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|| News Item: Posted 2001-06-29

One Season Wonder: The Rise and Fall of The XFL

By J. Gregory Raymond

Photo by
STAMFORD, CONN. -- It isn't often that sports shooters receive assignments having no rules governing what they can and cannot do, and are given carte blanche access to not only the sport, but to the players and coaches. Such was the case with XFL photographers who covered the first and ultimately last season with the now-defunct league.

When I heard that a new football league was going to be launched by the WWF, I too, had my questions. First and foremost, was the XFL going to be "real" football, or a choreographed game played by wrestlers? What was going to set the XFL apart from Arena football, the defunct WFL and USFL, the CFL, or the NFL for that matter? How would the proposed "in-stadium football experience," i.e. the fireworks, large screen TV, player mikes, all-camera angle coverage, surround sound stereo, and cheerleaders play out and, how much of this would this add to or detract from the sport?

After speaking with many people within the XFL, any uncertainty was replaced with hope. The people who worked at the league were full of exuberance. They were excited, and their excitement spread easily. The XFL was going to be a serious endeavor, but it also was going to be a fun one. And both the buzz and ebullition of building something new, starting something different, greatly appealed to me.

* * *
Surround yourself with good people, manage them correctly, and you're bound to get excellent results. That,s what I thought anyway. So I picked up the phone and brought on seasoned shooters that worked with me when I was photo editor at Pinnacle and Sports Illustrated for Kids: Jeff Carlick in San Francisco, Tom DiPace in Florida, Jon Kirn in Chicago, and Kirk Schlea in Kentucky, to name a few. I picked up a few other good shooters along the way, Don Smith and Peter Brouillet from California, Paul Jasienski in Las Vegas and Craig Ambrosio in Florida.

Photo by J. Gregory Raymond/XFL Photos

Photo by J. Gregory Raymond/XFL Photos
Soon the idea of staffing two to three shooters per game in all eight cities (Birmingham, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York/New Jersey, Orlando and San Francisco) was getting closer.

Because the XFL was designed to bring the viewer closer to the action than ever before, I thought it best to give the XFL photographers added freedom and responsibility as well. I wanted them to have a larger playing field where they could roam freely and not only get the best action possible, but be able to capture the mood, aura and flavor of the XFL was all about. This would be the first time that I knew of where a league photographer could move freely at a sporting event.

They wouldn't have a "hit list" nor a taped / designated courtside seat, a hole in a glass to shoot through, or have to shoot from the 30-yard hash mark on down. They wouldn't have to deal with bubble boys, hassle with ball boys that insist on being directly in front of your lenses, or obnoxious TV cameraman who think that their job is much more important than yours.

Instead the photographers would have "all access" from the intimacy of the pre-game locker room, the bonding and discussions on the sidelines, to the rancor the fans in the upper deck of stadiums.

* * *
Photo by Kirk Schlea/XFL Photos

Photo by Kirk Schlea/XFL Photos
Sam Boyd Stadium, a 40, 000-seat stadium 15 minutes east of Las Vegas, is the site for the XFL,s inaugural game on February 3rd. It has only been four weeks since players donned full pads and had full contact in training camp. While both the NY/NJ Hitmen and Las Vegas Outlaws have trimmed their rosters of unknown Alias Smith & Jones from 70 to 38, in a few hours the dice will be rolled, and this new brand of football will be showcased.

Outside the sold-out stadium, the parking lots have been turned into one giant BBQ where the smell of burgers, dogs, and chili permeates the cool desert air. A yellow New York cab sits defenseless in one end of the lot, where fans can take a sludge hammer their pent up aggressions and "christen" the opponent.

Inside the player's locker room, the mood is much quieter. The smell of ammonia hangs over the room as sweaty players with jerseys named Gladiator, Big Time, Hurricane, and He Hate Me are either hiding behind the clothes in their lockers, lost in Bible prayer, or rocking catatonically on their bench, looking ahead to the their first collision, their first real hit.

Whatever vestiges of peace and solitude were found in the locker room are quickly lost, displaced by the rocket,s red glare and explosions into the night desert air. The fireworks display brings fans to their feet, and the kickoff is only moments away. Ashes and embers from the pyrotechnics rain on the Hitmen players nestled underneath the scoreboard.

Several players, including NFL journeyman Keith Elias, fan their uniforms to make sure that they did not catch afire. Standing near the firework display, we quickly learn, was like manning the " Guns o f Navarone" it was frightfully loud, it could be dangerous, and it's best to keep our distance.

Photo by Paul Jasienski/XFL Photos

Photo by Paul Jasienski/XFL Photos
The inaugural game would prove to be a successful start for the league with a near 10 percent share for NBC. While the offensive play for both teams was marginal (Las Vegas won 19-0), the lively and spirited crowd seems to embrace the moment.

