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A Beautiful Corpse
An oral history of the fast life and quick death of the XFL
The XFL jumped off the top turnbuckle in 2001 and landed with a blow equal parts short-lived and long lasting. A merging of the schlocky promotions of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and the passion and violence of football, the league died after one season, its demise hastened more by a failure of an ill-advised and ultimately doomed business arrangement than a repudiation of the product on the field.
The XFL's brief life has relegated it to a footnote in American sports history. Yet McMahon's sound-and-fury vision for football echoes in today's NFL, from super huge screens in every stadium to sleeker uniforms to the way networks broadcast the games on TV, with cameras zooming overhead and microphones creeping into every corner.
Subsequent startup leagues — no matter the sport — have learned as much from what the XFL did right (games in the spring, dedication to the game-day experience, deep start-up funding) as from what it did wrong (provoking NFL fans, insufficient preseason practice, and an unworkable 50-50 ownership with NBC). Going forward, the league provided a case study of both what to do and what not to.
The sports world measures success and failure by the end result, and on that gauge, the XFL's eight team, 10-game season failed miserably. But sports are supposed to be entertaining, too.
On those terms, there is only one reality: The XFL lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse.
BASIL DEVITO, XFL president: I had already been working for and associated with Vince McMahon for 14, 15 years. Vince outlined the idea and brought me aboard (in late 1999).
At first I thought it was something that might be down the road, more of a "let's kick the tires and investigate" and potentially something we would spend a very long time just evaluating. I thought it was interesting. But then very quickly I found the vision Vince had was to play in 2001. So it was a lot more intense than when I first thought.
[We] really started to hammer away at creating a business plan, which we did in about 19 days.
RICH ROSE, XFL business consultant; currently president of AllSport Productions: I go back a long way with Vince McMahon, with WWE, with Basil DeVito. I got a call from Basil, this is back in November of '99, first asking me how quickly I could get to Stamford (Connecticut). I was living in Las Vegas at the time. I told him I could leave the next day. He gave me an idea of what was to come, that Vince had looked into the possibility of creating a football league. I said, "I love it, I'm there."
I flew out to Connecticut the next day, which was a Wednesday, I think. The next two days Basil and I sat in his office with a grease board, with a bulletin board, with legal pads, and really started to hammer away at creating a business plan, which we did in about 19 days.
PAUL KAYAIAN, managing director of NFL Europe (1994-98); XFL vice president of corporate sponsorship: A friend of mine was working at the WWE. He sent me a note saying, "Hey, they're doing this thing." I'm like, "Ah, thank you, but I've only done real sports," thinking that it was going to be the WWE version of football. Thanks, but no thanks.
About a week later, he said, "Come on, let me put your name in, it's going to be real." I said, "No offense, I used to be a wrestling fan of Bruno Sammartino, too, but I don't think so." About a day or two after that is the announcement that NBC is now part of it, they're doing a joint venture. So I said, "Oh, great. Now I want the job, and I've already said no." So I quickly called him up, said "OK, put me back in."
JAY HOWARTH, actress; producer-director of the XFL cheerleaders: My instinct was I don't want to be part of this, but I need to do this. It has my name all over this. Because I also produce World Cup games and Olympic shows and whatnot. I produce Hollywood events, these big citywide events. I'm enough of a producer to know that if they call the average cheerleading director, she'll get crucified. I'm also enough in Hollywood to know no one has ever gotten cheerleaders right. ... I didn't know if I was going to be shunned by the sports world. I didn't, by the way, take the job at the XFL until I had spoken personally with both Pat Bowlen (Denver Broncos owner) and Roger Goodell. I was right out of the Denver Broncos, and I had done a lot of work with Roger with NFL Europe and all that kind of stuff.
KAYAIAN: The way it was structured, you got to utilize the resources of the WWE and NBC. NBC was in charge of the production of the game. The WWE, we used their mailroom, literally. We were in their offices. We used their creative department.
There was one lawyer. I was the sponsorship guy. There was someone in charge of licensing. Everybody understood that. It wasn't top heavy.
I also learned the definition of entrepreneurial: That means you do everything yourself. But it was OK because, you know what, I filled out the FedEx form. So what? Everybody did more because it was really and truly a startup.
BRIAN KUKLICK, Orlando Rage quarterback: I got asked a million questions when I started talking about possibly being a part of it. Those questions ranged from "Are you going to be a wrestler?" "Is this a joke?" "What is this?" All I could tell people was, I was being contacted previous to being drafted by football people — coaches who were going to coach in the league had backgrounds in the NFL and CFL and NFL Europe and the Arena League.
"Are you going to be a wrestler?"
I was a football player (Kuklick played at Wake Forest and spent the 1999 season on the Cowboys practice squad). I wasn't in any sense an entertainer other than being a football player. So I knew the legitimacy early on. But it was hard to get that across to people.
