Director Charlie Ebersol Talks 'This Was the XFL' 30 for 30, Vince McMahon, More

Tom Clark@tomclarkbrFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2017

Charlie Ebersol
Charlie EbersolCredit: The Company

Charlie Ebersol is bringing the story of the XFL to the masses. 

The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary This Was the XFL tells the tale of WWE chairman Vince McMahon and former head of NBC Sports Dick Ebersol's foray into the world of professional football. The XFL began in 2001 and promised an old-school style of football with a modern twist.

But the league did not live up to the hype. Sloppy games, harsh criticism and a string of bad luck brought the XFL to an end after just one season.

The documentary premieres almost 16 years to the day of the XFL's opening kickoff and looks back at the events that led to the league's downfall. In an interview with Bleacher Report, Ebersol talked about the film, including the pressures of interviewing his father Dick, as well as McMahon.

"My memory of the XFL was how much fun it was and how zany and how out of this world the whole experience was," he said. "I knew [making the film] was going to be crazy. But then the other side of it...interviewing my father and Vince—my dad is quite literally my father and Vince a father figure to me—was absolutely terrifying."

Ebersol also talked about setting some ground rules for the project before filming began. Those included not only getting the best out of both his father and McMahon but keeping them in line as well.

"It was funny because when I first approached my dad and Vince, it was a lot of 'if Vince says yes, I'll say yes—if Dick says yes, I'll say yes,'" he recalled. "And when they both finally said yes, I said you have to understand two things. One, I need your promise that you are going to be totally open with me. But secondarily, that you understand that you are going to have no creative control over this, that this is my film.

"I want to tell this story as accurately and as straightforward and as fun as possible while at the same time not falling prey to the charms of Vince McMahon and my father."

McMahon's charms, as well as his legendary self-confidence as the head of pro wrestling's biggest company, were also a topic of discussion. That confidence took McMahon to the top of his industry and toppled WWE's chief rival, WCW. McMahon's belief in his ability to overcome any obstacle in his way played a big factor in the XFL's development.

Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol
Vince McMahon and Dick EbersolCredit: ESPN Films.

"Promotion after promotion crumbled under the weight of what Vince was doing," Ebersol said. "WWE didn't just get big. He went and he conquered each of those regions one at a time. And he did so ruthlessly, and it was built on the back of having a vision.

"For the XFL, for all that's said about them not really having a full understanding of what they were trying to do, Vince clearly saw the need for someone to come in and offer a type of football that was more reminiscent of the old way and less corporately driven. And I think those initial numbers that first weekend proved that thesis out. I do think his confidence is not misplaced."

McMahon's vision was there, but the execution was perhaps not what it could have been. Much of the criticism surrounding the XFL was the game itself, which left a lot to be desired. Ebersol spoke on the league's football operations and the impact it had on the way the XFL was not only delivered but received.

"The football operations were people who were very concerned with their careers and what they were going to be able to get out of being in the NFL in the future," he said. "And so they weren't willing to take risks. The L.A. team won the championship because [head coach] Al Luginbill understood football operations enough that he [knew] how to utilize the best parts of the new playbook.

"So I think if they built the league today, they'd hire someone like an Al Luginbill to build the football side of it, and they would be much better off. But the football operations in the past, whether or not it was malicious, is unclear. But at the very least, it can be said that they subverted the success of the league through their inability, their inaction and, probably, ineptitude."

Not only was the game under fire, but so too was the marketing of the XFL. The league paralleled much of what WWE was doing with the Attitude Era, featuring scantily clad cheerleaders, controversial ad campaigns and TV personalities that came straight from Monday Night Raw. 

One of the XFL's most ardent critics was NBC sports anchor Bob Costas, whose level of disdain for the league was evident in the documentary. Ebersol spoke of Costas and the veteran broadcaster's take on the failed XFL.

"Bob Costas was a very very big fan of wrestling growing up," he said. "In the '80s, when my dad was doing Saturday Night's Main Event with Vince. Bob was at WrestleMania. He was covering those kinds of things because he loved the idea of good versus evil and the ultimate bad guys and ultimate clean good guys.

"But I think he was very upset that the nostalgia that he had for wrestling was gone because of what they had created in the darker period of the late '90s, early 2000s. And he felt a sense of decorum was being lost. And I think that's what came out about the XFL."

Despite every negative aspect of the XFL, from the hype to the content to the gameplay, Ebersol revealed a surprising twist near the end of the documentary. The dinner table scene between Dick and McMahon was unscripted, and that conversation included talk of possibly restarting the league.

Vince McMahon, Charlie Ebersol and Dick Ebersol
Vince McMahon, Charlie Ebersol and Dick EbersolCredit: The Company

"I interviewed [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones the morning after WrestleMania, and I sat with Jerry during WrestleMania," Ebersol said. "He had never been to a wrestling event before. He was on his feet cheering when The Rock came out and John Cena and all these other events. In his sit-down interview, I asked him about that, knowing that I was going to interview Vince and my dad. Jerry was like 'look, we desperately need a developmental league in the NFL.'

"The Jimmy Garoppolos of the world really need an opportunity to get snaps so that [New England Patriots owner] Bob Kraft knows whether or not he's ready and willing to be the starting quarterback if anything ever happens to Tom Brady. I think it takes a strength of personality and will to do what Vince did, and you have to be Vince, sort of, to do it."

Whether McMahon will try his hand at pro football again is unknown. WWE demands a lot of time and attention, both of which McMahon has devoted to his company for years. But if he learned from past mistakes and hired the right personnel to oversee operations, perhaps the XFL could be reborn.

Anything can happen in WWE—just as McMahon is capable of anything. Perhaps the story is not over yet.


Ebersol's interview can be heard in its entirety here. This Was the XFL premieres February 2 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.


Tom Clark can regularly be seen on Bleacher Report. His podcast, Tom Clark's Main Event, is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Android, Windows Phone and online here.


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