XFL v NFL, Packer v Cricket, Me v Mr Gowlett - taking on the establishment

XFL v NFL, Packer v Cricket, Me v Mr Gowlett - taking on the establishment

My year-11 geography teacher sticks in the mind for two reasons.

Firstly, he embarrassed me in front of the entire class for the crime of illicit note-writing when, in truth, I was only half-guilty. And, secondly, he said something quite profound on the subject of rivers – "99% of the stuff worth studying happens when it floods – most of it afterwards, not during."

It was a minor piece of analysis but somehow it lingered with me. He meant that challenge and crisis might cause dramatic short-term change immediately but the permanent disruption of spectacular stress often only unravels over a longer period.

This point is supported by a couple of excellent sporting documentaries I have enjoyed recently. They covered very different sports in very different places at very different times but the eventual effects were marked – especially on content creators.

Forty years ago this month, TV mogul Kerry Packer unveiled his new venture, World Series Cricket, a breakaway version of the game involving the best players from all corners of the planet.

The irascible Australian had been frustrated at the perceived ‘cosy' relationship between his nation's cricket board and broadcasters that had supposedly prevented him from snatching exclusive rights to home Test matches for his own Channel 9 network. This was his declaration of war on the cricket establishment.

The time was right. Although one-day cricket had just enjoyed its first one-day World Cup, the game was not innovating quickly enough and, crucially, players were poorly paid. At that time, the salaries of the Australian squad only amounted to 2% of overall turnover of its governing body. For today's Premier League clubs that figure is around 65-70%. Dennis Lillee, the world's greatest fast bowler at the time, had to work in a bank and travel agents between games to make ends meet.

Packer's belligerent determination sounded a klaxon in the ear of a sport that had been starting to doze off in its deckchair.

Content-wise, WSC was a different game, one that actually thought about the tale it told the television audience.

For a start, cameras were installed at each end of the batting strip so deliveries could be viewed properly. In cricket, a new bowler bowls from a different end after every six legal deliveries, so until then, quite incredibly, viewers had spent half the time watching the batsman's backside.

Close-ups concentrated on the combatant's faces to highlight the emotion of the contest and pitchside reporters skirted the boundary grabbing in-game interviews.

Fielding became a recognised skill in the game and the introduction of fielding restrictions encouraged offensive batting throughout. There was also a developed sense of danger from the dominance of pace bowling, especially West Indies legends Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Michael Holding, so batsmen donned helmets for the first time.

Drop-in pitches were introduced, thereby allowing the game to be played in new venues, and some were played under floodlights.

On the marketing side, WSC teams threw away their ‘whites' and wore coloured uniforms. Hence the pejorative labels "pyjama cricket" and the "Packer Circus". Characters were created of the players and the famous jingle "C'mon, Aussie, C'mon" was turned into a single that topped the Australian charts.

A generation later in America, a different-but-similar story would unfold when, in 1999, NBC lost their long-held rights to NFL's AFC conference.

Going in the cheerleaders' locker room

A year later, Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports and a founder of Saturday Night Live, joined up with WWE supremo Vince McMahon to announce that the XFL would launch in 2001 as a challenge to the "No Fun League".

At the time they had nothing in place but a logo and ball design. But over the course of the next year they built a league with a very different style.

Their marketing promised crunching hits on the field (thanks to a "no fair catch" rule), raunchy cheerleaders off the field (who were encouraged to date players) and a new type of access behind-the-scenes.

They introduced Skycam-style onfield pictures to their broadcast after executives showed producers the type of angles that the Madden video game employed. McMahon pushed for the introduction of a Steadicam operator on the field during play for the first time. It was called Bubba Cam after a legendary wrestling cameraman.

Players were allowed to brand themselves by having nicknames, not real names, on their shirts. Rod Smart's "He Hate Me" moniker became famous but the likes of the proposed "Teabagger" caused issues with commentators.

Other innovations were pure WWE:  the backstage mock ‘narratives' were filmed, coaches were (generally reluctantly) encouraged to ham up the hype (sometimes via the tannoy at pitchside) and, yes, cameras did venture into the cheerleaders' locker room. Though quite what Rodney Dangerfield was doing emerging from their steaming showers is anyone's guess.

Despite staggeringly high ratings early on, when XFL folded a year later the league was seen as sub-standard, crass and unloved. However some of its key content innovations have been subsumed into NFL's coverage.

You could even argue that it might have been ahead of its time given we have been inundated with "prompted reality" shows since Jersey Shore started in 2009. And, of course, WWE's style of sports storytelling has gone from strength to strength in the digital age.

However while history would describe WSC as "disruptive" in modern parlance, rightly or wrongly, XFL has been viewed as more of an irrelevant irritant.

Players had often been plucked from menial jobs because they could not get a contract elsewhere. In contrast, Packer signed up the best in the world, including most of the best West Indians plus, shock-horror, the England captain. However, Tony Grieg's South African roots were soon emphasised by a jaundiced media after he "defected". Like most of the players to sign up, he was ostracised by the cricket establishment and, moves were made to ban them from the game.

In September 1977, Packer went to court over the issue and won. His assertion was that English cricket's governing body, the TCCB, were restraining trade by banning players who had signed up to WSC.

But then Packer's entity was much more of a threat. It was going head-on with the ACB by staging SuperTests at the same time as traditional versions. The XFL never played anything but second fiddle. It was scheduled to start just after the Superbowl ended so as to capitalise upon, not compete with, NFL.

However, both breakaway leagues were looked down upon. A common thread between McMahon and Packer is the aggression toward interviewers committed to telling an established narrative in a comfortable way. Trawl YouTube for some finger-jabbing interviews.

Legendary Australian captain Ian Chappell classes his WSC games as the toughest cricket he experienced. Yet the games have never been afforded first-class status in the record books.

WSC lasted until 1979 when Packer reached an agreement with the Australian Cricket Board in which he gained the exclusive TV rights he craved plus a ten-year marketing agreement. In the end, he did not want to change cricket; he was just another bombastic businessman trying to get his way.

However, the episode redefined limited-overs cricket which, through the T20, IPL and Big Bash, has later redefined the sport itself.

Therefore it was much more impactful overall than XFL was on NFL.

Still, both were born out of the perceived loss of TV rights and both pushed the coverage of their incumbent broadcasters to such an extent that their innovations were taken on board. Many are now standard practice.

So, as ever, the ‘flood' cause a drama at the time but real and permanent change after the silt had settled.

Of course, WSC was four decades ago and even XFL was well before the age of digital and social media.

In a time of YouTube, you do not need to be a mogul in the mould of Packer or McMahon to introduce a new idea.

Hashtag FC is now taking sponsorship dollars from established football clubs, fan channels are exceeding the viewership of the ones produced by the teams they follow and Twitch is creating highly-monetisable heroes in new sports thanks to their talented thumbs.

They will be derided and belittled by the mainstream, as WSC and XFL were in their ball-breaking days.

Then they will be copied and their lessons consumed.

However when the water table returns to its normal level they, like my very own Mr Gowlett back in the day, will have left an impression.

Links to the documentaries

This is the XFL

Kerry Packer: the revolution that changed cricket




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