KEVIN KAESVIHARN, played two years in the Arena league, one year in the XFL (San Francisco Demons) and nine in the NFL: There were a couple guys who were trying out for the XFL and told me about it. They contacted me, told me a little bit about what was going on, whether or not the league was legitimate. Because I had my concerns, probably like most people, when you thought WWE, or WWF at the time, is it going to be real? Are you going to get drop-kicked in the middle of a play, or clotheslined? How outlandish is it going to be? Once they told me, "Come on out and try out, see what you think," I said, "Sure, I'll give it a try."
Part 1. Gameday: Beer, bros and The Beastie Boys.
ROSE: If you have a guiding principle of the WWE and Vince McMahon, it's the live event is where it happens. Give the fan his or her money's worth. When they leave that stadium, leave that arena, you want them to say, "I can't wait to get back. I had fun. I had a great time. It was well worth the money."
DEVITO: One of our core points of view is that it's our job to put smiles on people's faces, whether it's in a WWE WrestleMania event, a WWE event in Des Moines, or whether it's on television or whether it's just walking down the street, that's our goal in life. When we applied the core beliefs and values of the WWE to the XFL, the fact is, we were looking to entertain people, utilizing professional football as the vehicle.
TOM VEIT, vice president/general manager of Orlando Rage: The first game was unbelievable. The first game at the Citrus Bowl for the Rage, we sold more beer than any event in the history of the Citrus Bowl. You have to remember, we only sold 36,000 tickets. We didn't open the upper deck.
We set the beer record. We're pretty proud of that.
The record had been set at 60,000 from a Jimmy Buffett concert. I can't remember what the number is anymore. We ran out of beer. The beer distributor ran out of beer and had to start shuttling beer in. I think the building holds 64,000. We had 36,000. At 36,000, we set the beer record. We're pretty proud of that.
KUKLICK: I had a lot of friends and family who came to games. They pointed out to me after the game a few things they had seen in the stands that they had never seen before. It was kind of like a Mardi Gras event or something at times. It was crazy.
DEVITO: Opening night in Vegas. Remember, we never played a game. Nobody knew who the players were. These were brand new uniforms, uniform colors. The game was sold out. There were people tailgating. If you look at the video now, people are painted in the colors of the Las Vegas Outlaws. It was phenomenal. I mean, every part of that event that night — unfortunately, save the actual football play — was just absolutely spectacular.
STEVE EHRHART, first executive director of the USFL; vice president/general manager of the Memphis Maniax of the XFL: Here in the Memphis area, because it was kind of a cold, rainy night for the Maniax first game, everybody showed up in camouflage. It was like the greatest gathering of hunting equipment in the world. Thirty-eight thousand people showed up in their camouflage hunting gear. I looked around the stands that night and thought, "Holy cow, I didn't know everybody had camouflage gear."
VEIT: We had a problem with girls flashing. I was standing on the sidelines before a game. This girl is getting ready to flash. A very attractive young lady. I look at her, and we make eye contact, and I'm shaking my finger at her. Don't do it. Don't do it.
She's kind of teasing. I grab a security guy, and I jump the wall and walk up. She's with her boyfriend. I said, "If you do this, I'm going to toss you. And your boyfriend. You just can't do it."
At the same time, the whole side of the stadium is chanting, "Asshole," at me.
The funny part is, she doesn't do it. I walk away. On Monday I get a phone call from the CBS affiliate, saying, "Can we talk to you about the flashing problem?" It had been in the newspaper.
They said, "What's the team's view on flashing?" I said, "We're not on board. We don't believe in it. I won't say we're a family atmosphere, but we're not a strip bar, either."
They said, "Well, we know that's your policy because we actually had a camera on you." I didn't know it, but they had a camera on me when I went and told the girl she couldn't do it.
I said the problem is the Orlando police say it isn't illegal. I said, "You need to go talk to the police chief." Which did not endear me to the police chief or the mayor at the time. But it was the truth. The police were saying, "It's not illegal to flash, so we can't do anything about it."
So I was like, for everybody to know, if you want to lift up your shirt at Disneyworld, you're OK.
HOWARTH: One time, this was one of those great cheerleading moments, where they storm the field at halftime. There's a particular fog. It was cold, the fog came in. It was beautiful. They're standing there in these Matrix-long leather jackets and boots.
The music crapped out before they started. The technology failed. We left them hanging, standing there, in these coats, in the breeze, in the fog. The people caught on to what was happening, but the girls can't move. They're not allowed to. We left them hanging for the longest time.
When the music kicked in, it was the Beastie Boys, "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)." It was such a New York moment, it wasn't even funny. The crowd came unglued, and sang and cheered. It was like a great big Jersey saloon, and it was perfect.
