#TBT: What’s the Difference Between Roller Derby and the XFL?

Happy #TBT! Here’s an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: What’s the Difference Between Roller Derby and the XFL?

I’m here to tell you that as a viable form of live entertainment, roller derby is for real.

By “viable,” I don’t necessarily mean, to paraphrase Lloyd from Say Anything, that it’s the “sport of the future” — only that it’s something that may have the ability to sustain itself with a fan base and even grow.

But let’s catch you up a little bit. Many of you do not know what the XFL was, but it stood for Xtreme Football League. It was started by Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE, which is big-time wrestling a la Hulk Hogan, but at Xtreme levels of success and notoriety, particularly in the ’90s.

This is perhaps the funniest, most succinct version of a description of the XFL that I have read (via Mental Floss):

“The NFL may have good football, but does it have attitude? Pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon thought not, so in 2001 he launched the XFL, an alternative, rougher football league. Almost everything about the eight-team league was designed to be edgy, unlike that stodgy old NFL. Who needs a coin toss to determine possession when you can throw a ball on the ground and have players scrap for it? Why not let the public-address announcers trash talk the opposing team and its fans? Why not just let defensive backs push receivers at any point until the ball is thrown? And can’t we finally let football cheerleaders play up their sex appeal after centuries of confining them to shapeless burlap robes? The XFL sought to answer all these questions.

Unfortunately for McMahon, the answers weren’t quite what he anticipated. Having a pre-game scrum to determine possession is a fantastic way to injure players, trash-talking PA announcers are incredibly obnoxious, and receivers generally can’t catch passes if they’ve been pushed to the ground. On top of that, there are certainly many reasonable complaints one could make about NFL cheerleaders, but “not skanky enough” doesn’t appear anywhere on that list. The second-rate talent, combined with the rule allowing defensive backs to eviscerate receivers, kept scoring low and games excruciatingly boring. Even after the “you’re allowed to bump receivers” rule was changed four games into the season, things didn’t get much better. Grammarians everywhere turned up their noses at the league’s rampant, inappropriate overuse of the letter ‘x,’ particularly in the names of the Memphis Maniax and the Los Angeles Xtreme.”

I can also tell you from personal experience (having seen one of the few XFL games) that everything about the league was wrong, and that despite gobs of money being spent and all the media support you could ask for, the league was a grease fire from day one.

Why the comparison to roller derby? Both of these trade on their spectacle value to some degree, and both are legitimate sporting contests. Unlike pro wrestling, the XFL was not predetermined or scripted; it was just a football game that was supposed to be more Xtreme somehow (despite the fact that regular professional football is pretty much combat in plastic armor).

There’s also the sex appeal factor. Part of the point of the XFL was to throw some “red meat” to the slobbering male fan base for football by removing the polite and positive vibe from the cheerleading and turn it into sideline table dancing. Meanwhile, roller derby unquestionably trades on the appeal of its female competitors. The Bay Area Bombers site summed it up [in 2009] as “pretty chicks on roller skates beating the crap out of each other.”

So what makes the difference between the two things — one of which had so many advantages but was a notorious failure, and one of which has become a modest success — despite having few, if any, resources?

First, the XFL was arrogant, and roller derby is humble. By that I mean that roller derby wants to earn your interest. It’s willing to work and prove to you that it’s worth your time.

By contrast, the XFL made some assumptions that, when you think about them, are quite insulting. Its goal was basically to dumb football down and turn it into a pointless brawl. The example of replacing the civilized ritual of handshakes and a coin toss to determine who gets the ball first with a dog fight over a ball dropped on the ground is a great example. Can you see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning doing that? No, it’s demeaning. They may be tough guys, but they’re not animals. It’s the kind of idea that a 10-year-old boy would have, but probably still not do. In essence, the XFL designed football for people with low IQs who really don’t care about football. And threw in a few pseudo-strippers on the sideline to make up for it. No sale.

Second, the XFL needed everything to work right away in order to succeed. The fact that the league only had one year in it shows that it was riding a bottle rocket from the start. If you’ve only got one shot at success, and it has to be big, you’re in trouble. If the business had been designed to give itself two or even three seasons to find its legs, it might have made it, but it didn’t. McMahon needed everything to go just right, right away, or he was cooked. You might like to do business this way, but count me out. A little too Xtreme for my taste.

By contrast, roller derby is diversified and scattered. There are dozens of leagues, costs are low, volunteers even help to do set-up and tear down. Little by little, they’re making progress. Roller derby is even back on TV in some markets, including the Bay Area. Because of the way it’s “designed,” roller derby has time to figure out the formula and grow.

Will it become big and successful? Maybe. The odds are certainly against it, but does it have a chance to have a strong, even profitable niche? Yes, a very good one, in my opinion.

Finally, roller derby has thrived where the XFL blew up because of good old-fashioned positioning. The XFL’s “position” was basically, “football, but more awesome.” The problem is that football fans, by definition, already think football is awesome. The NFL owns that position, strongly, and a few wrestling-style gimmicks don’t change that.

Roller derby, by contrast, gets to occupy an empty “position” in people’s minds. Let’s say that roller derby really does represent “pretty chicks on roller skates beating the crap out of each other.” That’s a currently unoccupied position that roller derby can own. If they can manage to reach people to whom that concept has appeal, then they can succeed. That’s exactly what positioning is.

All these lessons can apply to your own venue or show, even if nobody “beats the crap out of each other” in your venue on a regular basis.

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