* * *

It's week No. 7 now and it is another rainy night for the Hitmen fans at Giants Stadium. At 2-4, the Hitmen have changed QBs, but former starter Chuck Puleri, relegated to 3rd string, gets no relief from the 25,000 plus fans criticisms. "Puleri can't even play water boy," says one of the more toned down anti-Puleri signs.

Like former NY Yankee pitcher Ed Whitson, who was 0-9 or something at Yankee Stadium and wasn't allowed to throw there, Puleri is the voodoo doll for fans wrath.

He can't play at home or even watch the game without rampant criticism being reined on him. The XFL has taken its share of lumps as well.

Ratings are down. Couch-bound critics who don,t even attend games focus solely on the lack of TV viewer ship. XFL partner NBC, while making some changes with the production, is clearly on the ropes in this venture. As early as week No. 4 NBC says that it is "evaluating the situation" and will wait until later in the season to determine if it will be a partner and broadcast the next season.

In the meantime, the XFL has made a few rule changes hoping to open the game up. The league outlawed the bump-and-run by defense. Still, there are a lot of 3 and out offensive series as QBs and receivers are clearly not in synch.

Yet if you were to talk to any of the fans that attend the games, from either sold-out Pac Bell or to the crimson colored fans at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, you will find that the XFL indeed is a hit with them. To begin with, the price of the game is fair- $25 per 50-yard seat at most venues. And the players, while not marquee names, are, as Sly Stone would say, "Everyday People." They are playing they,re best, are approachable, and don,t have the standoffish, holier than thou attitude that is inherent with many pro players.

Many players venture in the stands after the game, shaking hands, signing autographs and allowing their photos to be taken with the fans. A non-spoken brotherhood among players, coaches and cheerleaders is quickly established and this allows photographers to get their jobs done easily, and to be accepted as a friend, one of the gang.

* * *

The "Million Dollar Game," the XFL Championship that pitted Los Angeles against San Francisco was played on April 21st at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Strangely enough, this was the site of the NFL's first Super Bowl, played some 33 years ago when a Lombardi- led Packers conquered the Chiefs.

This will be the third time this XFL season where LA and SF would meet, with San Francisco taking the opener in overtime, while Los Angeles drubbing them the second time around.

Expectations of a closely fought game abound. The XFL makes a final marketing and promotion push during the last few weeks, hoping to generate as much fan fare and publicity as possible.

Some 70 cheerleaders from all eight cities are flown in for the event and, for days prior to the game they've been on an all-out marketing blitz. Four league photographers have been covering events as well; each secretly hoping that the once dubbed "Big Game at the End" will be just that.

The game itself was lob sided--all Los Angeles. Led by a strong defense, Tommy Maddox's passing and Saladin McCullough running, LA cruised to an easy 38-6 win. While some 25,000 fans attended the event, ratings again were down, and few national media covered the event. If major (and not-so-major) city newspapers mentioned the game, television ratings were once again the main focus of the article, as well as how many unsold seats the 92,000- plus seated had. No one mentioned that the first Super Bowl had only 35,000 people in attendance.

* * *

On May 10th, the XFL announced that it was shutting down. Faced with monumental start- up loses and without two partners in TV coverage for the upcoming year, the "future of football" lasted but one season. More than1000 players, coaches and other league personnel lost their jobs.

Photo by Peter Brouillet/XFL Photos

Photo by Peter Brouillet/XFL Photos
Someone likened the XFL's Titanic voyage to a high jump competition; the bar was set too high, expectations were not met, and the jumper did not clear the bar on any of his attempts.

In retrospect, perhaps the XFL was rushed into; perhaps there should have been other plans, other lifeboats to keep the league afloat. Rome was not built in a day you know, and neither were the Yankees. Things do take time. All told, over 100,000 images were shot during the league's existence? Roughly 1/10th scanned and saved for a book or someone else's digital time capsule.

* * *

The good /bad part of all this is that there were many excellent photographs taken during the course of the year. Because of the "all access rule" photographers, hands and minds weren't tied. They were allowed many different vantage points and allowed to chronicle sites that typically are forbidden. XFL shooters managed to capture many emotional laden and decisive moments during their coverage. And it showed in their film.

Several XFL photographers have asked what will become of the film and their coverage now that the league is defunct.

The question always calls to mind the last scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where the ark was put away in some huge, unnamed warehouse. "It will be put in a safe, comfortable place."

That's all I know anyway.

(J. Gregory Raymond was the director of photography for the XFL. A former staff photographer with Gannett Newspapers, he also has worked as a photographer, photo editor and consultant to many publications and businesses. His e-mail address is:

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