JOANN KLONOWSKI, chief marketing officer for the Los Angeles Xtreme: The atmosphere was exciting. People loved it. The enormous screen they put up, the dancers. We happened to have a hot tub, too. It was on the field, on the sideline. I don't know how it came about. It might have been one of the guys in our office who was kind of a part-time B-roll actor. He said, "You know, this might be a good idea." We pitched it with the league. Of course, they always liked to do things that were a little different.
The guy we had in there — who, by the way, must have been 300 pounds in a Speedo, so he was kind of scary-looking. Someone had brought in some girls to be in the hot tub with him. They turned out to be from one of the clubs around town. So there was a big to-do about that, where the girls came from. We didn't know where the girls came from.
Poor J.K. McKay (the team's GM). Everybody's saying, "Did you know those girls came from the Spearmint Rhino (a gentlemen's club)?" They didn't take their clothes off, but they made a whole big to-do about the girls in the hot tub.
BILLY HICKS, helped launch the World League of American Football; XFL vice president of administration: The second or third week, I was in Las Vegas. I grew up in Arizona, so I brought my mother and father and brother. Maybe even one or two other friends and acquaintances were there. They were down on the front row behind one of the benches. I had stopped to catch up with them for a minute.
The guy sitting right next to them was Pat Morita, Mr. Miyagi. The other two guys on the other side of Mr. Miyagi were absolutely three sheets to the wind. They were spending all of their time yelling at the opponents on the bench. That stadium at Vegas, you're very close to the action if you're down there on the 50. You're close enough that you could touch a player's shoulders pad if they came up. They were riding these guys hard.
Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere one of them just stops, looks right over at the guy next to him and is like, "Holy (expletive), it's Mr. Miyagi! Hey! Hey! Wax on!" Then he stands up on one leg, and does that move. Here's a guy who I didn't think could stand up at all, and suddenly he's doing a perfect Karate Kid impression.
The actor, I don't know why he's sitting there alone, he takes it all in stride. He took it perfectly. Somehow that league invited that kind of mix: My parents sitting next to Mr. Miyagi sitting next to two drunks that were the entertainment.
Part 2. The cheerleaders: "They made them seem so accessible."
HOWARTH: One of the funnest parts of this job for me, was I had to pitch a whole collection, a whole league, of costumes to Vince.
I was talking with Basil DeVito, who was our commissioner, and Billy (Hicks), and they dialed me up and said, "Don't spend any time on it. Vince always knows exactly what he wants, don't get your heart set on anything. He'll probably spend five minutes with you."
So in the name of sports and cheerleaders and sports chicks everywhere, we got partners and designers and New York City chicks and the best costume maker, and we designed the whole collection before I walked into Vince that day. The five minutes in the meeting hook? We were in there for an hour and 45 minutes, and he loved every single design that we pitched.
If the crowd didn't look down and go, they did not! I hadn't done my job.
KAYAIAN: Jay (Howarth) is a genius. She's an underappreciated genius, but she's an absolute (expletive) genius.
HOWARTH: If the crowd didn't look down and go, they did not! I hadn't done my job.
EHRHART: They tried to make it that the cheerleaders were so X-rated. The real truth was they valued that and tried to say somehow it was going to be extreme. They said, "We'll go straight into the locker room of the cheerleaders, get up close and personal." The real truth was you couldn't get much skimpier than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.
KUKLICK: At the time there was a rule, and there still may be, where (NFL) cheerleaders can't date players. That was one of McMahon's big things: I don't care if our players date cheerleaders. They had their lives, and we had our lives. It wasn't a big deal at all.
HOWARTH: Vince was running around the media saying, "If the cheerleaders were shtupping the players, we were going to talk about it." Reality TV — that is what he was on to. I had to face that everywhere I went, which was funny.
HICKS: I've got a poster in my office of XFL cheerleaders because people like to talk about that. It's always a conversation starter. I'm looking at it, and costume-wise, there's nothing on there I'm looking at right now that you don't see on an NFL sideline today. Maybe the most provocative would have been what we did out in Vegas, because they were just a little more Wild West than some of the others. But again, there's probably more fabric there than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are wearing today. But yes, we did promote it every chance we got.
We teased this thing quite loudly, where we took the camera and the whole pregame show was in the cheerleaders' locker room. I don't think the final product ever lived up to the tease that we had given it. But that's often (the case), just like professional wrestling as well, it's all about the promo.
HOWARTH: Vince McMahon was the Anti-Christ to the cheerleader image — that would have been my knee-jerk guess. The truth is, he was a champion for me and cheerleading. Complete and total champion for me. I could state my case, and explain it to him. He's an amazing entertainment producer, one of the best. And if I could explain my case in a way that he could understand, he would make sure I had what I needed. Whether it was broad stroke like budget or putting cheerleaders in the hot tub at Los Angeles at halftime — I had to have some of the most ridiculous conversations ever in my lifetime with Vince McMahon.
