Of all the defunct sports leagues across North America, few captured the interest of sports fans like the XFL, the one-year-only football league started, and then ended, by WWE boss Vince McMahon back in 2001.
Now, nearly two decades later, the renegade league – remembered more for its over-the-top production and on-field gimmicks than the football itself – is back, after McMahon announced in late January that the league would return in 2020.
And a pair of local residents – both alums of the XFL’s Las Vegas Outlaws – are intrigued and excited to see McMahon take another stab at the gridiron.
“It was a blast,” said South Surrey resident Scott Ackles, the longtime sports executive with the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions and Calgary Stampeders who was also the Outlaws’ director of events and operations.
“And I know Vince didn’t want to let it go (the first time)… but the (WWE) shareholders back then said, ‘No, we have to stop the bleeding – shut it down, get rid of it.’ I know Vince was genuinely upset that it wasn’t successful.”
Paul McCallum, the retired Lions kicker and Cloverdale resident, was a member of the Outlaws, too, and in fact, holds the honour of scoring the first-ever points in the XFL – on a field goal in the team’s first game.
“I like that it’s coming back. I thought it was unfortunate that it didn’t stick around the first time,” he said.
Ackles’ one year in the XFL – he left his post with the BC Lions on Nov. 5, 2000 and one day later was in Sin City helping get the team and the league off the ground in time for its Feb. 3, 2001 launch date – was a family affair, too. His father, the late Bob Ackles – a lifetime football executive who worked for decades with the BC Lions and also in the National Football League – served as the Outlaws’ general manager, and was tasked with building an organization from the ground up, even if in the early stages, he didn’t even have an office.
And though starting a league so quickly was a challenge – and, Ackles says, ultimately its downfall – the XFL was, in many ways, ahead of its time from an entertainment and broadcasting point of view.
Ackles – who comes from a broadcast, event and entertainment background – is quick to point out that parts of the XFL experience – the sky-cams that ran over top of the field, the helmet-cameras on players and audio from the players and coaches themselves – were eventually adapted, in some form, by the NFL.
“From that standpoint – entertainment – that’s why I was so keen on becoming involved,” he said. “I would say that the first iteration of the XFL was a combination of a car crash, a television broadcast, football and rock ‘n’ roll.”
The league also drew plenty of attention – and still has, in the 17 years since it was shuttered – for a variety of on-field rules that differentiated it, for better or worse, from the NFL. Instead of a coin toss to determine which team would get the ball first, the XFL featured a race of sorts, in which one player from each team would run to a loose ball, and whoever came up with possession of it would win.
The XFL also eliminated the extra-point after touchdowns, required all kick returners to run the ball out of the end zone and ditched the “fair catch” rule that saves punt returners from getting hit hard as they receive a kick. And most famously, the league gave players the option to wear nicknames on the backs of their uniforms, rather than their last names.
And Ackles’ squad featured the most famous nicknamed athlete of all – Rod Smart, whose “HE HATE ME” nameplate on his jersey gained notoriety and fame at the time, and is still remembered nearly 20 years later.
And though both he and his father were football lifers, Ackles said he’s never had a problem with the league being remembered more for its gimmicks than the on-field results.
“There was some WWF stuff, some crossover, but it doesn’t bother me at all. In some ways, that’s what really engaged the fans, that’s what they still remember, and it’s instant equity for the XFL,” he explained.
And as for He Hate Me?
“I can’t remember another nickname, but that one I remember. Everybody does.”
McMahon, however, appears to have learned from past mistakes. At a press conference to announce the return of the league, he said XFL 2.0 will focus more on football and less on gimmicks and entertainment, though he was non-committal about when the jersey nicknames would return.
“Vince is a character for television, but he’s brilliant, and he’s had 19 years to think about this,” Ackles said.
“It’ll be really interesting to see how it comes together.”
Ackles said the lack of prep time for the first iteration of the league led to a sub-par football product – players had only about three weeks between the start of training camp and the first game – which is something that concerned his father at the time.
“It was challenging for him, being a football person his entire life and having worked in all three leagues, he knew that was the one piece – the biggest piece – that needed to get better,” the younger Ackles said.
“But he was kind of shaking his head at the same time and saying, ‘Jeez, do we have enough time to do this?'”
McCallum – who played pro football for 23 seasons – said the on-field product got better as the season progressed. But what he remembers best is the atmosphere of playing in Vegas – the team sold out each of its five home games – as well as the relationships he formed with his teammates.
“It was a good group of guys – we all got along great,” he recalled. “I remember once going out with the offensive linemen – a bunch of big Southern dudes, and here I am a small, white kicker from Canada – and we ended up going to a big barbecue at one of their houses, and it was a blast.
“I enjoyed the experience, and a lot of the guys – who were former NFLers – said that playing in the XFL made football fun again for them.
“It was just an experience.”