Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “This was the XFL” airing now was the relationship between NBC sports executive Dick Ebersol and World Wrestling Entertainment czar Vince McMahon.
Like his mentor, former ABC executive Roone Arledge, Ebersol was arguably the most powerful man in television in his prime.
He had been the co-creator, along with Lorne Michaels, of Saturday Night Live.
He made the Olympics into the most powerful and influential television production in the industry. Eight of the 10 most-watched television events in American history were Ebersol Olympic productions.
He brought NBC back into the NFL fold in 2005 with Sunday Night Football, and turned it into television’s No. 1 prime time program. Sunday Night Football has replaced Monday Night Football, now on cable on ESPN, as must-watch prime-time football viewing.
When he was inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell described what a great “partner” Ebersol was. “We know that the success of our game is directly related to how our broadcast partners present our game, and Dick has done an unbelievable job of presenting our game to our fans,” Goodell said. “In a world that is drastically changing as far as technology is concerned, he has been able to keep fans interested in whatever he’s broadcasting. He had the vision to create the No. 1 show on television right now, Sunday Night Football, and, for that, we will be forever grateful.”
Yet when Ebersol spoke of McMahon — the bombastic boss of pro wrestling, a man who at times seemed more cartoon character than sports executive — he said McMahon, not Goodell or the NFL, not Olympic officials, was the greatest partner he ever worked with. And this was on a documentary about the greatest failure of both men — the XFL, their unsuccessful attempt to bring WWE sensibilities to the football field.
Ebersol was in awe of McMahon — and rightfully so. He’s not only the most influential person of his time in the entertainment business — his impact has changed American culture, period.
This is something that is not readily apparent to the pencil-neck geeks who pontificate on our culture and society. There must be some greater influence on our society other than someone who caters to wrestling crowds, right? But everywhere you look, you can see the McMahon influence — all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
His presentation contributions to live sporting events have been adopted by the NBA, the NFL and other sports entertainment. The Super Bowl halftime shows? The NBA pre-game introductions? The fireworks, the music, the boisterous public address announcements -— all of it came from McMahon’s theatrics in WrestleMania and other wrestling productions.
Charlie Ebersol, Dick’s son and producer on the documentary, spoke of the McMahon influence even from the failed XFL in an interview with Paste. “You can’t watch a professional sporting event without seeing the XFL even today,” Charlie Ebersol said. “The advent of the sky-cam and the steady-cams on the field and miking the players, I mean more generally the idea of access — that the television audience has to be granted something different than the live audience for it to really matter. That was all invented by and for the XFL.
“The league itself reinvented the way professional leagues spoke to their audiences, and really if you look at what’s going on right now with the NFL, and professional baseball, and hockey, who are struggling to communicate in many ways with their audiences, the need for a reminder of what it is to make a league that is by and for fans, is enormously important.”
But McMahon’s influence, particularly his wrestling stories during the “Attitude Era,” when the lines were blurred between good and evil, went beyond the sports arena. They created the recipe for conflict that you see on news network talk show panels. Fox, CNN, MSNBC broadcasts sometimes seem like a wrestling promotion, with panelists from both sides shouting at each other.
The entire reality television industry? Born out of the foundation of wrestling — scripted dramatic conflict posing as reality, even after McMahon, in a stroke of genius, declared that wrestling was entertainment — a reality show.
“We coined the term ‘sports entertainment,’” McMahon told the New York Times in 2008. “People love it because it’s an escape from the drudgery and stress of their regular lives. They get charged by the action and the humor, and caught up in the drama, like a soap opera or reality show.”
President Donald Trump used his platform on reality television — the strong-armed authority figure who fired people on “The Apprentice” — for 14 years to build the base that came out to support him in November.
Connect the dots, and they lead back to Vince McMahon — all the way to the White House.
It is no accident that Trump has had a long time relationship with McMahon, dating back to the early days of WrestleMania in the 1980s. Trump has participated as his reality character in numerous wrestling shows, including the “Battle of the Billionaires” between him and McMahon. In 2013, Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Linda McMahon, who has been a wealthy donor to PACs that supported Trump’s campaign, was Trump’s pick to lead the Small Business Administration.
“You could argue that he was very performative in many of the same ways a pro wrestling personality was,” said Sam Ford, a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s comparative media studies program.
Mr. Ford noted similarities in Trump’s political rise and the McMahons’ construction of a worldwide wrestling empire.
“They’re both involved in sort of modern-day myth-making of themselves,” he said. “You think of how Trump refers to himself and his empire, and the fact that WrestleMania was referring to itself as the meeting place of the gods, the immortals you can see that type of impresario, P.T. Barnum-like, carnival barker mentality in how both of these worlds were created.”
People have underestimated the power and influence of Vince McMahon for decades. They see the guy who runs wrestling shows, and they dismiss him — never realizing that he has created a culture that now defines America in 2017. Dick Ebersol saw the power of Vince McMahon.
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.