Thursday, May 12, 2016

Remember the XFL?

I do. And way back when it was trying in earnest to be a thing, I wrote about it.

When I first learned that Vince McMahon of all people was founding a professional football league, I greeted the news with skepticism about its chances of survival. McMahon may be a modern day P.T. Barnum when it comes to entertaining the masses, and perhaps he does have his finger on the pulse of the adolescent male audience, but none of this alters the most crucial factor to be considered. There is simply no need for another football league. The most diehard fan gets more than his fill with the NFL, NFL Europe, Arena football, and collegiate games. So if the XFL is to entice pigskin enthusiasts to emotionally invest in a whole new set of teams, it will have to offer considerably more than the same old same old. After all, the USFL, which legitimately attempted to compete with the NFL for talent by offering competitive salaries, failed in its noble attempt. For McMahon's league to avoid a similar fate, he would have to reach deeply into his bag of tricks. To his credit, the XFL does present some interesting innovations that promote more action and a quicker pace, not to mention increased violence and mayhem.

The fair catch has been abolished, and kick off returners cannot take a knee in the end zone but must attempt to advance the ball. Quarterbacks in the XFL are not protected by the in- the-grasp rule. Punts travelling 25 yards or more are considered a live ball, recoverable by either team. Only one foot needs to be in-bounds when making a reception or interception, like in college ball. The point-after-touchdown kick has been replaced by a far less reliable and more interesting one-down play from the 2-yard line. Both teams are given opportunities to score when a game goes into overtime (once again emulating the college game). And my personal favorite, instead of the opening kickoff scenario being decided by a coin toss, a mad dash for the ball that has been placed at midfield starts games off.

In addition to these tweaking of rules, there are plenty of additional changes regarding the coverage of games. Twenty players on each team have microphones implanted inside their helmets, providing viewers with audio of every hit and load of trash talking that takes place. This serves to give live action football the feel of a video game, which ironically brings matters full circle, since sports video games strive to capture the feel of actual games. The camera work in the XFL is particularly intrusive, with cameras inside the huddle and suspended by wire overhead. Increased focus has been put on artificially enhanced cheerleaders, who are allowed and are seemingly encouraged to date players and then fill us in on whatever it is McMahon thinks we might want to know about them. Broadcasters sit outside in the stands rather than being pampered in an enclosed booth. One of these broadcasters happens to be former wrestler, Jesse "The Governor" Ventura. Even the salary structure (these guys will deservedly be paid far less than NFL players) seems to be inspired more by televised game shows than traditional sports leagues. By far, the wisest decision made about the XFL was having its season begin in January, after the NFL's ends, for direct competition would have been suicide.

All of these elements to various degrees created intrigue about the birth of the XFL, but despite clever advance advertising, my skepticism remained in place. I knew the only thing that might possibly abolish it would be the games themselves. Week 1 arrived as put up or shut up time. As much as I love football, rather than watching it year round, I prefer to balance my sports viewing with basketball, baseball, boxing and tennis. Toss hockey, golf and a few other sports into the mix and there is already athletic competition of some sort to be found practically 24/7, 365 days a year. In order to stand out from the pack and lure us to a new product, the XFL promised the same brand of outrageousness and titillation that its predecessor the WWF delivers. Professional wrestling is not a sport, but rather, pure mindless entertainment that by its nature is tailor made for the theatrics of heroes, villains, and vixens. The WWF is a live action cartoon for an adult male audience. It's a unique commodity, one that isn't competing against or mimicking a more established enterprise. The NFL is a legitimate sports league, and therefore satisfies different desires than McMahon's wrestling venture. We watch football games because we want to see true non-rigged competition amongst athletes at the top of their field. Cheerleaders are a nice diversion, a choreographed touchdown celebration can be amusing, the occasional brawl after a play satisfies our primitive blood lust, but basically, we watch the games to see the games, not the side dishes. The XFL purposely promoted the sides more than the games themselves, so this is what its audience was anxious to see, and this aspect of the games would be essential to either holding or losing our interest. Close-ups of cheerleaders, larger than life characters without the benefit of scripts, and "Any Given Sunday" style editing were the chosen threads for the XFL's hopes to hang on.

Three weeks later, having watched XFL action both on television and nearly being deafened by catching a sparsely attended game live at the Meadowlands, I feel that my doubts have been validated. True, the XFL did pull in big ratings for its debut night. But this is accounted for by the curiosity factor that grows weaker with each passing week. I along with millions of others tuned in for the debut to see what delights Vince McMahon had in store us. Not much, as it turned out. Run of the mill football being played by a watered down talent pool. All of the hype in the world could not change what had been obvious from the get go. The game of football and its loyal fans never needed the XFL, and just as we have lived without it up until now, we'll be fine and will hardly miss it after its inevitable departure. Vince McMahon has earned my admiration for his effort, but in the end, nothing matters beyond the execution, which in this case comes off as forced and obviously inferior to what already exists. No doubt some further tweaking will be done as the ratings plummet. Perhaps quarterbacks won't be allowed to wear helmets on third down, or maybe the cheerleaders will get to run a few plays in blowout games. But I'm guessing it will be too little too late. At best, the NFL will benefit from the XFL's sure to be brief existence by borrowing a couple of rules, a few technical innovations, some snazzy team logos, and a handful of cheerleaders who will soon be looking for employment.

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