In 2001, WWE CEOVince McMahon introduced to the world a concept that would seek to revolutionize and reinvent professional football. It was a new form of football that seemed to sensationalize violence, threw traditional football rules to the side and simply sought to change the game at its core.
Unfortunately, the concept could not survive for more than a single season. However, it brought innovation to the world of American football that had never been seen before and has not been witnessed since.
The brief history of the XFL is the subject of a new project by Charlie Ebersol titled, "This Was the XFL," which tells the story of the evocative football league created by McMahon and Charlie's father, NBC Sports legend Dick Ebersol.
"I told ESPN that I wanted to create a film that was a love story between two people and a case study on entrepreneurship," explained Charlie Ebersol.
The film premieres February 2 on ESPN, and largely highlights Charlie's father's risky move of taking on the NFL by focusing on distributing a highly entertaining product.
"The premise of the film was always intended to be a celebration of entrepreneurship," said Charlie Ebersol. "To create something that, when it failed, my father and Vince could think about how they could do it differently and better."
This is a common mentality of an entrepreneur -- to accept and appreciate the potential of failure, but to use it as a learning lesson. Unfortunately for Dick Ebersol and McMahon, the ultimate failure of the XFL was everlasting. The league never made it back for a second shot after the principals learned from their mistakes.
The firm also demonstrates how entrepreneurs often must launch without having all of their affairs in order. That was certainly the case for Dick Ebersol and McMahon.
"You consider the fact that when Vince announced the XFL in February 2000, the league had no teams, no stadiums, no general managers, no coaches, no infrastructure other than Vince McMahon, himself," said Charlie Ebersol. "The only way to have gotten a shot at putting the football league together was this way. Today, you would do it in partnership with the NFL. Given the marketplace and landscape at the time, there was no way the NFL would partner, and the NFL was certainly never going to partner with Vince McMahon."
While they did not have a well-planned infrastructure for the league, Dick Ebersol and McMahon leaned on their strengths. Those strengths ultimately did not lead to success, but initial marketing of the XFL was unparalleled. The league brought in 54 million viewers in its first weekend, which is unheard of at launch.
Again, the XFL failed in the sense that it needed to exist for more than one year. But one thing that Charlie Ebersol wanted to drive home with his film is that despite everything that failed, he would not consider the league as a whole to be a failure.
"You can't watch sports now without sky cam, playersmic'd, audiences getting access. This wasn't on the docket until the XFL came along," explained Charlie Ebersol. "From a business standpoint, when NBC bought into league in March 2000, it got 50% of the league, but also took a stake in WWE, which was just going public. Even though NBC lost $37 million in investment from the league, the stock purchase was significantly more valuable."
Thus, NBC somewhat hedged its risk and even ended up benefiting financially in the long-run. McMahon has fared well for himself despite the short-term existence of the XFL, amassinga net worth of $1.17 billion.
The Roman philosopher Seneca stated that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. There was an opportunity with the XFL, but maybe not enough preparation. The XFL was very unlucky with what unfolded after a lot of excitement leading up to its inaugural season.
The opening game of the XFL season was a blowout, which DickEbersol acknowledged is every producer's greatest fear. In the second week of the season, the Los Angeles Coliseum lost power during a game. Any shot of retaining a national audience was shot.
A silver lining could be that these entrepreneurs behind the XFL sold 1 million tickets in that first and only year of operation, and sold out five-of-eight stadiums. But they attempted to launch in primetime on a good network, which requires the delivery of a solid football product. The blowout and blackout was tough to overcome.
However, Charlie Ebersol's film in many ways celebrates the accomplishments that his father and McMahon achieved in light of the failure of the XFL as a league. It is released days before the Super Bowl and will be watched by many who have never even heard of the XFL.
"You have to have bold vision and conviction to try to build something like this," said Charlie Ebersol. "You have to recognize your strengths and surround yourself with people who fill the gaps of your weaknesses. Great businesses, in success or failure. are defined by the relationships at the top. The relationship between my father and Vince is a case study for what two people can do when they've found their counterpart."