There was all sorts of "hi-intrusion tech" on display during the prime-time Saturday unveiling of this weird league. The XFL is the brainchild of the World Wrestling Federation's Vince McMahon, in conjunction with NBC. This was supposed to be a return of macho values and purity to the game of professional football, increasingly slowed down, corrupted and homogenized by TV, luxury boxes and the NFL money machine.
No fair catches in the XFL, trumpeted all the promos, and no sissified, overpaid, limo-driving superstars either. XFL players get a few thousand bucks per game, with a small bonus for winning. As a result, we were told, they were all playing for the love of the game.
But in the two games I watched parts of -- New York vs. Las Vegas and Orlando vs. Chicago -- what was interesting was the use of tech devices to take viewers places they supposedly had never been and would love to go. Las Vegas' telecast required 27 cameras and 26 wireless mikes.
There were robotic cameras rolling over the field on special wires, and helmet-wearing munchkins carrying portable cameras all over the field. The players and their helmets were miked and equipped with portable cameras. Cameras went into the locker rooms before, during and after the game. They were on the sidelines in between every play. They caught grunts, complaints and curses. Especially the grunts. It's almost unbelievable how many different ways people can grunt. And one memorable inside-the-locker-room shot of the New York/New Jersey team caught a huge linebacker getting the top of his butt rubbed down.
According to USA Today, the XFL premier posted a surprising 10.3 overnight rating in 49 large TV markets. (Each overnight rating point equals 675,000 TV households. A national rating point equals 1.02 million homes). The first half hour of the Las Vegas - New York/New Jersey game drew a 17.7 rating, the highest for a Saturday night on the network since the Olympics in October. NBC said it expected to do especially well with the XFL's target audience -- males between the ages of 12 and 24. After Las Vegas, the highest-rated XFL market was Birmingham, Alabama, with a 12.5, followed by Memphis, with an ll.4.
Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura provided surreal in-the-booth commentary before roaring off on his motorcyle, raking the NFL and pointing out loudly and repeatedly that the XFL was "free" and boasting that it was "intrusive." WWF broadcaster Jim Ross described the Chicago-Orlando game as a "slobberknocker." On the XFL, he crowed, viewers could hear anything, go anywhere, and players could curse, bellow and be vulgar without fear of penalty or fines. This was, he suggested, a return to the glory days of American sports culture -- just what we need -- and new technology was going to pull it off, he pledged.
It's hard to get behind the idea that you could invade the collective privacy of football teams and coaches in prime-time television. But this was a case of technology supplanting the event itself, and overwhelming its participants. All-seeing tech devices are, after all, only as good as the things they capture and represent. There were giant digital TV screens and shots of wiggling cheerleaders with enormous breasts. Fans captured from every conceivable angle (their comments were actually more interesting than the players). XFL workers fired T-shirts into the crowd out of bazooka-like launchers, and elaborate fireworks exploded whenever somebody -- anybody -- scored.
Truth is, we saw too much. The athletes and coaches had mikes stuffed in their faces continuously, but hardly any of them had much to say except "wassup," and "yo," and "we're gonna go get 'em." Several embraced the bizarre and growing NFL practice of thanking God for touchdowns (does he really get into that?) If the player's comments were numbing, the coaches's speeches were even less inspiring -- "they're not beating us, we're beating ourselves." The range of camera angles was exciting but dizzying and confusing.
Simple, wider and more distant shots would actually have captured the action much better, perhaps even preserving the illusion that there was good football being played. It seemed that from the perspective of their helmets, the players have the worst view of anybody. As it was, we got incessant, insider shots of nothing in particular, usually other helmets. And we learned Saturday that the intimate utterances of most football players in most circumstances -- huddle, catch, tackle, injury, score -- are usually not worth hearing.
Just because we can use new technology to go places doesn't mean we want to.