When the XFL kicked off its first and only football season on NBC in 2000, it did so to a Nielsen ratings more than double what the broadcaster had promised advertisers. By the time that season ended, the league was posting record lows for its Saturday-night time period.
A partnership between NBC and the WWE, the XFL is largely remembered as the most significant failure of the two men who spearheaded it — WWE founder Vince McMahon and longtime NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol. Taking its cues from McMahon’s wrestling operation, the league billed itself as a more violent, more titillating, more fun alternative to the NFL. But with a hastily thrown together football operation and teams composed of NFL cast-offs, the quality of play was too terrible to sustain viewers’ initial curiosity.
“This Was the XFL,” a documentary premiering Thursday night as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, argues that, despite its many failings, the XFL changed the way that sports was broadcast, introducing innovations in marketing and production that the NFL and other leagues, and their broadcast partners now employ regularly. It is also an exploration of the relationship between Ebersol and McMahon, two of the most successful and controversial broadcasters of their generation. The film is directed by Charlie Ebersol — Dick Ebersol’s son and president of TV production company The Company.
“The one thing that my dad and Vince had never spoken about was XFL,” Charlie Ebersol says. “When the idea got run by me, I said to ESPN, ‘This is great, but the film I want to make is a love story between these guys over 15 years.'”
Charlie Ebersol spoke with Variety about the XFL’s failures, its successes, and the challenges of making a movie about his father and his father’s best friend.
How did your dad feel about the fact that you were going to make a movie about what was, essentially, the biggest failure of his career?
I’ve done a handful of documentaries that have done okay, with festivals and HBO and et cetera. And he had a sense of what I did. So he called Vince, and they had about an hour-long conversation about doing it, and they were definitely trepidatious. But once they commit to things, they go all the way in. They were making phone calls for me. Vince called Jesse Ventura. A lot of the stuff that came together was a function of the two of them committing fully to doing it. Afterward, when I showed it to them, they both said “This is the autopsy that the XFL needed.” I like that they refer to it like a murder victim.
How did Bob Costas come in? He plays like the villain of the movie.
You couldn’t make the film without Costas. First of all, you shouldn’t make any movie without Bob Costas. He’s the greatest personality of all time. I did a documentary on Africa and I seriously considered putting him in there as mid-film comic relief. He’s wonderful in that sense. Also, I wanted a critical voice, and I wanted a critical voice that wasn’t mean-spirited. A lot of people had a bone to pick with Vince and my father, especially TV critics. So there were a lot of people I could have gone to who wrote perfectly horrible things about the XFL. But Bob, who’s a very good friend of my dad and Vince, could come in and comment and be funny and not come off as a vindictive guy.
Because you are your father’s son, you can tell the story from a point of view that another director might not get at, but do you also expose yourself to potential criticism that you’re being a homer for your dad?
Are you suggesting that there are people on the internet or in the press that are going to take a negative view of me, my father, or Vince McMahon? That’s such an unconventional idea. Can you give me any example ever of anyone going on the internet and saying anything negative about those people? I just don’t think there’s any precedent for it.
I worked really hard in the film to try to create a balanced view. That’s why Costas is in there and Peter King, guys who are sort of the arbiters of decency. And look, if you want to see negativity about the XFL, just Google “XFL.” The first 700 news hits prior to my film coming out were “Failure! Failure! This is a stain on Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon’s record!” I just didn’t feel the need to do that in the film. I also think that people conveniently ignore the fact that the NFL and the NBA and Major League Baseball and Fox and CBS and ABC just lifted all the technologies and techniques that worked about the XFL, and still rolled their eyes about the XFL’s viability.
At the end of the film, your dad and Vince are joshing about trying to revive the XFL. How serious are they being?
Look, when I interviewed Jerry Jones for the film, he brought it up. And when I interviewed Vince, he brought it up. My dad’s not going to do it. He’s really, really happily retired. Vince is still on the road three days a week producing 17 pay-per-views and 104 “Monday Night Raws” and “Smackdowns” a year. He’s a madman. If Vince has put enough thought into it, I never question the validity, because you never know when he’s going to walk into the press room and announce that he’s doing it.
Costas talks about this in the film, but the league was sold as being more violent than the NFL, and now you can’t really have a non-fan conversation about football without talking about concussions. Were you concerned about how that would flavor the story you were telling?
No, and the reason I didn’t think that is because during the making of the movie the UFC sold for $4 billion. Look, the media plays an important role, but I think the media is an echo chamber to a huge degree. So the concussion story and the CTE story, which, by the way, permeated not just football but also UFC and all these other sports, I think these stories are similar to the outrage that the press had over things that Donald Trump was saying that, if you really went into his voting group, they didn’t care that he was saying. Concussions are real and scary and the NFL does have a responsibility to their players. But if you look at the playoff ratings, clearly the public isn’t really that upset about it.
What did your dad say when you showed him the movie?
The only thing scarier than interviewing my father and Vince was I showed it to them together. At the end of the film, the only note I got was from a WWE exec on cutting back something that was critical of Vince, and Vince cut the person off and said, “No, first of all, we’re not giving notes, and second, you should feel confident about putting that in because that’s what really happened.” I was mesmerized by that. All through my life, I’ve seen my dad and Vince note everything to death. I did a documentary about schools in Africa and got 15 pages of notes from my father. I was expecting notes. I was not expecting them to defend the parts of the film that I was most nervous to show them.