MATT HOGG, center for the Birmingham Bolts: They made them seem so accessible. But c'mon.
Part 3. The football: Oh, yeah, the XFL had players and games, too.
CHARLES PULERI, quarterback of the New York/New Jersey Hitmen: The level of play was excellent. I played in the Arena league. I played in Canada. Before that I played in NFL Europe. I was with the Cowboys. Obviously the first 30 guys on an NFL roster are the best in the world. But from 30 to 53, those are the guys that were circling the Arena league, the Canadian league and the XFL.
I would say it was really, really good football.
There were a lot of ex-NFL players in the league. I would say it was really, really good football. Now, with all the circus around it, that kind of put a dent in it, from my perspective. But the football was every bit as good any of those leagues.
KAESVIHARN: I'm not going to say it was terrible. But it wasn't top-notch NFL-type players, either. There were a select few that were good and a select few who went on to the NFL. But you can say the same thing about the NFL. There are some guys in the NFL who probably don't belong there, and guys that aren't there who should be there. But for the most part, you're going to get the best of the best in the NFL. When you're talking about the cream of the crop in the NFL and comparing that to the XFL, of course there's no comparison.
YO MURPHY, played in the Super Bowl, two Grey Cups and a World Bowl (the NFL Europe championship game); wide receiver for the Las Vegas Outlaws: When I got there, I was surprised about the money they were paying out. I think starting off, they made it so fun to play ... they could have sacrificed and not paid the players so much, and I think the league would have been around longer.
Guys would have fought to play in that league because it was fun. That makes up for a lot. As long as you pay your bills and take care of your family, the opportunity to play and compete in professional football makes up for a lot.
MIKE KELLER, former NFL player, currently president of the startup A-11 football league, which will feature all offensive players eligible to be receivers; XFL's vice president of football operations: The plain fact was that the product was very good. We had over 100 players go on to play in the National Football League. That's a large number. That's quality players.
But I will say this, also: When you're a start-up league, the coaches who are coaching have never coached together before. The players had never played together before. One of the mistakes, and I will take credit for it, is we had a four-and-a-half week training camp. And for a first-year league, it wasn't enough.
We needed more time for those players who hadn't played together before and the coaches who hadn't coached together before to pull together so that when they took the field in the first game of the season we were in midseason form. We weren't.
It took us two or three games before the play really got to the point where you'd say, "This is indistinguishable from the National Football League," which it was by the end. But by that time, we had had a lot of television sets clicking off. But even with that, the ratings we had at the end of the season were still very, very good.
KAESVIHARN: I just remember busing from the casinos to practice. (Four teams had training camp in Las Vegas; the other four in Orlando). I think we stayed at the Palace Station. My memories of that are eating the buffet food night after night and hearing the ching-ching-ching in the back of your head the entire time. Eventually, yeah, it's like being by the railroad tracks and you don't hear it. But I'm telling you initially, that got to you night after night after night.
We went to play the Birmingham Bolts. We had to stay in Tupelo, Mississippi, or something like that. We're staying at this casino, again. We're thinking, we're on the road, we're finally going to get away from all the ding-ding-ding that we had to deal with at training camp.
DEVITO: We found out about Week 3 or 4 of the season, because of the black dye on the football, even if it wasn't raining, if it was just dew and humid in Orlando or Memphis at 10 o'clock at night, the ball became slippery.
Now we're giving them a football which is harder to catch and throw.
Now, let's face it, we were already starting out with the next level of football down after the NFL. So our skill players were not the best in the world, they were the best available. Now we're giving them a football which is harder to catch and throw.
So we're working with Spalding to try to work this out. There's not a big answer. Well, I'm a baseball guy. I grew up playing baseball. (DeVito played for Ohio University's baseball team.) What do they do with every baseball before the game? They rub it in the silt, right?
So about 2 o'clock in the morning, I had this idea. I ran down to my basement, and I took a football and I started using steel wool, I used different (things).
I found out if you took 60-grade sandpaper and sandpapered the whole ball, it barely changed the look of the black, and guess what? Just that scouring of the outside — I ran upstairs, I got in the shower, I got the football wet, and at 2 o'clock in the morning, with myself in the shower, I've got a football, and I'm yelling out loud — my then-wife thought I was actually crazy — I said, "This is what we do — all we have to do is sandpaper all the footballs before we put them in play, and that will solve the problem."
GERRY DINARDO, head coach of the Birmingham Bolts: They were allowed to put anything on the back of their jersey, name-wise. None of our guys did anything but their names. In fact, I got a letter from the league office saying, "Stop holding your kids back from putting nicknames on their jerseys." I said, "I'm not. I haven't said a word. I don't care." But I said, "I'll post the letter in the locker room," and I did.
