Sports Rewind

VEGAS OUTLAWS’ X-CELLENT ADVENTURE: On the cusp of the league’s return (minus Vegas) this month, remembering our XFL debut

Super Bowl XXXV ended around about 10 minutes to 7 in Las Vegas on the night of Jan. 28, 2001, as the Ray Lewis-led Baltimore Ravens slowly smothered the New York Giants over the course of three-plus hours at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.

A hapless Kerry Collins only mustered 112 yards through the air for the Giants when he wasn’t being relentlessly picked off (four times!). The team’s lone score came on a third-quarter, 97-yard kick return by Ron Dixon that briefly pulled Big Blue within 10, and was rendered hilariously impotent 18 seconds later when the Ravens ran back their ensuing kickoff. Baltimore’s win remains one of the finest defensive football performances in modern Super Bowl history, assuming you hate exciting football and/or the Giants.

What would happen about 142 hours later on a Saturday evening at Sam Boyd Stadium — starring our very own, brand-spankin’ new Las Vegas Outlaws, debuting in, frankly, an outlaw league — couldn’t be described as “finest” anything. Or in any but the most technical sense, “football.” It was modern, though. Got to give them that.

When Vince McMahon strode out to the field on Feb. 3, 2001, and growled in his cheese-dripping ur-Bane pro-wrestling voice “This is … the XFL,” it sounded exactly like the threat it was.

The XFL dragged protean football lump Mike Ditka out to pretend like what we were about to see was a great leap forward in grid-ovation: two safeties scrambling for the ball at midfield instead of a wussy coin toss. Announcing duo Matt Vasgersian and Jesse “The Body” Ventura – and spare a moment of pity for the talented pro Vasgersian here – fawned over this battle of wills and athleticism. The scramble would relentlessly injure players over the course of the XFL season.

Before kickoff, the broadcast cut to the Outlaws cheerleaders, dancing to a George Thorogood cover of Hank Williams Jr.’s “I Really Like Girls.” Somehow, that told you everything you needed about the brain trust behind the XFL: Hank got you ready for some football, right? You liked that, didn’t you? We’ll just do that, but not quite as good, and with a sweaty, desperate dose of T&A.

Las Vegas Outlaws Quarterback Ryan Clement (16) throws in the The XFL’s opening football game between the New York/New Jersey Hitmen and the Las Vegas Outlaws at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on February 3, 2001. (Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau)

The Outlaws jumped out to a 19-0 lead over the we-see-what-you-did-there-named New York/New Jersey Hitmen, paced by 46 yards on the ground by Rod “He Hate Me” Smart, the pre-viral sensation who became human shorthand for the league and would end up playing five seasons in the NFL. The rest of the game was so utterly devoid of drama that the league cut its inaugural broadcast short in the fourth quarter to throw to the Orlando-Chicago tilt happening at the same time.

It was the high point for the Outlaws, and the league.

That opening night drew 54 million viewers, but they would quickly flee in droves. Week Two saw half the audience tune in when the promised spectacle of ultraviolence and dripping sex (the XFL teased for weeks that they’d take you inside the cheerleaders’ locker room) proved to be a fat, wet dud. The Outlaws stumbled to a 4-6 record and dead last in the Western Division, missing out on the playoffs and a chance to compete in the championship Million Dollar Game.

Dick Ebersol brought in NBC as a 50-50 partner in the league with McMahon and his then-WWF. The network wavered as the season went on. The Outlaws saw attendance slide from an announced 30,000 in that first game to 17,000 by the end. One year was enough. The XFL pulled the plug.

“I don’t believe in my entire career in sports or show business, I was ever more wrong” Ebersol said in ESPN’s 30 for 30: This Was the XFL.

Naturally, the XFL returns Feb. 8 for a second go-round. This time, Las Vegas wasn’t fortunate enough to land an XFL team to go along with the NFL Raiders. Die-hard Outlaws stalwarts will have to travel to Los Angeles to get their XFL fix. But we’ll always have He Hate Me. 

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by Jason Scavone/Contributor to Las Vegas Newswire

by Jason Scavone/Contributor to Las Vegas Newswire