WILT: XFL flops, ESPN tries HORSE, Bill Maher outshines Saturday Night Live

Tampa Bay Vipers v Los Angeles Wildcats

“Hey, haven’t I seen you walking your dog here before?” I said for the first time ever this weekend.

Have you noticed people talking to you more? In this culture of narcissism, Airpods-at-the-grocery-store and strategic LinkedIn connections, I find myself in search of real connections for the first time in years. Now, I’m a grump. Other people are better at the social interaction stuff. But, I don’t think I’m alone in saying, I like strangers again. The cynicism is washing away. I want to know who you are, what you’re about, and whether we’d be a good match as companions. That is one unintended consequence of social distancing that I, and I think others, are experiencing as we enter the second week of Governor Ducey’s official stay-at-home order.

Another? I’ve gone from sports critic to media critic. From the XFL, to ESPN, to Hollywood, this pandemic is exposing truths that become increasingly evident as we get off the malfunctioning treadmill of the American sports calendar.

Let’s get into what I learned this weekend.

The XFL’s failure exposes the great football myth - The XFL is toast.

You feel for employees of the XFL, as you feel for any employee laid off as the economy halts due to COVID-19. That said, the league was most likely doomed anyway. The XFL’s TV ratings started strong, as most ancillary sports league’s ratings do, but by Week 5 its slate of games drew an average of around just 1.5 million viewers, a 19% drop week to week. The plan for the XFL was to show significant promise in ratings, and then negotiate an impressive broadcast rights deal. A potential ratings boost during playoffs may have bolstered the XFL’s negotiating power, but the real problem, a lack of a committed fanbase, would’ve reared its ugly head eventually.

There is a myth - that we just love football no matter what, and if you put it on TV audiences will watch. That myth is the result of huge college, NFL and even sometimes high school TV viewership. It’s why there’s been so many attempts at an alternative pro football league, despite constant failures and high overhead costs. What that myth leaves out is why we love football.

We always mischaracterize why things become popular. Howard Stern didn’t pop because he had Carmen Electra riding a Sybian on his show, because of the Peter Jennings prank call, or because he dumped on producer Gary. Those things were icing on the cake – a result of his work ethic, genius and charm. At the core of Stern’s popularity, though, was his honesty. He’d rip celebrities that the entertainment industry pretended to love. He’d take a whole show to explain why a bit one of his staffers tried wasn’t funny. He’d talk about his own insecurities. It created a level of trust with the audience. For 20-odd years we’ve seen Stern ripoffs mimic the wrong parts of his show. Wacky shock jocks talked about sex, put on vulgar rants and attempted prank phone calls, but most never connected with their audience the way Stern did, because most weren’t willing to be as vulnerable.

We’ve operated under the assumption that we love football because of the game itself: The violence, chaos and design. If that were true, Northern Arizona University would have no problem filling up the Skydome on Saturdays, and the XFL and AAF would still be operating.

My theory is that we love football because of the upward mobility it sells. Everybody has a chance to make it big time, whether short, fat, skinny, tall, whether a 1st-round pick or 6th-round pick, whether poor or rich. Football’s always been Americana, and a huge reason why is that it sells the American Dream. There is no American Dream in basketball. The average height of NBA players is 6’ 7”. It’s elitist. You can’t sell the American Dream in baseball, because we don’t pay attention to college baseball or the MLB draft. Football owns the idea of hope, and it creates the strongest connective tissue between fans, players, and ultimately teams. We know the intimate details of 6th-round Brady, 4th-round Prescott, 3rd-round Wilson and too-small Murray.

The problem for leagues like the AAF and the XFL is that they have no upward mobility to sell. Their players are NFL castoffs, meaning they’ve already hit their football ceiling. It’s the same reason NAU has a hard time selling football to the people of Flagstaff: Nobody from that program has made a mark on the NFL since punter Paul Ernster played three years in the NFL from 2005-2008. It’s the same reason high school football is a religion in the South, but hardly acknowledged in the Northeast. Eight of the top 10 talent-producing football states reside in the South.

In general, we love the stories sports create more than the sports themselves. It’s why some of the most popular players ever - Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, Vince Young, Christian Laettner - were some of the most mediocre professional players. Football stories will always be attached to upward mobility, and they’re non-existent in castoff professional leagues.

HORSE tournament should remind ESPN it’s not above retaining interesting talent - This was a tough, tough watch. Really just stunk. I hate saying that because I applaud these networks for trying to serve sports audiences. But, boy did this production put in perspective our arrogance about technological innovation. The idea that in 20 years we’ll have self driving cars chauffeuring us around, or artificial intelligence will be solving our pollution problems, took a major hit today.

Folks, it’s 2020 and ESPN sold real commercials for a Zoom conference call.

What the COVID-19 era should teach all sports media companies, but especially ESPN, is the true value of compelling on-air talent. The general formula has been: Go to ESPN -> Build huge audience -> Out-price yourself OR Take a pay cut to elevate profile OR be too interesting to be worth the risk.

This is a network that used to employ Colin Cowherd, Ryen Rusillo, Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock and Jim Rome. All of those former ESPN personalities are currently holding their own remarkably without sports, because they’re interesting people with real, honest, unique perspectives. Outside of Stephen A. Smith, there is not one truly compelling voice at the company. ESPN employs plenty of amazing on-air talent, but there’s a difference between reading from a teleprompter, writing game stories, and creating uncommon, thought-provoking and attention-grabbing content. A lack of conversation-starting personalities is how you wind up with Zoom conference HORSE games, NBA 2K competitions and Simone Biles doing a handstand as your main attractions.

This doesn’t just apply to sports.

The veil of Hollywood is being stripped away, and true talent is standing out - Two things happened this weekend:Saturday Night Live was exposed for what it’s become over the last decade - celebrity worshipping, politically pandering, and mostly unfunny - while Bill Maher continued to speak uneasy truths, even at the risk of pissing off his base.

I take a particular pleasure in that juxtaposition. The majority of media establishments have chosen catering over cogent with the rise of Twitter, and it’s created some of the most boring content we’ve ever experienced. This, during the supposed “Information Age.” What a shame. But COVID-19 is exposing what pleasing the loud minority creates.

Try to get through this without anxiously checking your Instagram feed:

Now, try not to be glued to Bill Maher’s critique of our overly-cautious naming of COVID-19:

As the SNL‘s of the world try to create the illusion of funny without their live audiences and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, Bill Maher is coming through our screens and grabbing us by our throats with nothing but a single camera shot and authenticity.

Talking like a real person with real opinions always resonates more than talking like you’re surrounded by a mob of New York and LA hipsters threatening to tweet their outrage.

Where Arizona stands with COVID-19 compared to other states:

Anthony Cause was 48 when he died of COVID-19 - He was a photographer for the NY Post and helped accentuate sports coverage where professional sports matter to the public most, and where this pandemic is hitting the hardest, New York City.

If you want to hear from a guy who grabbed his passion by the horns and never let it go, watch this:

On a lighter, or darker note, Happy Easter

Where to eat - My Kitchen


Set oven to broil, shape your dough, place on a pizza stone which you SHOULD have.

-Dough from Pomo

-Crushed tomatoes


-Fresh oregano

-Olive oil


Bagel (eaten the next day):


-Sun-dried tomato cream cheese (cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, salt, pepper, honey, oregano)

-leftover prosciutto

That’s all, folks

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