KUKLICK: The whole name on the back of the jersey thing, we decided as a team we weren't going to do anything like that. We were just going to put our last name on the jerseys. McMahon didn't like that. He thought our coach (Galen Hall) had instructed us not to do that. So he sent a letter to every player on our team, and we had to sign it saying it was our decision not to put a funny name on our jersey, and not our coach's decision.
PULERI: As the season was going on, they were trying to get that wrestling theme. Jesse "The Body" Ventura was one of the announcers. I think he was still governor (of Minnesota) at the time. Prior to the games, he was making fun of the team, he was making fun of me because I'm from the Bronx, and he made comments the first week saying, "Do they even have football in the Bronx?"
As the season was going on, they were trying to get that wrestling theme.
When we got to Soldier Field, he came into the locker room with the Secret Service, and they're all protecting him. He's walking in kind of like apologizing, It's all BS, it's all media stuff, I didn't mean it, blah blah blah.
I was like, "Man, you killed me." The first week, there was so much backlash. My friends and family, people from New York City were like, "This guy's a clown." For him to say that he apologized, kind of made it feel a little bit better. But the damage had already been done. That's when people really started to tune out, with people making dumb comments like that, reaching for stuff, trying to create drama.
When I met him, I was really talking about his movie career. He was in that movie, "Predator." His biggest line was, "I ain't got time to bleed." So when he was in the locker room, we were all busting his chops about it.
SCOTT MILANOVICH, backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Xtreme and first player ever drafted in the XFL. Now the coach of the Toronto Argonauts: We were playing in the championship game. I think they called it the Million Dollar Game, so if you won, you got an extra $25,000. We were winning heavily, heavily enough that I actually went into the game in mop-up time (the Xtreme beat the San Francisco Demons, 38-6).
So at the end of the game — I'm actually embarrassed to tell this story now — I'm in the game, and I'm calling my own plays. I'm just trying to run out the clock and get the heck out of there. The game was over. There was no chance they were going to come back.
They kept blitzing us. All of our running backs were getting killed. And they were calling timeout. I finally got irritated enough that I drew up a play in the huddle: a halfback pass. It wasn't even in our game plan. I was upset that they kept blitzing us and calling timeout. Anyway, long story short, it went for a touchdown. People on the other side of the field weren't thrilled with me.
DEVITO: My fondest memory is going to make me cry. (It came) at the end of the Million Dollar Game — which internally we were calling The Big Game At The End — in the Los Angeles Coliseum, between the Los Angeles Xtreme and the San Francisco Demons.
When the game was over, in the middle of the L.A. Coliseum, the site of former Olympics in the '30s and Dodger baseball and Mickey Mantle playing on that field against the Dodgers, I stood off at midfield. One of my sons had accompanied me to the game. When it was all over, the celebration of the team was going on, he and I were on the 50-yard line, just the two of us. I was kneeling down. He was about 10 years old at the time. Just taking it in. Not in the whole big group, not with the players, just the two of us.
Luckily someone snapped a picture of it. I remember at the time telling him, "Grab this moment. This has been a unique thing, a unique moment in time. I'm glad you're here with me." It was a really cool moment for me, and I have a picture of it.
Part 1. Any publicity is good publicity, except when it's not.
KELLER: McMahon plays a character when he's on television for the WWE — it was WWF when we were together. He plays a character, Mr. McMahon. He plays this bombastic guy that people want to see clobbered over the head with a chair. That is part of him. He plays that role because he knows that is entertainment that brings out either animosity or love or creates emotions in people.
He's just a master at being able to play the role. But from a standpoint of running a business and treating his people with respect — he's tough, don't get me wrong. He's not a patsy. You do your job, and you're in great shape. If you screw up more than once, he's going to come down on you like a ton of bricks. I appreciate that. I'd rather work for a tough guy than a guy who didn't stand up for his principles. I enjoyed him, I enjoyed the family. They were terrific, terrific people.
It probably would've been better if we said, "Let's not go try to attack the king right now."
EHRHART: I remember The Rock (wrestler turned actor Dwayne Johnson), he got on TV and said, "We're going to stick this right up the tail" — in very blunt terms — "of the NFL." And of course that offended a lot of the NFL people.
It probably would've been better if we said, "Let's not go try to attack the king right now. Let's build ourselves." That was probably an unfortunate strategy, to stick your finger in the eye of the king. The king had too big an army. A lot of that was rank and file. There was a lot of rank-and-file push back against this.
I guarantee all the coaches and players thought this was great — there's that many more jobs.
CASEY WELDON, Heisman Trophy runner-up at Florida State; quarterback for the Eagles, Buccaneers, Chargers and Redskins; Birmingham Bolts: Vince McMahon is in the locker room. We're talking. He says, "Casey, we're going to take the skirts off the quarterbacks in this league and make them play like men and the rest of the team."
