A punt had just been launched into the chill and clear December air at Pacific Bell Park, and Preacher, the vice president and general manager of the new San Francisco Demons, took a moment to enjoy it. As a one-time All-American punter for the University of Oregon, he's a connoisseur of these things.
Preacher was standing near what is the right field foul line during Giants games, holding court at the Demons' second minicamp, where a few dozen reporters, cameramen, and photographers swam around the makeshift hash marks in the outfield. They came despite the fact that the local media had been spilling a lot of ink about how their pristine, gorgeous baseball palace was being sullied by football -- and worse, for the sake of a football league created by World Wrestling Federation Chairman Vince McMahon, the reigning king of lowbrow professional wrestling.
Preacher had left a broadcasting industry job in Sacramento to sign up with the new league, and his first act was moving the original San Jose Demons north to the larger and more seductive Pac Bell Park. Now, he spoke to the assembled journalists like a proud father, occasionally pausing to watch the unknown players on the field.
It was a day of positive spin and softball questions, so when I threw one out myself -- What attracted him to join a start-up football league like the XFL? -- Preacher knocked it out of the park. Part of his answer was that the XFL is backed by the World Wrestling Federation -- and NBC Sports -- which gave him a lot of money and resources to promote the team. "The tools I have from a marketing standpoint are astounding," he said excitedly. "Do you guys realize I have a blimp? I have a blimp. Imagine somebody saying, "What would you like to do to have some fun and get people to notice your brand?' I have an XFL blimp in the shape of a Spalding football that glows at night."
Alas, Preacher had an XFL blimp. On the busy news day of Jan. 10, with the local weather, PG&E, and President-elect George W. Bush's Cabinet slate all in chaos, the daily papers still made room on their front pages for the story of the XFL blimp. Buffeted by high winds, it crashed onto an Oakland restaurant, though the only serious injury, luckily, might have been to Mike Preacher's pride.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to suggest, as many have, that the crash is a metaphor for the XFL's fortunes. After all, every single attempt to create an outdoor pro football league to compete with the NFL has failed miserably. And while Vince McMahon is a proven genius at getting millions of people to watch his scripted pro wrestling blood sports, pro football is a different matter -- people watch the NFL to see talented athletes battle on a field where a million things are left to chance on any given play. Sure, you can show 18- to 35-year-old males blood and boob jobs on TV like the WWF does, and it's just like owning your own mint. But football fans take football seriously, and there's a sneaking suspicion that McMahon's XFL won't, especially with all the talk about giving the cheerleaders a bigger role in the game.
Yet the marketing line for the league remains the same: Pro football is sick with overpaid crybaby superstars who've lost sight of the reason they played the game in the first place and who then have the nerve -- the nerve! -- to ask the average football fan to spend the equivalent of a week's salary to bring the family to the game because Mister Hotshot First-Round Draft Pick Running Back wanted an extra $5 million on his contract even though he fumbled, what, five times in an 8-8 season, while they're getting nosebleeds at the back of the stadium because all the good seats are taken by the fat cats at that local company that just laid off 500 people who definitely can't afford to go to a game now, which is kind of ironic when you think about it because after all the stadium is named after the company, and besides it doesn't even seem like the teams are playing all that hard these days, not like the way it used to be in the '60s when Dick Butkus' helmet was caked with congealing chunks of sod freezing in the 20-below wind chill of Soldier Field in December in overtime vs. the Green Bay Packers.
Professional football needs an overhaul, the logic goes, and the XFL will fix it. Besides, what's so wrong about blood and boob jobs anyhow? Tapping into the inner male psyche and all that.
The press has responded by falling on the floor and laughing so hard its stomach hurts -- sportswriters have had great fun imagining what the WWF would do with a pigskin. Land mines on the playing field! Sidearms permitted! With 30 seconds left on the clock, the team's called a time out -- to make out with the cheerleaders! Ladies and gentlemen, the only defensive line in football history made up entirely of parolees! But the jokes got tired, so then came the moralizing: GQ recently suggested that the XFL is great because now we have someplace to send the violent criminals in the NFL, and the New York Times has gone so far as to suggest that the XFL will ruin the notion of competitive sport for an entire generation.
Without question, the XFL will be fielding legitimate, unscripted football. But it's easy to see why the players and coaches themselves have been mostly ignored. Nobody knows who the members of the San Francisco Demons are, and in truth nobody much cares. Many, if not most, of them are demonstrably below NFL caliber; they've fallen victim to injury, age, or simple lack of talent. They're humbled, but ambitious; by and large, the members of the Demons just want to play football, and hopefully get to the NFL -- or back to it, in many cases. To do that, they've signed up to work for a certain type of totalitarian regime. The XFL owns everything: the eight fiefdoms that are the league's teams, their players, their coaches, their cheerleaders, and the referees. Salaries are set in stone, there are no team owners, and NBC has free rein to follow everything. It's Vince McMahon's game. Nobody gets a vote.