Friday Night Opinion Returns: Vince McMahon and the XFL, also Returns!

Yesterday we were entertained by a 25 minute, 39 second long remote-conference where Vince McMahon, owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE Studios, and host of other multimedia endeavors, announced that he’s bringing back the XFL, a league that lasted one season in 2001, and was forced out of operation by a media-led backlash by then 50-50 partner, NBC.

Originally, McMahon pitched the XFL to NBC, with a grittier, rougher style of play, more aligned with what fans of the 70’s and 80’s eras were familiar with, along with cheerleaders that were even less clothed than their NFL counterparts, and McMahon provided WWE (WWF at the time) personalities a chance to inter-mingle in roles as commentators, play-by-play, and other personality-oriented roles.

To hear it from NBC, the reason they pulled out of the deal, which was originally structured for two years, was that the league was too closely related to wrestling, which supplies an audience to football, but is not the core audience of football.  They are correct about that analysis, and there was certainly negative discussion around the gimmicky nature of promos, sideline segments, color commentary, and the overall ‘show’ elements of the league.

The first series of games netted a huge margin over and above original ratings projections, but as the league wore on, supposedly the emerging fan base grew tired of the gimmicks, and stopped watching.

While certainly this was an element of the problems the XFL had, one has to wonder why NBC, a 50-50 partner after all, didn’t exercise more control over that part of the product.  After all, this is NBC, a true leader in broadcasting and entertainment.  They know this business, and certainly employ people that know how to fix a failing product.

There could be some behind-the-scenes reasons we’ll never know, but what we do know is that at the time, NBC had taken a beating in negotiations for NFL contracts.  Both the AFC, and NFC schedules of the NFL were up for renegotiation, and the NFL was really looking for new homes.  With the addition of Fox as a candidate, who had just opened up a true Sports Division a few years prior, they were now part of a bigger group of media companies looking to land NFL viewership – think very elevated ad revenue, compared any other weekend programming.

Fox landed the NFC games, ABC landed the AFC games, and in the end, anything that was left, didn’t go to NBC, who prior to this had been home to the NFL for a very long time.  They were, shall I say it, PISSED!

The NBC at that point had crammed dollar after dollar into new technology, meant to derive data that their on-air personalities could then use in-game, to explain nuanced detail, after nuanced detail, to an ever-knowledge-saturated audience, who was becoming enamored with this thing called ‘fantasy football’ (more on that later).

Now, all of that was for nothing, and NBC felt cheated.  So, they wanted to make a point to the NFL, and any other major sports league that they may cross paths with, and thus, McMahon’s league, which he had been pitching since the late 90’s, finally had a partner – and a very big one at that.

The NBC thought that by placing games on their network, in front of nationally-syndicated audiences, that the coverage would bring out every NFL outsider who had something to prove, and players who were possibly forced to retire earlier than they wanted, another crack to prove they are who we knew they were (RIP Dennis Green!).

McMahon knew nothing about football talent, and I would imagine he knows more now, but not enough to gauge players at every position, let alone sifting through players where differences are slight, and finding edges that can be expounded upon are infrequent, and fleeting.  So he accepted NBC’s attempt at luring these ‘cast-offs’ from the NFL.

To a degree, it worked.  For example, Tommy Maddox, who is likely the reason college football players generally must stay for three years in their respective program, got to rejuvenate his NFL career by pleading the Los Angeles Xtreme to the league’s only championship, winning league MVP honors as well.  Maddox, prior to this had staged a comeback in the Arena League, which looked promising, but his dominance of the XFL propelled the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign him as a back-up to Kordell Stewart.  Maddox would ultimately become the starting QB, in 2002 for the Steelers….this was ten years after his last start in the NFL, and seven years after his last time in an NFL uniform.

Suffice to say that for Maddox, the plan worked.  And there were a few never heard of players that re-introduced themselves to NFL scouts, that eventually caught on.  Rod Smart, famous for his “He Hate Me” jersey, went on to become a kick return specialist similar to Clarence Verdin, Brian Mitchell, and others who were swift through special teams formations.  Smart, who couldn’t be taken seriously in the NFL prior to the XFL, put on a complete show under McMahon, that the NFL scouting acumen couldn’t deny.

But, for the most part, the XFL was only able to recruit players that likely didn’t match up to what makes the NFL great – players that have timing, counter-intuition, and the drive to finish a play better than how it started.

