THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
There has been an awful lot said about the Connecticut Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon and her role with the World Wrestling Federation and World Wrestling Entertainment as chief executive officer. When you run for political office, everything is fair game and rightfully there has been a major focus on the McMahon family bankruptcy in the 1970s and questions about former World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment performers who died as young men while either working for Vince and Linda McMahon or shortly after they left the wrestling organization.
But there is one area of the McMahon portfolio that has not been given a lot of scrutiny.
The short-lived XFL.
The XFL was born after Vince and Linda McMahon past on an opportunity to buy the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and then the entire league in the late 1990s. McMahon and General Electric's NBC division teamed up in early 2000 and started to put together a single entity owned league with each side owning half of the product. The league was scheduled to start in February 2001 and came to life around the same time that Time Warner was thinking about creating a professional football league.The McMahon-NBC venture failed and was done by May 2001 and left a lot of football people rather bitter because of just how the end played out.
Vince and Linda McMahon did not put the XFL out of business. Ken Schanzer, an executive at NBC Sports did according to numerous insiders who were employed by the league or NFL people who were friends with XFL football people.
The late George Young, who built two New York Giants Super Bowl teams as the franchise's general manager, used to carp about how someone would not allow the football people to run the show. The someone was not Vince McMahon nor was it Linda McMahon. It was NBC personnel that decided to give the league a wrestling persona which included having the network's football analyst Jesse Ventura try to bait the New Jersey-New York coach Rusty Tillman to create some sort of storyline.
The tactic failed miserable and caused George Young one day to complain vehemently to anyone who listened that it belittled Tillman and the other coaches looking for a place to hone their craft. George Young never had a problem with the XFL as it gave people opportunities to play, to coach, to scout, to market and to announce.
People like Bob Costas and John Sterling cut their teeth on upstart leagues.
The story that former XFL people tell is that NBC executives were still miffed at the National Football League for accepting a 1998 CBS offer to get the rights to American Football Conference games, playoff contests and an occasional Super Bowl for $4 billion over an eight year period which was about a 130 percent increase over what NBC had paid for the contract. NBC wanted to stick it to both CBS and the NFL in a rather childish manner and hoped to get good ratings for a late winter-spring product.
It was not until late in the 2001 season when the XFL fell off the map that football people took over the product. The XFL might have lasted into season two, 2002, had Schanzer and NBC not pulled the plug. According to one XFL official who was present at the end, everyone acknowledged that the league had lost some $50 million but ESPN in Bristol, Conn. had interest in picking up the programming in 2002 and TNN would have returned for a second year. UPN had dropped out but ESPN's interest would have more than made up for losing the weak UPN network. But according to the league insider Schanzer, (the insider did not know if Schanzer acted on his own or if a higher authority made the call) and didn't want a competitor.
With that the league disappeared leaving an awful lot of angry football people stewing both in the NFL and XFL.
McMahon wanted to keep going according to the XFL insider.
Western civilization survived the first weekend of the existence of the XFL on February 3, 2001. The first game pitted the New Jersey-New York Hitmen and the Las Vegas Outlaws in the desert. Las Vegas won the game 19-0. The XFL didn't change the world despite the horrors predicted by the very predictable sportswriters of the time who in the Pavlov dog thinking abhorred the thought of somebody starting a new football (or basketball or hockey or soccer) league and other naysayers like George Will.
The XFL didn't prompt China to bringing the tanks back to Tiananmen Square in Beijing; the Wall didn't go up again in Germany, there was no reversal of the Florida Presidential Election results.
The XFL featured just a bunch of football players who played the game in various sites around the country with scantily clad cheerleaders on the sidelines.
Vince McMahon's latest contribution to American society at the time really didn't make very much difference. There was the assertion from then Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell that McMahon was selling sex and violence. But Modell was stopped in his tracks when the name Sam Huff came up and then the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders was the second part added to the conversation.
