Review: ESPN’s 'This was the XFL' tells failed league’s story

ESPN's documentary series "30 for 30" aired an episode on the failed football league, the XFL. (Image via screen grab of 30 for 30 trailer/Youtube)

After watching a historic Super Bowl last weekend, another fulfilling season in the NFL has come to an end. It is easy to forget that, at one point in time, there was a second league looking to challenge the NFL: the XFL.

After the 2000 season, just as the NFL was blossoming into the golden child of sports entertainment, Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol saw an opportunity to create a new league deemed the XFL which consisted of eight teams that competed during the NFL offseason. At the time, McMahon owned the WWF, playing the face of a vilified businessman while Dick Ebersol was the president of NBC Sports.

Their partnership resulted in the XFL, or the Xtra Fun League, which attempted to rival the NFL by bringing what was supposed to be an exciting, but to many a provocative, atmosphere to television where there were no rules for the players, less clothes for the cheerleaders and uncensored football for everyone. After one season, McMahon and Ebersol’s bold project proved to be a failure with low ratings and no future TV partnerships, and the league folded.

16 years later, Dick’s son Charlie Ebersol retells their story through a different lens in “This Was The XFL,” which first aired on Feb. 2. “This Was The XFL” is a part of the ESPN sports documentary series, ESPN Films: 30 for 30.

Ebersol’s “This Was The XFL” was electric and provided viewers with the untold story of the XFL, where the theme was surprisingly positive almost to the point of inspiring. In reality, the XFL was one of the biggest failures in sports entertainment. It was filled with countless gimmicks, and was viewed more as a raunchy late night comedy.

The documentary covered what made the XFL supposedly “eXtra Fun” as it showed the XFL’s sorry attempts to boost ratings. The XFL would throw cameras in the cheerleaders’ locker rooms and their players would rename themselves to gain popularity – with the most famous one being a player named “He Hate Me.” The XFL decided on replacing coin tosses with an aggressive scramble where players would just physically beat each other for the ball.

There were also fundamental rule changes to the game to cause more hard-hitting action; for example, the fair catch, was no longer in use. “This Was The XFL” also brought in famous figures to help tell the story. Some of the cast consisted of Jerry Jones (owner and GM of the Dallas Cowboys), Jesse Ventura and other XFL broadcasters, Vince McMahon, Tommy Maddox (quarterback of the only team to win the XFL championship, and later started for the Pittsburgh Steelers) and of course Charlie Ebersol.

Ebersol’s documentary showed all of these well-known flops, but also continued to tell the rest of the story that had been kept out of the public eye. It addressed how the two faces of their respective companies reacted to failure, as a big investment turned into a colossal disappointment and yet McMahon and Ebersol owned their loss and walked out unscathed. They did not turn on each other or look to escape from critique, instead both men learned from their joint mistake and found even more success in the future.

“This Was The XFL” is a must-see. Watch the behind-the-scenes look at the long-time friendship and unadulterated insanity that was the XFL on ESPN.


Ibaad Nazeer is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at ibaad.nazeer@uconn.edu.