Carroll: This Was The XFL

     ESPN’s “30 for 30″ documentary series always brings in top flight directors and talent to tell sports stories in very dignified manner. The latest in the series, which debuts this Thursday night, This Was The XFL, continues that tradition. The “worldwide leader in sports” is showing a sense of humor by recollecting pro football at its worst a few days before the two best NFL teams meet in Super Bowl LI.

      In the spring of 2001 World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon created an eight-team spring pro football league called the XFL whose games were broadcast on NBC and the now-defunct TNN. McMahon promised the public that the XFL would not be “sissy football” and to drive that point home, fair catches were not allowed on punts. Of course back then few knew about the dangers of concussions that we do now.

      Needless to say, Vince wasn’t going to divorce himself from the shtick that made the WE famous. He made sure that his very attractive cheerleaders got as much TV time as possible and even had them get into storyline relationships with both players and announcers. He also let players create their own nicknames and put them on the backs of their jerseys.

      The only problem was that the quality of the football play stunk as the only legitimate QB in the league was an NFL journeyman named Tommy Maddox who led the Los Angeles Xtreme to the XFL’s only championship since it folded in May 2001.

     This Was The XFL was directed by Charlie Ebersol, and yes, his dad is legendary NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol, who was responsible for giving the XL $50 million for both broadcasting rights and an equity stake. The documentary makes it clear that NBC was smarting at its recent loss of the NFL and that was a key factor in their decision to invest in this doomed football startup. Charlie was able to get both his dad and Vince McMahon to go on camera and issue mea culpas. He also made sure that there was a ton of humorous material here.

      Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is interviewed extensively in the documentary, admits that he was a closet fan of the league and admired how the XFL broke a lot of new ground.

     In terms of technology, the XFL used both real cameramen on the field  and suspended sky cameras over it well before the NFL. Sideline reporters interviewing coaches before they ran back into the locker room, which is de rigeur today on TV broadcasts, first happened in the XFL. I still chuckle when I recall the horrified look of Rusty Tillman, the head coach of the NY/NJ Hitmen, trying to get away from sideline reporter, Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

     This is a terrific sports documentary.

    Longtime sportscaster Brent Musburger announced his retirement without much warning last week. My guess is that ESPN probably told him that his contract either wouldn’t be renewed or that his workload would be lessened a la what happened with Chris Berman.   

    My biggest knock on Musburger was that he loved to spout cliches. In a tight game he would inevitably say, “It’s a shame that one of these teams has to lose.” I met Musburger once at a Sports Business Journal seminar where he was the keynote speaker. I told him that I used to joke with my friends that he would probably say, “It’s a shame that one of these sides has to lose World War II.” Brent, to his credit, showed he could roll with the punches when he replied with a hearty laugh, “That’s probably true!”

    ESPN announced that its iconic Sunday morning show, “The Sports Reporters” will end its 30-year run in May.

    The show was anchored for most of its run by two legendary hosts, Dick Schaap and John Saunders, both of whom sadly died during the show’s run. My main criticism was that they tended to use the same coterie of  pundits from week to week and you can easily predict what each one would say about the topic du jour. I have to admit that I would be lying if I did not admit that it was a dream of mine to appear on it.

     No one will ever confuse the Columbia Lions women’s basketball team with that of the invincible University of Connecticut Huskies but there is one experience that the Lions had the Huskies players will probably never have. On Friday night, Columbia beat Dartmouth in Hanover 91-88 in four overtimes. My guess is that is the longest college basketball played by either a men’s or women’s basketball team this season.

     Last week was a major one in New York City for the travel industry as both the International Media Marketplace and the New York Times Travel Show took place. The conferences served as a reminder that sports is a major tourism driver.

     The Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau made sure that everyone knew that it will host the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four for the first time this April. Northeast Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County had a huge poster of the Yankees’ top minor league team, the Scranton Rail Riders,  at the Javits Center, the longtime home of the Times Travel Show while the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority spokesperson, Amanda Arentsen, told me that having the Mets’ AAA farm team, the Las Vegas 51s, helps draw New Yorkers during the very hot summer months there. Melanie Perez, the spokesperson for Choose Chicago (the Windy City’s tourism bureau), admitted to me that there are a number of Cubs fans, who while happy that the team snapped its 108-year World Series drought this past fall, now fear that some mystique has been lost with their beloved team.

     MSC Cruises will have a baseball-themed cruise that will sail from Miami on February 18 to St. Maarten. It will feature a number of retired players, including former Yankees pitcher Stan Bahnsen, who will offer clinics, entertain passengers with behind-the-scenes stories, and sign autographs.

     MSC will be launching a new ship this December, the Seaside, that is certain to win architectural prizes. It resembles more a Collins Avenue (Miami Beach’s main drag) condominium than it does a vessel.

     A lot has understandably been written about the passing of talented actress Mary Tyler Moore last week. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ran on Saturday nights from 1970 to 1977 and it was without question the night that featured CBS’s best primetime programs. The high Nielsen ratings reflected that fact.

    No one has been able to explain to me why Saturday nights turned into a rerun wasteland for network television and why no broadcast network has had the gumption to try to revive that night considering that a lot of people are home and they don’t have to go to work the next day.

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