The XFL: A Football League for Trump’s America
Donald Trump rode the message of Make America Great Again to the presidency. 15 years earlier one of his best friend promised to Make Football great again.
The greatest products in the world don’t just give people what they want, they give the people what they didn’t even know they wanted. What many people want more than anything isn’t an iteration or improvement on what they already have, but an obliteration of the existing system for, often disastrously, a complete replacement. As repeated over and over in history, people crave revolution more than reform.
Whether a product manager or a politician, some of the greatest triumphs (and disasters) in recent history came on the backs of the powerful popularity of ‘change’. In 2005 many expected that cell phones would continue getting smaller until they could be imbedded in your teeth. Instead, Apple introduced the larger iPhone that gave the people combined functionality, changing the paradigm from a focus on size to a focus on functionality, and the world was never the same. In 2015 people would’ve predicted the Republican Party needed someone who could connect with women, hispanics, and millennials. Instead they gave the people the most blatantly sexist and anti-immigrant president the nation has ever had. The lesson is clear, people are perpetually displeased with the status-quo and revolutionary products can rise quickly.
This is the message behind ESPN’s ‘This Was the XFL’, a story of the tremendous promise and terrible collapse of the XFL, a collaboration between NBC, following their loss of NFL broadcast rights, and Vince McMahon of WWE fame. While the NFL offered cheerleaders, head injuries, and action, making it the most popular sport in america, a group of network executives and entertainment innovators came up with a game that promised more promiscuous cheerleaders, more gruesome head injuries, and more adrenaline.
It was a way to stick it to the elitist NFL and everything they stood for.
And people ate it up.
Until the actual football started, that is. 10.5% of homes tuned in to watch the opening game, double the ratings that producers had promised advertisers. Far more people than analysis had shown prefered the destruction of the system and sought something altogether more extreme. These people watched the NFL every sunday because they had no other choice, but deep down they sought revolution and they craved all the tits, blood, and drama that came with it. Did I mention that then sitting Governor of Minesota, Jesse Ventura was an announcer?
Americans turned on their TVs that Saturday night in 2001 seeking something better than the clean cut NFL. In 2016 many of these same people would go to the polls seeking something more clean cut than politicians.
So why isn’t the XFL still around?
The answer is simple: The football sucked.
The league gave teams 30 days to prepare a professional squad to play in front of a national team audience and as even people who don’t understand football could probably tell you, this was not enough time to produce a viable product. The XFL’s attempt to replace the coin toss with a gladiator style death match for the ball led to a broken arm before the first game had even begun and ended up being a disaster. The elimination of the fair catch rule had no effect on the game play. By halftime of the first game, half of viewers had turned it off. Viewership would never return to the heights of that first game. Other games would earn record low ratings for primetime spots over the remainder of the season.
What was it about the XFL that led to its inevitable failure to deliver on its promise to make football great again and why does it suggest that President Trump will fail in his quest to make America great again?
The collapse of the XFL was the result of an uncomfortable relationship between an entertainment maverick, in McMahon, and the establishment sports entertainment community, in NBC Sports. Just as Trump’s presidency relies on the uneasy marriage of Trumpism and the demographically desperate Conservatism, the XFL relied on a marriage between WWE, where convention did not apply, and one of sports broadcasting’s traditional giants, caught in a tumultuous period of skyrocketing rights contracts and cable sports expansion.
As the season went on, fundamental disagreements on content became evident. One critical moment of conflict between upstart and establishment came as cameras returned from an ad break one game and focused on the gyrating torso of a skimpily clad chearleader. In one ear, the play-by-play announcer heard NBC’s Dick Ebersol’s voice telling him to keep his mouth shut. In the other ear, Vince McMahon spoke to tell him to comment on the dancing body. The result was an awkward joke by the announcer, and the cracks in the uneasy union became obvious.
What’s more, the XFL was forever marred by the overinvolvement of McMahon. McMahon couldn’t just become a third party to the action on the field, he had to inject himself into the drama. Is wild “This is the XFL” scream to start the first game left an indelible mark on the viewership. Over the course of the season, McMahon would become a central character in the soap opera version of football played out on Saturday night prime time for an ever shrinking audience. For McMahon, as much as the XFL was about bringing down the establishment, it was really about Vince bringing down the establishment. Regardless whether it was the NFL or media
McMahon opened the XFL’s introductory press conference by lambasting the biased media establishment. As terrible reviews poured in and voiced within NBC started to express doubt on the entire venture, McMahon’s criticisms of the media were emboldened. This culminated in a violent interview on Bob Costa’s show where McMahon appears to physically threaten Costas as he prods on the poor performance of the . As media iconoclast McMahon came to understood, challenging the media establishment is much more difficult that it seems, and they don’t take attacks lightly. Ultimately Costas would continue his career at the top of the liberal sports media establishment while McMahon would continue profitting on WWE and enjoy a close friendship with the newly chosen most powerful man in America, Donald Trump. But will they fare the same in their endeavors into establishment rule?
ON a day when President Trump giddily addressed CPAC, just a day after his two most important advisors, former RNC head Reince Preibus and former Alt-Right News editor Steven Bannon, jointly addressed CPAC, critics must worry if Trumpism is more stable than a chaotic first month would imply. However, the XFL experience suggests certain organizational defects in revolutionary movements prove too much to handle. The question now becomes when will the cracks in the marriage of establishment and upstart grow to be too much? When will the domineering megalomaniac at the head of the marriage be his own undoing?
Could the schism arise over the deficit as Trump’s insistence on building a costly wall and boosting defense spending while also cutting taxes which seems antithetical to much of Tea Party (and now mainstream Republican) thought?
Could arguments over entitlement reform, which Trump has promised not to touch, end up unravelling the love fest between Preibus and Bannon we saw Thursday at CPAC?
Will Trump’s base, apparently a large portion of his 40% approval rate, abandon him?
The answer to all of these questions comes down to how good the product is. The marriage of Trumpism and Conservatism is going quite well so far, but with Obamacare reform, immigration controversies, and the economy all threatening to blow up at any point, Republicans should worry about 2018 and declining approval ratings for their party’s sitting President. A congressional loss would indicate the people are no longer happy with the Trump’s administration’s ability to deliver the promises they made during the campaign. Achieving the radical change promised, is not easy, and just as the XFL’s inability to deliver the product their fans desired led to the tensions that undid the league.
The XFL brought extremism to the mainstream under the leadership of a bombastic and dynamic leader, though ultimately failed to deliver on promises. Anxious onlookers should expect a similar outcome for Trumpism and the embarrassing presidency of Donald Trump.