And truly, that product was the demise of the XFL, not gimmicks, not cheerleaders, not over-the-top personalities.  It was that the product could not live up to the hype.  The play-by-play was forced, over-indulgent when compared to “what just happened,” and left people wondering if McMahon hadn’t just invented scripted football.

He didn’t.  He just trusted the wrong people.  Because while NBC laid out their game plan to him, their intentions were never to ensure XFL success.  Their goal was to reunite with their long-lost girlfriend, the NFL.  For NBC, the certainty of what the NFL brought to their ratings, and their ad revenue was clear – and NBC, while they could hold the XFL up for years, invest in, and take serious losses on for awhile, to wait for it to grow legs and run on it’s own, knew that it would just be easier to sign with the ‘big boys.’  NBC’s intent was to spook the NFL, and it worked.

After NBC wrote, developed, and pushed the Arena Football League as a major viewing contract from 2003 to 2006, the NFL had enough, and realized that NBC had proven they could truly market the NFL all along, and all was forgiven, forgotten, and NBC got their girlfriend back.

That left McMahon, who we all know doesn’t have the same resources as NBC, or the NFL, fuming mad.  He publicly admitted that the league was a failure, and people seemed to coalesce that the views expressed by NBC over the league, were the same views McMahon held.  And so, McMahon went back to work even harder on his bread and butter, WWF, which he changed the name to WWE the year after the XFL went under, and everyone went back to the NFL, thinking that this story was spoken for.

Well, they’re wrong.  Everything I just told you about the league, is not what many of the so-called sports writing ‘experts’ say.  They drag out the old, tired narrative about the gimmicky XFL.

And consequently, when McMahon held his professional, candid press conference, the peanut galleries of ESPN, FSN, CBS, and yes, NBC, went to work “analyzing” the return of the XFL, as if they aren’t biased.

Frankly, you can choose not to read what I write, but if you use the logic that I don’t know what I’m talking about, then you are in denial if you think that listening to the talking heads on this story is the right move also.  Each one of the above mentioned networks has a horse in the race that is the success of the NFL.  They all hold broadcasting rights to games, elements of games, not to mention numerous programs that lead up to, and review, NFL games.  If the NFL faces competition, their programming has to change with it.  And none of them are comfortable with this, because their most valuable possession is their time.  They have a 24 hour day to broadcast what they feel is the most important news, sports, and entertainment on the day, and right now all of them are doubling down on the NFL, not because of the XFL, but because the NFL ratings are dropping.  They are actively dropping, not just twindling here and there.  People are tired of the politics being expressed, the outright unfairness of referring in the game, the clear indifference the NFL exercises in it’s own concussion protocol, and the general malaise of a sports league that seems hell-bent on doing and speaking to everything that is not football, while still trying to play the game.

McMahon see’s the opportunity.  And I’ll tell you something else…..Wall Street see’s the opportunity.  Every person who flips houses see’s the opportunity.  And not a single one of the networks I mentioned wants to actually address the issue.  Because if they do, they fall out of favor with the NFL, who is grappling with a public relations disaster from one week to the next.  The league, which has been a bastion of military veteran viewership for years, so much so, the NFL routinely broadcasts the playoffs and Super Bowl directly to soldiers in combat zones, and then broadcasts those soldiers’ reactions to those games for their audiences back in North America, and beyond.

Now, personnel from every branch is being alienated.  Perhaps not by NFL players who are kneeling, but by everyone who speaks about the disrespect in the action.  And to be clear, NFL players should protest peacefully, if that’s what they feel gets their message out.  But universally, all should know that the message you send, is not necessarily the message received.  So if the message you are sending is not getting the message you want out there, maybe you should find a different way to get the message you want out there.

But I digress.  If alienation of military personnel was not enough, law enforcement personnel have been taken to task by several out-spoken, and well-respected NFL players.  And still, some NFL players are having run-ins with law enforcement, where they are in fact, the cause of problems experience by anyone in those situations, not the officers they seem intent on vilifying.

If this was a cancer-research non-profit, and the public information officer was a chain-smoker, would that person still have a job?  Would they have a job to begin with?

We know the answer. We KNOW the answer, and yet, the NFL gives a pass to these few players who give a bad name to the rest.

While not all NFL fans feel this way, it is clear that there are enough that are fed up.  Maybe not with the ideas being expressed, and maybe not with individual players themselves.  But people are tired of watching illogical behavior abound.  And the NFL is forgetting a key to all of this:  their product is meant to entertain.