They had no clue. The quarterback has to be one of the toughest guys on the team because we can't protect ourselves.
It has nothing to do with being tough, being a man. He says, "Yeah, they just stand there and let someone catch the ball for them." I'm like, "Yeah, that's called a receiver."
PULERI: The first mistake they made was when they started knocking the NFL. That's the first thing you don't do is try to knock the NFL. This league could have lasted. It could have been a spring version of football. People would have come out, as you saw in the first few weeks. But they kind of went to the wrestling side of it, trying to make up storylines and drama.
HOWARTH: I was watching Vince rip into the NFL in a particular way (at a press conference), challenge the NFL in a particular way. I said to myself, "He's crazy. He's a human target right now."
I worked for the NFL for years. You just didn't challenge the NFL like he was standing up there challenging them. (But) we had some kind of 95 percent recognition because of the way he promoted. I learned a few things — we all learned a few things. Because he was fearless.
Part 2. "He told the other networks ‘You can take it and shove it.'"
ROSE: We had looked about the possibility of expansion. Basil and I, and I think Mike Keller was with us, we had gone to Detroit, to Tiger Stadium, before it was demolished, which was obviously a good football market. I also went up to Milwaukee, to Miller Park. We had researched that, and that was one of the things I was involved with, so we would be prepared going forward.
There were a number of issues and elements that we were discussing. It wasn't, "Oh, OK, the season's over, we're out of here." No. We had been doing this work all along. We were moving forward.
DINARDO: We were playing a game in Legions Field. I'm walking off at halftime. My personnel guy says, "Vince wants you in L.A. tomorrow, we're having a meeting."
It was a Sunday game. We had a Saturday game coming up, so it was a short week. I said, "I'm not going to L.A." I'm already against the clock, six days to get ready for a game.
One thing led to another, and Vince made it clear that I was going. So we show up in L.A. at the Marriott. Ratings are down. Birmingham had just played the week before. It may have been the lowest rated prime-time show in the history of (network) TV at that time. There was something like that.
We wind up in L.A., the eight coaches, Vince, and the suits of NBC. They get to talking about how they're going to get the ratings up. There's one guy who was a friend or consultant for NBC. Didn't work for NBC. He says, "You know, I grew up in the Bronx, and we used to play this game we called two-hand touch. And everybody was eligible. Why don't we make everybody eligible next week?"
The coaches looked at one another. I was trying to get out of the room because if I didn't catch the next flight to Birmingham ... I'm saying to hell with this. I'll do whatever they want me to do.
Our partnership with NBC was the greatest boon and probably the greatest distraction.
Kippy Brown, the head coach of Memphis, and Galen Hall stood up and said, "Vince, you told us this would never happen. You told us this would always be football, with some changes." Right then, Vince turned to NBC and said, "We're not doing it."
I believe that is the beginning of their separation.
VEIT: Our partnership with NBC was the greatest boon to launching the league and probably the greatest distraction (that caused the league to fold).
EHRHART: One of the lessons is it's never good to have a 50-50 partner. Somebody has to be in charge.
KELLER: We had three television partners. We had NBC, we had UPN (United Paramount Network), and we had TNN. All of our games were televised. We had three television partners because they all believed in Vince McMahon. That was the upside. The downside became that NBC decided to pull out.
When NBC pulled out, UPN and TNN went to Vince McMahon and said, "OK, we want to stay in, but if we're going to do so, we want to renegotiate our television contract with the WWF."
When that happened, Vince, number one, he was insulted. Number two, he told the other networks "You can take it and shove it. I'm not going to let anything affect my core business," which was the WWF.
That was never really talked about much. It wasn't that the play wasn't good. It wasn't that we didn't have good attendance. It wasn't that we didn't have good ratings. It was all because of this political power play that was going on behind the scenes.
DINARDO: We were in big (league-wide) meetings. We broke for dinner, and then we got a call in the hotel saying there was a conference call at like 5 or 6 o'clock, during the dinner break. My personnel guy comes into my hotel room, and we dial in. I think we were on speakerphone. Sure enough, there's an announcement that it's over. I mean, we were on dinner break. And that was it.
EHRHART: My own personal feeling is they pulled the plug too early. It was some great success in just getting the name recognition out there and building a new piece of younger demographic fans. Why pull the plug after the first year? There were some losses in some of the cities, certainly. But there was some great success, too. That was the one thing that was so disappointing, the pulling of the plug after one year.
HOGG: I don't think to this day I've ever got a phone call from anybody in the league office or a letter saying you're terminated or anything like that.
I'll never forget this. I'm sitting in Medina, Ohio, south of Cleveland. I'm watching the 11 o'clock news. The ticker scrolls across the bottom that the XFL has folded. So I yelled up to my wife, "Honey, I'm unemployed."