Nearly 40 years ago, on October 31, 1960, CBS aired as part of the network's Twentieth Century series, "The Violent World of Sam Huff" which was narrated by Walter Cronkite. Huff was the tough New York Giants linebacker who was also the first NFL player to appear on the cover of Time magazine on November 30, 1959. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders became a brand name and were regulars on TV shows.
The XFL was a made for TV show for NBC, the UPN Network (which is now out of business) and the TNN cable network, which is now Spike TV. The first week's TV audience was a pleasant surprise. The actual football though was ragged at best but the XFL was not necessarily going to be about football. Wrestling had storylines and was a soap opera. McMahon and NBC, who had some experience with daytime soap operas on the network, were going to create storylines. But they would have had to go a long way in 2001 to catch the real life drama of some NFL players like Rae Carruth the Carolina Panthers player who was standing trial for the murder of this girl friend, the Baltimore Ravens Ray Lewis, who was arrested on murder and aggravated assault charges (Lewis copped a plea for obstruction of justice and got one year probation) and Green Bay's Mark Churma who just a couple days after the start of the XFL was acquitted of sexual assault charges.
McMahon and professional wrestling in general always presented lowbrow entertainment. There was nothing ever sophisticated about professional wrestling in the TV era and a lot of it resembled Three Stooges shorts. The critics fired at McMahon and the XFL but his presentation was really lame and at best fourth grade humor. The XFL didn't have DWI arrests (a common occurrence in football), wife beaters, coke addicts like the other "established" sports leagues at the time.
But University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson was quoted that he "hopes the league fails" because Professor Sanderson "doesn't want the bar of entertainment to be lowered." Then there was the conservative columnist, baseball shill and member of two baseball franchises' board of directors (the liberal Peter Angelos' Baltimore Orioles and John Moores' San Diego Padres — Moores was a major contributor to Bill Clinton's Presidential campaigns) George Will's comments.
Will worried that the XFL would continue the "further coarsening of America."
McMahon may have come up with a lot of sports and entertainment ideas in his Cape Cod Coliseum incubator but he didn't invent bad behavior in sports.
George Will probably likes to draw a blank on the illegal steroids usage in baseball while he served Angelos and Moores but the former professor, one time Republican political operative and conservative writer and TV talking head is smart enough to know that bad behavior started long before Vince and Linda McMahon.
When the New York Islanders Pat Lafontaine suffered a concussion during a game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers in 1990, Rangers fans blocked the exit out of the Garden for the ambulance and then rocked the ambulance as it was leaving. Jeffrey Lange was arrested at Giants Stadium for throwing a snowball and he wasn't the only one pelting the field with snow and ice balls during a Giants-San Diego Chargers game on December 23, 1995. Lange was arrested with 17 others that day. Some fans in various cities around North America used championship celebrations as an excuse to go on rampages. The XFL crowds were not dangerous. The XFL did not have European soccer crowd lunatics.
The XFL lead TV analyst Jesse Ventura was the governor of Minnesota at the time. George Will didn't take note of this in 2001 because he is a baseball apologist in many ways. But Governor Ventura issued an apology statement after Minnesota Twins fans at the Metrodome pelted former Twins and New York Yankees leftfielder Chuck Knoblauch with garbage from the stands in 2001.
By the time the XFL's life support was pulled by Schanzer, the XFL didn't cause gas prices to rise, the XFL didn't create tension between the US and China, the US and North Korea nor did McMahon cause the US to lose its United Nation's seat on the Human Rights Commission in that body. It was just a TV show but it is interesting to read all of the negative reaction to the McMahons, the wrestling industry and how the real story of the failure of the XFL has never really been fully explained.
The XFL was just entertainment, a made for television show. In 2001, the XFL expired and that aspect of Linda McMahon's life and business has not been explored. It deserves a look, not only for Connecticut voters but for sports business management students who need to see how sports and business intersect. The questions of why the XFL didn't go on should be asked and the first question that Linda McMahon or Schanzer should be asked is this. Did NBC really pull the plug because a Connecticut business, ESPN, wanted to get involved? Nine years later with the senatorial campaign nearing an end, and Linda McMahon claiming she knows how to create jobs, there may be some people who want an answer.