At some point in the last fifteen years, ESPN, as a brand, became uncool. I described this transition at length here, pegging 2003 as the beginning of the end of the Worldwide Leader’s cool cache. The ongoing creep (some would say, “dash”) toward faceless, nameless on-air talent and lowest-common-denominator content has not infected every corner of the four-letter network’s offerings, and the conventional wisdom was and remains that the weaker a program’s ties to Bristol, Connecticut, the higher its quality. That physical remoteness from the corporate jackboot seemingly allowed things like Bill Simmons’ Los-Angeles-based Grantland and the itinerant College GameDay to flourish.
Simmons also took a leading role in ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, a universally praised series of sports documentaries. After Simmons and ESPN parted ways in the spring of 2015, Grantland died, but 30 for 30 lived on. While I’ve enjoyed every 30 for 30 film I’ve caught flipping around on the television, none ever has been appointment viewing.
Nearly two years after Simmons got himself kicked out of ESPN, the network will air what undoubtedly will be received as the best 30 for 30 entry ever: “This Was the XFL.” From the press release:
A bold challenge, a fearless experiment and ultimately, a spectacular failure. In 2001, sports entertainment titans Ebersol and McMahon launched the XFL. It was hardly the first time a league had tried to compete with the NFL, but the brash audacity of the bid, combined with the personalities and charisma of Ebersol and McMahon and the marketing behemoths of their respective companies — NBC and WWE — captured headlines and a sense of undeniable anticipation about what was to come.
Bringing together a cast of characters ranging from the boardrooms of General Electric to the practice fields of Las Vegas, “This Was the XFL” is the tale of — yes — all that went wrong, but also, how the XFL ended up influencing the way professional team sports are broadcast today. And at the center of it all – a decades long friendship between one of the most significant television executives in media history and the one-of-a-kind WWE impresario. This film will explore how Ebersol and McMahon brought the XFL to life, and why they had to let it go.
Both of these films (plus exclusive bonus features) will be available for streaming on WatchESPN immediately following their premieres.
I’m not much for fantasy football, but I played fantasy XFL, still love the ideas behind this league, and remain on vigilant watch for the emergence of subsequent examples of its ilk. The XFL improved the NFL, which now is in need of another shakeup. Here’s hoping that the release of this movie, slated for three days prior to the next Super Bowl, will rattle the NFL’s cage.