HICKS: None of us will ever know exactly what led to the decision. But it was made, and it came down, and a lot of the key players who had spent 16, 18 months working every day to create something turned around and worked equally hard to dismantle it as quickly as possible and dissolve a company so two publicly traded companies could get it off their books. That was something I'll never get to do again. That's something you'll put on a résumé, but nobody will ever be looking for that talent.
VEIT: When the league shut down, Vince and Basil came back and made sure I was taken care of and I had the opportunity to find a new job. Financially, they came back and made sure I was taken care of, which they didn't have to do.
When we shut down, we paid every nickel of every dime of every bill that we owed. There wasn't one person out there that got screwed because they were a vendor. My accounting director and I had to hand-sign 1,400 checks to send out to season-ticket holders as refunds.
You're not going to hear one person in one city, one employee, or anything, say, "I got screwed."
Vince is a very honest man. People have different views of him. But when you look at the way the XFL shut down, you're not going to hear one person in one city, one employee, or anything, say, "I got screwed."
ROSE: That was one of my responsibilities, with Basil, was closing down the league.
I had been in Stamford in June. We said, OK, we'll get through the summer. I'll be doing stuff on the computer, the phone, and on faxes. We'll regroup in the fall and finish everything up, make sure we've ended our leases for the stadiums, whatever office space we had.
I spent the summer on the West Coast. I made the trip back. My first flight in two-and-a-half months, heading back to Stamford, was Monday night, September 10th. I landed at John F. Kennedy airport at 6: 30 in the morning, Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.
So I was in New York for 9-11.
I got off the plane, took a car up to Stamford, checked into the hotel, and I'm in the bathroom shaving, because I had to be at the office at 9:30. All of a sudden, I had The Today Show on in the background, and the first plane hit the tower. All Basil and I did that first day was sit in his office and watch the television.
DEVITO: It's hard to capsulize any one reason. Ultimately, it was a partnership between NBC and the WWE. And everything was collaborative. And the fact is, it was not ready for prime time at the time. It didn't seem to make sense for every one to keep going and putting more money into the project at that particular time. ... It was only a couple of years later that WWE and NBC made an agreement on "Raw," which has continued until now. When organizations that have a rough time together still want to do business, it shows a certain manner of operation, which was important.
Part 1: Traces of the XFL in the NFL.
KAYAIAN: I still to his day will argue that, when you watch an NFL game, they will never get credit, but when they have microphones on the field, and they have refs mic'd and players mic'd and coaches mic'd, we did 98 percent of that. We didn't have to follow the rules. We didn't have any head of communications telling us, "You have one question, outside of the 20-yard line, at the end of the half, make it quick, done, go to the locker room."
I still to his day will argue that, when you watch an NFL game, we did 98 percent of that.
EHRHART: We built those huge video screens at the stadiums. The WWF had kind of pioneered them. Now that's led to the installation of huge screens across the country, both college and the NFL. The big screen thing was immensely popular. I don't think people appreciate how much that has changed NFL stadiums. I give credit to McMahon for that.
DEVITO: All the networks were always clamoring to do more and have more access, even before the XFL. The fact we were able to do it, and show how to do it, was the one ingredient that allowed the networks to push harder on all the leagues for the access.
HOWARTH: We had flying cameras, we had helmet cameras, we had huddle cameras, we had a guy on the field running around. My God, what a great experiment we were empowered with. It was an incredible opportunity to look at every single aspect of the machine and ask the question, what would you if you could do it differently? How would you do it? How would you take it up a notch?
ROSE: You look at the elements that came out of the XFL TV-wise. Skycam. You know how popular Skycam is. The interviews on the sideline and in the locker room and stuff, we had that access. That's commonplace now.
The one thing that other people didn't pick up was something we innovated called Bubba cam. It was called Bubba cam because the camera operator was named Bubba. He had a mount that went on his chest, and he had the camera on his shoulder, and he would literally go into the huddle. When they broke to the line of scrimmage, he would run off the field.
WELDON: We were playing in New York. I told the guys in the huddle, "Hey, look, go low, I'm going to quarterback sneak." Not realizing it was being broadcast to the crowd. They hit me right in the mouth.
KLONOWSKI: The point after — now the NFL might change that. I think that was a good change. The point after, you typically go to the refrigerator to grab a beer. With the XFL, instead, you had to watch, it had to be a throw or a pass. I think that's a lot more exciting.
KAESVIHARN: Some of the rules that I thought would help the NFL that might still be considered — no fair catches on punts, a punt is a live ball. That would change the strategy of the game, if you gave the offense another opportunity to come up with the ball somehow or retain possession.
Having guys running around on the field with a camera? I don't see that happening in the NFL. I can tell you one thing that's not going to work out — the (no) coin toss. (Instead of a coin toss, the XFL placed the ball at the 50 and had one player from each team fight for it — they called it "The Scramble.")
