blimp infamously crashed into a seafood restaurant a month before launch.
30 for 30's This Was the XFL tracks the history of the league and its ultimate legacy on today's NFL experience. What ties the story behind this failure together, to a surprisingly emotional point at times, is how the relationship between McMahon and XFL partner Dick Ebersol is brought forward. Ebersol, at that point, was the head of NBC Sports and had recently lost the rights to air the NFL when he learned of McMahon's XFL plan. He quickly got in contact with McMahon, and the two men embarked on taking on the goliath that is the NFL.
McMahon and Ebersol had a long history and friendship, pre-XFL. After co-creating Saturday Night Live in 1975 and then becoming Vice President of Late Night Programming, Ebersol co-produced McMahon's Saturday Night's Main Event wrestling show in 1985. The two men then went on to carve their legacies in their respective fields, McMahon in professional wrestling and Ebersol in sports broadcasting, before reteaming for the XFL. The two men's friendship is the foundation and the source of the passionate drive that led to the failed league's formation and very moderate success.
The Was the XFL's director is in fact Dick Ebersol's son, Charlie Ebersol, which explains the compassion the documentary has towards the league's two figureheads. The final moments of the film has talking heads, from former XFL commentators like Jesse Ventura to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, listing the XFL's many contributions to the NFL. Overhead camera rigs ("sky cams"), sideline steadicams, and mics on the field — all staples of football today — were first developed by the XFL 16 years ago. There's even a scene with present day McMahon and Ebersol, literally breaking bread, each taking fault for the failure.
It could've easily been a softball documentary, but This Was the XFL doesn't shy away from the many, many, many problems with the league. Each talking head is pretty upfront and honest; XFL commentator Matt Vasgersian tells the story of how he was demoted by McMahon for not playing along with the McMahon and the league's view on cheerleaders. You see, along with changing the rules of regulation football to allow rougher gameplay, the XFL's other selling point was its cheerleaders, who McMahon suggested should be more involved with the broadcast than the NFL, by way of cheerleaders being encouraged to date the players and with sideline gyrations presented with seedy low-camera angles.
The XFL, in its ten weeks of existence, had one major high by way of massive ratings for its first game, but hit bottom pretty quickly in its second week due to a power outage during gameplay, caused by of all things, a power generator's empty gas tank. This Was the XFL attempts to list all of the league's failings, with brutal honesty, while also presenting the XFL as an experimental passion project by one man, who even with the help of an old friend, just couldn't give football fans the entertainment they wanted — the actually gameplay was garbage, no doubt. Fans of the WWE will no doubt get something out of this peak into McMahon's mind, with the story behind his contentious interview with Bob Costas coming as no surprise. While casual football fans, and even non-sports watchers, will be shocked at the absurd antics that went on at this "extreme" football league. Like many 30 for 30 documentaries before it, This Was the XFL is a fascinating and informative watch, as it's always a sight to behold to see something fail as spectacularly as the XFL.