The history of professional football in America is a long and storied one. From the days of leather helmets and pioneering stars like Red Grange and Jim Thorpe, to the immortal images of Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, and Walter Payton, football has been the stuff of athletic icons and cultural legends. And since World War II, the National Football League has been the official embodiment of these legends, holding a seldom-challenged monopoly over the game and those who watch it. Recently, however, rising ticket prices, the increased presence of corporate interests, and a spate of egomaniacal owners and players for whom profit takes precedence over the game itself have turned some fans off of the NFL. Fans in Cleveland, for example, were particularly galled to see Art Modell, owner of the Baltimore Ravens, win a Super Bowl after he had moved the long-standing Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in pursuit of a more lucrative stadium lease.
The rise in disaffected fans like the ones in Cleveland prompted World Wrestling Federation CEO Vince McMahon this past fall to schedule a weekly program directly opposite ABC’s Monday Night Football. McMahon had hopes of drawing viewers alienated by football’s financial practices yet still attracted to the violence and scantily clad women the sport often showcases. These hopes were partly fulfilled by the resulting success of the WWF’s Monday Night Raw is War show. Though not rated highly enough to dethrone the NFL as the most popular sport in America, wrestling seems at the least able to compete with football on the same playing field.
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The XFL’s kickoff on February 3rd represents McMahon’s next step at beating professional football, this time literally at its own game. The new league showcases football for wrestling fans, stressing the machismo of the game in a way that the NFL has not (the NFL has, of course, been working hard to embrace family audiences; see for instance, the United Way commercials featuring players “helping their communities”). Huge hits, cocky athletes, and busty cheerleaders are the focus of the XFL’s televised programs—a cornucopia of macho spectacle aimed at giving the sport a rowdy edge.
To this end, the influence of professional wrestling is heavy in the league, ranging from McMahon himself to ex-wrestlers and color commentators like Jesse “The Body/Governor” Ventura (apparently with ample time off from his day job) and Jerry “The King” Lawler (the late Andy Kaufman’s nemesis). During the first evening’s entertainment, pitting the Las Vegas Outlaws against the visiting New York/New Jersey Hitmen, the good governor could be heard at times belittling seriously injured players for their lack of fortitude, while Jerry Lawler remained more fixated on the cheerleading squad than on the game itself. The league’s second week featured WWF superstar “The Rock” introducing the game between the home Los Angeles Xtreme and the visiting Chicago Enforcers. The fans in attendance were treated to a tirade blaming the “NFL suits” for taking professional football (both the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams are former residents) from Los Angeles and glorifying the XFL for the sport’s return. (Less than half the average NFL crowd was on hand to hear these remarks, however, leaving the L.A. Coliseum more empty than full.) One reason for the low turnout can be attributed to the marked dropoff in the quality of the on-field competition. Like its announcers, the XFL appears to have just a passing interest in the game of football, employing players that, due to age, injury, or lack of skill, were unable to make it in the NFL. These rejected players have now found homes in the XFL on teams like the Orlando Rage, Birmingham Bolts, or the Memphis Maniax.
The league looks to gloss over this comparative lack of talent, however, with a variety of promotional stunts—aimed at changing the way the sport is televised rather than changing the sport itself. For starters, the XFL is very concerned with bringing the viewer “closer to the action.” Its announcers sit among the common fans to call the game rather than in lofty press booths. In addition, a variety of camera angles are employed to showcase the on-field developments. Cameramen with chest-mounted cameras, wearing their own protective helmets, run pell-mell around the players shoving cameras into the huddles, pile-ups, and sidelines to create an up-close and personal “feel” for viewers. Sideline reporters no longer wait until halftime to conduct interviews, and instead, run up to players and coaches as they stand on the sidelines during the game.
While the league astutely recognizes the sterility of the removed camera angles in the NFL and the predictability of its sideline reporters, these “improvements” are an annoying distraction to those who might be truly interested in the game itself. Though dressed head to toe in black, the dozen or so cameramen scuttling about the field do more harm than good, distracting attention from the very players they intend to highlight. The sideline reporting is an even worse idea. Players have microphones shoved in their face after just completing a play and are either too winded to speak coherently, too focused to be bothered and ignore the intrusive reporter, or (worse) spout off the same tired sports cliches that all football fans are familiar with. (These interviews are broadcast over loudspeakers so that those in attendance won’t miss out on such timeless gems as “Big time players make big time plays.”) Coaches prove even less cooperative. The broadcasts have also been plagued with technical problems. The second week match up between Los Angeles and Chicago was plagued with technical difficulties, forcing a switch to the smaller market Orlando Rage-San Francisco Demons game, which lasted for the better part of the first half. The distracting changes in presenting the games and the extended programming snafus show that the XFL has a long way to go to equal the NFL’s professional and comparatively seamless presentations.
The rules of the game are also changed to create a faster paced brand of football. The play clock (the amount of time allotted a team to run a play) is reduced by ten seconds. But rather than speeding up play, this adjustment has resulted in teams being frequently penalized for taking too long to snap the ball. The penalty whistles on the first night were so frequent that the game often slowed to a crawl.
These ill-conceived adjustments to the NFL’s formula show that the creators of the XFL are not marketing an athletic competition as much as they are marketing choreographed spectacle for its predominantly male audience. While the outcome of XFL games may not be decided beforehand (in addition to a base salary, the winning team splits $100,000 to ensure fierce competition), they have a great deal in common with professional wrestling. Players are allowed to display nicknames on the back of their jerseys (“He Hate Me,” “Hurricane,” “Chuckwagon”) and are given ample camera time to taunt the opposition and glorify their own prowess a la wrestling superstars. And if the fierce-hitting, trash-talking players are not enough to satisfy audiences, the games feature extended shots of cheerleaders. They are given almost as much screen time as the players, appearing in pre-recorded skits and dance numbers, and even ascending into the crowd during lulls in the game to the delight of ogling (male) onlookers.
Stunts like these demonstrate the XFL’s intention to magnify the male-oriented spectacle inherent in professional football. It is a strategy that may indeed prove successful. For all its anti-NFL rhetoric, the XFL is smart enough to air its programs during the NFL’s off-season, when football-starved audiences will watch and when it won’t have to compete with a superior product. As the driving force behind the amazingly successful WWF and now the XFL, it is clear that Vince McMahon has his finger on the pulse of macho America and is tapping the surging levels of testosterone in television audiences for all it’s worth.