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Professional wrestling under WWE chairman Vince McMahon is all about three things: drama, big hits, and the drive to be an unparalleled media spectacle. But what would those attributes look like when affixed to football? ESPN’s upcoming “30 for 30” documentary This Was The XFL — out Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. ET — answers that question by detailing the bombastic and doomed venture.
The XFL was a joint project between McMahon and legendary NBC Sports executive and Saturday Night Live developer Dick Ebersol. The former instantly brought the flair at the introductory press conference. “The NFL stands for the ‘No Fun League,'” McMahon said. “The XFL is going to be the ‘Xtra Fun League.'”
In terms of theatrics, it definitely bested the NFL with its pro wrestling DNA, changing rules to encourage more violence and creating a broadcast-friendly game. But the league never got close to the NFL’s popularity or quality of play. Ratings dropped quickly after its stratospheric launch. The XFL ultimately burned bright and fast, lasting all of one season.
“I hadn’t seen my father fail at anything. It felt like another one of those crazy ideas, yeah, that they were going to figure out,” director Charlie Ebersol, son of Dick, tells EW. “From my perspective, it seemed like these guys had figured how to make everything else work. It’s just going to be another one of those things. I don’t think I realized that anything other than that was actually possible.”
See This Was The XFL‘s new trailer above, exclusive to EW, and read on for more from Charlie Ebersol.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why was the story of the XFL so important for you to tell?
CHARLIE EBERSOL: For me, it was largely because I’d seen my father succeed in everything he ever touched, and this is something that’s widely considered a gigantic failure. Having lived it, and then also knowing what the backstory was, I knew it was a much more complex, interesting story than that. I really wanted to do it. When ESPN came to me and asked if I wanted to do something on the XFL, I told them that I wanted to do a love story. They were like, “What, are you nuts?” When I made the film, they saw what the relationship was like between my dad and Vince, they understood what I was getting at. It’s this incredible story of these two guys who are unlikely friends who really got it. Hopefully, it was brought to life with the film.
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What do you remember from the first game?
Insanity. Total insanity. From a scale perspective, when they announced the league a year earlier to the day, they had nothing. They had no teams, no coaches, no stadiums, no GMs — nothing. Here we are a year later, there are 40,000 or 50,000 fans in Vegas who showed up hours before with their faces painted for a team they had never seen, freaking out. It defied all understanding. That was so representative of what the experience was. I went to a handful of games, and this was always the case. Five out of the eight stadiums were sold out through the whole season. The live side of this business was very robust; it worked. There’s this dichotomy of people saying it was failing and the network saying it, but then you’d be there in the stadium, and it didn’t seem like it’s failing.
It seemed like that was the case. Vince had some choice words for the media, and also had that contentious interview with Bob Costas on HBO’s On The Record.
The cool thing about this film, from my perspective, was everyone that I asked to show up and do something remarkable, they all did. I got these incredible, very honest and straightforward interviews from people who really were telling what happened. Your first question on why I made the film: part of it was, Vince and my father said a couple times now that they wouldn’t have done the film with anyone else. It took me a couple of months to convince both of them to do it. They had seen films I had done before, obviously, but also I grew with them.
When I was 4, my dad and Vince did the deal to create Saturday Night’s Main Event. I grew up going to wrestling and watching that insanity come to the big screen and being insanely successful. Saturday Night’s Main Event is the highest-rated Saturday programming of all time. One in three televisions were tuned in once a month to watch Saturday Night’s Main Event, which was completely the brainchild of my dad and Vince, and they created that in six weeks and put it on the air. The idea that this wasn’t going to be a success didn’t calculate in my head.
Vince McMahon is such a polarizing figure, and I imagine you wanted to show all sides of him. Was that difficult, and how did you go about doing that?
That’s the biggest reason that I was the person who had to do the film because, without exception, everyone who’s seen the film and given me notes on it has said the single most shocking part of the whole thing was this was a Vince no one had ever seen. Keep in mind, the guy has agreed to do zero interviews about anything ever with anyone. For him to sit for a couple of hours for an interview with me and then subsequently, I had him and my dad have dinner after they both finished their interviews, and they sat and talked the XFL with each other for the first time. It ended up being this very, very powerful moment between the two men that’s really emotional.
