[Podcast] America’s Game, by Kent Russell | Harper's Magazine

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The art, violence, mystery, and failure of the XFL

Last year, 43 of the 50 most-watched television broadcasts in America were football games—despite the fact that the NFL season lasts a mere six months. For decades, entrepreneurs have been trying and failing to fill that off-season void with professional football leagues that start play after the Super Bowl. The most recent—and perhaps most successful—attempt was made by Vince McMahon, the CEO of WWE and founder of the XFL. McMahon’s league, which aspired to the theatricality of professional wrestling, debuted and then folded in 2001. In 2018, McMahon revived the XFL in a less-goofy iteration that focused on fast, enjoyable games and actively encouraged fans (and announcers) to wager on them. Alas, the new league’s first season began this February. Across the country, football fans gathered ironically or earnestly to consume the sport—but their numbers dwindled each week. Undone by COVID-19 and low ratings, the league folded, but the XFL has promise of returning once again: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a former WWE wrestler, purchased it for a mere $15 million.

In this episode of the podcast, web editor Violet Lucca is joined by the essayist Kent Russell to discuss his article “America’s Game,” from the October issue of Harper’s Magazine. The two discuss ironic nostalgia, McMahon’s business acumen and entertainment aesthetics, the spiritual mysteries of American football, and the Holy Grail that is six more months of professional play each year.

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