Long Bomb by Brett Forrest

August 30, 2019

This isn’t strictly a wrestling book, but it does detail the biggest financial bloodbath any wrestling promoter has ever suffered.

It’s the story of the XFL (perhaps tellingly, the X stood for nothing at all), the joint venture by the WWF and NBC to run a springtime football league. As with so many other challengers to the NFL, it bit the dust, but did so quite spectacularly. Folding after just one season it lost a reported $70 million after taxes, split between the two sides. Indeed, it was such a disaster that Vince McMahon’s company managed to lose money during the financial year when its wrestling business was strongest, averaging a ridiculous 531,000 buys for every pay-per-view show.

Long Bomb is an unauthorized account of the XFL’s brief history: though receiving no assistance from WWF or NBC, author Bret Forrest interviewed numerous sources, most notably the players of the Las Vegas Outlaws team. He has an engaging and lively style, but still covers all the bases in telling the story.

In particular, the book makes clear that the league was by no means dead on arrival. It’s debut broadcast did a 9.5 rating, double what the league had targeted when selling advertising. The problem was that the audience dwindled at a rate only matched by the UK’s short-lived Celebrity Wrestling. Week two plummeted to a 4.6 rating and within a month the audiences had dwindled to levels that could only be described as disastrous, with one game tying the lowest ever rating recorded in prime time on a national network.

The problem was the it was never quite clear what the XFL was meant to be. The razzamatazz presentation and gimmickry wasn’t enough to keep wrestling fans interested in second-rate football, but it was enough to deter the more purist sports lover. In particular the much-targeted 18-34 male demographic had little interest, with advertisers running for the hills.

Long Bomb isn’t just worth reading because it deals with Vince McMahon; it’s worth reading because it deals with the realities of presenting sport and entertainment in the TV business, something that to this day remains the biggest factor in shaping the wrestling business.

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