We screened it at New York at the premiere, and I had a lot of people coming up to me with tears in their eyes having watched the end of the film, and was [I] surprised this type of film would make someone cry. Like I said, I sold this film as that love affair, and that love affair that came to life on screen was largely built around how these two guys felt about each other and what they meant. You’re right, Vince is a polarizing figure, but I think he’s polarizing in large part because people have trouble separating in their minds the Vince McMahon that they see marching around and yelling at Stone Cold Steve Austin on screen, and the actual man who is an entirely different beast.
What was the craziest moment you uncovered when looking back at the XFL?
About three weeks before the league launched, they created an XFL blimp, which they flew over the Oakland Raiders’ stadium, and the blimp looked like an XFL football. The premise was that they were going to piss the NFL off by jumping on their game. Well, it flew over the game, and then it crashed into a seafood restaurant in San Francisco. That is so representative of how this whole thing went that it’s hilarious nonetheless.
Vince’s whole business model is in-your-face, and whoever the biggest tough guy in the room is, he’s going after the guy, and this was no different. You could never accuse Vince of not knowing exactly what he’s doing when it comes to marketing. He understands that… I say this only half-kidding: everything Donald Trump learned, he learned in part from working with Vince, in terms of how to read a crowd. That’s the underlying story of the XFL is you do get a little bit of a precursor to Trump rallies. The games with the guys with the face paint, screaming and yelling, out for blood. It does feel a bit reminiscent.
How else do you think Trump’s relationship with Vince, and the XFL, might have paved the way for the President and his communication style?
Even Trump says it a lot. Donald Trump — for everything you can say negatively or positively about him — he does the same thing Vince does, which is he listens to the crowd, and he reacts accordingly. When you go to a WWE event, the guys who are the most successful — The Rock, Stone Cold — they’re successful because they’re the ones who are the best at seeing what the crowd is doing and then falling into what works and dropping the stuff that doesn’t work. Trump is singularly successful at understanding that, but Vince pioneered that. The only person I compare Vince to is P.T. Barnum. He created a live event largely built on tapping into people’s insanity.
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How hard was it to give the league an objective look, given your father’s involvement?
The funny thing about my dad and Vince is, considering they both have created totally fictional things — my dad with Saturday Night Live, Vince with WWE, etc. — they are adamant about the truth. They can’t stand embellishment or bullsh–. I was raised in a place if something’s gone wrong, not only do you take responsibility for it going wrong, but you own the mistake because it’s only through owning the mistake you learn from it and get better.
When I originally did the film, Vince and my dad did notes on everything that they were ever involved in, and they both, out of the gate, said, “If you’re the one making the film, we’re not going to give you notes, but you have to tell the honest version.” There was stuff in the interviews where Vince had to say, “I screwed up. I didn’t do this right,” and my dad had to do the same thing. I think that’s the revealing part of the film is how honest they were.
I also think that as a storyteller, I learned this from Vince and my father growing up: a hero’s story, a great story that an audience can relate to, you have to have trials and tribulations. You have to have failure and success. It would have been very easy to do a film about all the things my dad succeeded at; the list is just ridiculously long. I wanted to do a film about how they acted when they failed, how they acted when it didn’t work out. To me, why I am proud of my dad, why I am proud of Vince, is because this film and everyone that’s in it — Bob Costas, who rails against the XFL throughout the whole film — talk about what these men are in failure. The two goals I had making this film were very simple: I wanted to make a love story about these two guys, but I also wanted to put this film up as a case study of what real, entrepreneurship actually is. Entrepreneurship is failing, and owning those failures, so you can learn from them and do something great.
What are the main lessons learned in sports and media from the XFL?
The XFL created most of the production techniques that you now you see every time you tune into professional sports. You can’t watch a professional sporting event without seeing the XFL all over it. The Skycam flying over the top, the Steadicam, mic’ing players, interviewing players on the sidelines, interviewing coaches — all of the access points — the XFL was a sports league that was created for television, not the other way around. It embraced something that you hadn’t seen ever before, and I think that’s why professional leagues used — to put it politely — the XFL’s innovations, and still do today.