During the debut weekend of the XFL, the Rock, along with a few other WWF stars, showed up on video before the fans of his sister league. Eyebrows pumping, he growled that he'd like to put all the critics of the XFL on a bus, drive them to the Golden Gate Bridge and throw them off on by one.
Better hire a convoy of buses.
On the Monday after, the critics treated WWF and NBC's new football league like a hapless XFL punt receiver unprotected by the fair-catch rule. As reality TV goes, the XFL was more Big Brother than Survivor. It was short on skilled play and the promised in-your-face theatrics, and long—too long—on Body bluster from the governor of Minnesota in the announcers' booth.
There was a lot of leather, much booty was shaken and the hyped cheerleaders, push-up bras brimming, conducted sub-burlesque sketch locker-room "interviews," asking how the athletes planned to "score." (Ba-da-bum.) Those who didn't find this spectacle hopelessly lame were outraged by it, condemning it as yet another symptom of the coarsening of American culture and calling for the head of Jack Welch.
Whatever. WWF's Vince McMahon, our own P.T. Barnum, knows the ratings numbers are the only critique that really counts. And they were pretty impressive the first week—9.7 for the Las Vegas Outlaws vs. the New York-New Jersey Hitmen—although not even McMahon expects to maintain those figures once the rubberneckers drop out. Still, the U.S. Army, looking for its armies of one in the stands of the XFL, must have been pleased.
As for NBC, even with its $100 million investment, its goals are pretty modest. The XFL does not have to do that well to beat the NBA, whose Saturday night ratings were a third of what the football league pulled. As long as the venture can attract a chunk of 12-year-olds and older males who enjoy acting like 12-year-olds, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and his boss at GE can look themselves in the mirror Monday mornings.
In the era of niche audiences, it makes sense to give Saturday night to horny, dateless teen boys and the "Joe Sixpacks" whom McMahon claims to represent. The network of Friends and Frasier doesn't usually have much to do with the working class. But then, everyone knows "no one" watches TV on Saturday night, so why not?
Man-of-the-people McMahon, meantime, flogs his new league's "hard-hat, lunch-pail, blue-collar mentality" at every turn, the better for the Rock and company to dismiss critics as agents of the cappuccino-sipping, "pantywaist" elite.
Indeed, there were more mentions of the working class in a single XFL broadcast than in a month of Sunday-morning punditry. The puerile vulgarity is not just lowest-common-denominator pandering; it's one of the few weapons left in class warfare's depleted arsenal.
The WWF's blue-collar following did not fail to rally around the XFL. The audience learned how important they are to the spectacle at ringside, and they played their part in the games a good deal better than the players on the field.
As the sold-out crowd at the San Francisco Demons-Los Angeles Xtremes game screamed, you could almost believe the announcers' claim of the teams' "classic rivalry"—although they had never so much as played an exhibition game.
In wrestling, the fans get to pretend the contest is real. By contrast, the football played by the XFL seems genuine. It's the XFL that is fake, dependent on the pseudo-enthusiasm of fans like the devotee in the Demons cap, who, when asked by a reporter to share his deep personal feelings about the XFL, opined, "No guts, no glory." The guy looked like he'd been rehearsing this canned line before the mirror. In the booth, the announcer exulted, "The true Demons fan." Amen to that.
The question is whether the XFL is fake enough. Since everyone knows a wrestling body slam is phony, it can be hyped as a death blow without offending credulity. But labeling a garden variety tackle a bone crusher, as the XFL broadcasters did with mind-numbing regularity, is a silly lie.
As the 12-year-old son of USA Today sportswriter Jon Saraceno complained to his dad, the XFL was "too much like real football." You can boo a wrestler who is scripted to lose a bout, or boo the inevitable winner you love to hate—and have fun either way.
But where's the fun in booing a team because it stinks?