VEIT: Whoever recovered the ball, that's how you'd determine who would kick off. My safety, first play, first game, sprained his collarbone and got lost for the season. It's not my favorite story.
Part 2. What could have been, and what might still be.
STEVE ORTMAYER, former executive with the Rams, Chargers and Raiders; director of player personnel, Memphis Maniax: Had the league gone a couple more years, they would have put not only NFL Europe but probably the CFL completely out of business. All of the players of any level close to the NFL would have been playing in this league.
DINARDO: I think they had to come to some agreement with the NFL. This was the furthest thing from Vince. The first game, he called it the No-Fun League on national TV.
We need a minor league in this country for football. We needed one then, and we need one now.
We need a minor league in this country for football. We needed one then, and we need one now. We need it for someone who doesn't want to go to college to get to the NFL. If that would have been the position, it would have lasted. If not, I'm not sure.
HOGG: Maybe something between what the UFL or some of these other minor leagues have been and what the XFL was trying to be. The UFL tried to go super cheap. The XFL went out with a bang.
KUKLICK: I wouldn't be surprised if you saw something similar come back, some sort of league for the NFL beyond college football for guys to get experience. There are so many guys out there with talent, so many guys who can play.
ROSE: I do believe that if we had played that second year, we'd still be in business today. There were opportunities. I think the NFL was at that point where they were ready to pull the plug on NFL Europe. Maybe there might have been an opportunity for us to work with them.
KAYAIAN: If we had had another season, I'm absolutely convinced we'd still be there. Part of the reason was part of the pitch: We never said to any player or any coach, don't play for them, play for us. We never said to anybody don't watch them, watch us. That's exactly why we started the week after the Super Bowl. A large part of the pitch was, you love football, you're really disappointed when football season's over. And the Pro Bowl doesn't really satisfy that. So we're going to continue playing real football with a slightly different, contemporary twist.
KURT GOUVEIA, 13 years in the NFL with four teams; Las Vegas Outlaws linebacker: We took the game serious, but knowing that after the game we weren't bogged down by what we did on the football field. It was just having fun, and then after the game, having more fun.
All my family came up to Las Vegas. We're out having a good time. Usually we go to a hotel the night before a game, and in the mornings, you go home, then meet up later in the evening at the stadium. But we didn't really go home. We basically went straight to a casino. Don't you have a game tonight? Yeah, yeah, I got a game tonight. I'll just meet up at the stadium, play the game, right after the game, we went right back to the casino.
I played craps. I had a buddy who was a host at one of the casinos at the Mirage. He taught me how to play craps. I really enjoy that game. I love to throw the dice. When I throw the dice, they almost hit the top of the ceiling, and come down and splash on the table. The pit boss, he'd come over and say, "Mr. Gouveia, can you not throw the dice so high?"
ROSE: We did it all in a year. It was one of the most enjoyable things, possibly the most enjoyable thing, I've ever done professionally just because it was ground floor, blank canvas, make it happen.
I loved the XFL. I just loved it. I don't know of anybody who didn't.
KAYAIAN: Selling that, it was the most fun I ever had. We used to get in front of, whether it was two people or 200 people, we had a great video that went with it.
KLONOWSKI: One of the best jobs I had. It was interesting because you look at Vince McMahon, at the entertainment side. But on the other side of the coin, he's a very strict businessman and the people that surrounded him were very strong businesspeople.
They all really knew what they were doing. Everything we did was extremely well structured. We did very well, and it was fun. ... I loved the XFL. I just loved it. I don't know of anybody who didn't.
MURPHY: We always had wrestlers and all that at our games, for after-parties and all that. But I never met Vince. I was young, and I had the opportunity to play in a city that doesn't even seem real. And then these guys come up that don't seem real. Playing football, and enjoying yourself, it's hard to describe the experience I had, being so fun. I fought my agent tooth and nail (against signing), and then I was so glad when I did. It was a great experience.
WELDON: It was a blast. I loved it. The best way I would describe it is it was like playing college football and getting paid. The other guys got $45,000, quarterbacks got $50,000, and (everybody got) a win bonus ($2,500). It was like the camaraderie of college football and get a little money for it.
DEVITO: In hindsight, it was the coolest thing I've ever been involved in. What happened was, it had such momentum. It was a cause, really, as we all came together. As we all came together, and the group grew from three or four people to six to 30 to 60, as we grew the organization around it, it was a phenomenal time. ... The fact of the matter is there is a great deal of respect and affection within the WWE, and within the greater group of people who were involved in it.
It didn't work. There were reasons it didn't work. Harvard Business School did a study. I'm not going to be any smarter than that. But what we did do, for that one shining moment, we had a helluva time.