Crown, 2002, 254 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-609-60992-0
The more cynical among us (your reviewer included) would like to make you believe that we live in a age where everything is controlled, calculated, test-marketed and over-designed. All of our entertainment options are manufactured to order in a society dominated by consumerism and obedience. Britney Spears is less of an artist than a marketing vision given curvaceous form. MBA-holding executives are assembling movies from pieces defined by statisticians, psychologists and market analysts. We simple-minded consumers have no chance: we can only bleat and accept what we’re given.
In this context, the complete failure of the XFL in early 2001 is something worth celebrating. World Wresting Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) CEO Vince McMahon buddied up with NBC executive Dick Ebersol to given us a brand new football league, the XFL. Combining NBC’s sportscasting expertise with the WWF’s flair for showmanship, the XFL was supposed to be a more exciting, less expensive alternative to the tired old NFL.
In retrospect, it’s hard to say whether this was a great or terrible idea. Certainly, NBC thought it was getting good broadcasting material for almost nothing: Founding the XFL was considerably cheaper than forking out billions for NFL licensing. Vince McMahon wanted a respectability that wrestling could never provide. Hundreds of players wanted another chance to strut their stuff in front of an audience. And maybe, just maybe, the American public could find a spot in their schedule for another sport league.
It didn’t turn out that way.
The first game of the XFL drew respectable numbers. Rating for subsequent games, though, melted down until the last few games, which pulled in the lowest numbers ever recorded for prime-time shows in network broadcast history —scarcely a few hundred thousand viewers across North America. Pundits, journalists and comedians skewered the new league mercilessly. The experiment was not repeated; no second season of the XFL was ever seriously considered once the ratings crashed through the floor.
Long Bomb recounts all of the above is sarcastic glee. Brett Forrest presumably hung around the league as everything happened, and if the book doesn’t feature his own adventures (indeed, there are scenes where a gaping obscurity occupies the place where a first-person narrator should be), the narration clearly indicates someone who paid attention. Far too much of the book reads like a sardonic description of the TV newscasts, but from time to time we go behind the scenes and get a glimpse in the life of the real players in the XFL.
The writing style has its moments, but all too often loses itself in flight of fancies that are not entirely appropriate to the subject being discussed. Still, Long Bomb is a compulsively readable account of a recently fascinating subject. It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no DVD companion featuring telecasts of what he discusses, but given the difficulties Forrest had in dealing with XFL, WWE and NBC executives, well, maybe we should just be happy that the book exists at all.
But maybe above everything, Long Bomb is an account of a gigantic failure, one of the most spectacular miscalculation in recent memory. The XFL existed at the crossroads of sports and entertainment, and an account of its history must consider implications in both fields. In some ways, it’s a refreshing reminder that despite all the expert advice and pre-manufactured elements you can throw at a money-making venture, it can still fail as soon as no one is watching. And even gibbering football fans familiar with wrestling can choose not to watch.
Somehow, that’s a reassuring thought.