It’s literally been an escape for the entire country for nearly 70 years (based on when the NFL become highly followed, not when it originated).  The reason so many people watched was that it was literally a whole day where the problems of society, perceived or otherwise, went away.  But the NFL is so full of itself now, that it believes that by ingesting what they think fans ‘feel’ into their programming, that it will net an even tighter relationship with said fan, which leads to advertising revenue – there’s that two word phrase again, which is ruling this issue.

That’s not how entertainment works, and if the NFL front office of the 80’s could see what the NFL front office of the ought-10’s is doing now, with huge technology, medical, and scientific advantages that no previous front office had at their disposal, it’s very likely that the ‘old school’ front office would open up all the top-floor windows and doors to patios at 345 Park Avenue, and begin throwing every staff member off the ledges.  They’d have to, to save the league.

Meanwhile, McMahon, who was vilified when it wasn’t necessary, made into a joke over doing something that no single person would ever be willing to do, and had put his money where his mouth is, has done it again.

And this time, he has a 17-year history lesson to go along with his business acumen.

The network personalities, who I know are reading from cue cards, are saying things like “the XFL won’t succeed because he’s taking out the cheerleaders,” the XFL won’t succeed because it’s being political,” and on their narrative goes.  I find it funny really.  These networks, much like the NFL, are too big to get out of their own way.  Only in such a backward-thinking organization could things like standing for the national anthem be considered “political.”

But I’ll tell you this, they all truly have it wrong.  They somehow think that by carrying on the way Americans have seen football for the years 1949 to 2015, that will come out as false for fans, and thus, it’s a bad business model.

I’m glad none of these talking heads own businesses that employ people, because they’d be the first business to fail, handing you a pink slip, and putting you in an unemployment line.

The best businesses, are the ones that are above the fray.  That stay out of the discussions that do not involve their business in any way, shape, or form.

Google had to fire James Damore for what was perceived as a ‘sexist’ memo he wrote about the troubles with gender-focus equality training.  Side note, I read the memo, and with as many scholarly and scientific resources as he cited, he was not only correct in his theory, but not sexist at all.  However, so goes the beating drum of nonsense, and Google, as a business made a decision to get out of the fray, and fire him.  Now he’s suing, and while much of the media reports on it as he was in the wrong, he’s not, as Google openly encourages such essays on their employee servers, and, he used the proper formatting and resources to develop his findings.  He’ll win his lawsuit hands down.

Google made an ill-advised employment decision, but not a bad business decision.  The NFL is making bad employment and business decisions.  But to try and normalize their decisions, they use these networks to get you to buy in that the McMahon’s of the world are ‘crazy,’ and ‘political,’ and try to drum into your head that it will be wrong to honor any football outside of the NFL, with your presence.

They’re wrong.  They don’t understand business, and they don’t understand analysis work.  Political?  And here I thought ESPN stood for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.

No, every single one of these talking heads has it thoroughly wrong, even the social media spin-off guys like Cam Rogers, who did a terrible piece on the XFL being the perfect place for Brett Favre to revive his career.  Sure, he did it in jest, but his point was that the XFL was a joke, much like his coverage.  In truth, Rogers knows about as much about business as your kindergarten-aged cousin.  One has a valid excuse for not knowing, the other is a clown with a teleprompter.

By not having cheerleaders, McMahon ensures a steady female audience, that is engaged in the game, and not worried about their surroundings, game-wise that is.  By having everyone stand for the anthem, McMahon brings back public safety and military members to a game they truly love.  And yes, there are active boycotts of the NFL by people in these groups, so laugh if you want, but discontent has grown.

By ensuring player safety, and this will be his truest test, he snags families who have kids that are enamored with the game, but their parents are worried about their futures.

Will McMahon take over ratings lead from the NFL?  No, at least not for the first few seasons.

But he will give them a significant scare.  One that is much worse than what happened before.  Because he fully controls the league.

And since 2001, there are a number of markets that have opened up, thanks to the NFL, and there are more available.  Over 20 to be exact, and I won’t write them all here, but I’m sure you know them, if you review a map.

But even more important than that, currently the NFL, when you remove all current roster players, has enough registered free agents to fill 21 teams, according to their roster requirements.  This again is outside of 30 NFL team rosters, and their respective practice squad players.

If you thought the resurgence of Tommy Maddox, and the coming of age of Rod Smart were the biggest stories McMahon was capable of in football, just you wait and see.

And all of these genius “analysts” at the networks, or at their viral video huts, are going to have egg on their face.  I’m going to laugh.  But you’ll be watching the games.

Football games, that are about a novelty: football.

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