Matt Duda: XFL games are no night at the opera



XFL games are no night at the opera
by Matt Duda

A close friend of mine insists that the best place to view an opera is from balcony seats.

It’s there, she claims, that the rest of the audience can’t distract your attention from the drama on the stage. Plus, you get the best view, provided you bring these little folding binoculars so you can see everything clearly.

Thinking back to my first trip to an XFL game, I realize that sportswriters must love going to the opera.

I drove into the Giants Stadium parking lot about two hours before the Orlando Rage kicked off against the NY/NJ Hitmen way back in Week 3 and found that fans weren’t waiting for the pre-game scramble to have a great time. Meat sizzled on grills and stereos blared. Had the footballs spiraling through the air not been tinted black and red, you would have thought that the Giants or Jets were in town.

My next stop was making my way to the stadium’s will call window where I picked up media credentials that allowed free access to virtually every inch of the facility. I walked through the gate, past the crowds boarding escalators and checking out merchandise to find myself at the secluded and guarded elevator to take me to the press box.

Thirty seconds and 10 stories higher, I emerged from the elevator into the plush press booth and found my reserved seat. While the temperatures outside sunk to near zero when the biting wind whirled, the press box felt as comfy as a ski lodge. There was even a bar area serving food and drinks. Sportswriters from most of the top outlets in the business – some of them even wearing collared shirts with ties – scurried around gathering stats and crunching numbers.

Once the game started, many of the reporters turned their gaze to the TVs scattered around the booth that showed the game. Looking down at the field from 10 stories above the playing surface was like trying to watch a game from an airplane. The only sounds heard was the monotone voice of the PA announcer detailing the previous play and the steady clicking of computer keys.

This was no way to watch a football game. Bored to death, I grabbed my notebook and took the elevator back down to ground level. After circling the stadium concourse, I found a suitable spot in the first-level end zone seats. It was there that played the real Rage/Hitmen game and not the sterile war between ants viewed from the press box.

The fans that braved the freezing air stood cheering throughout the game and reacted to every play. Heightening the action on the field was the booming crunching and grunting noises reverberating from the speaker stacks at the field’s corners. The place literally exploded as Wally Richardson, in his debut, hit Marcus Hinton for a 20-yard TD and fireworks burst from the TitanTron at the opposite end zone.

While so much attention has been made of the league and its appeal to twentysomething-year-old guys, a look around the stadium showed that the XFL brand of football intrigues all. Fathers brought their wives and sons to the Meadowlands to watch a good game without sacrificing that month’s car payment. But most surprising was the number of young women in the stands. Football may be billed as a man’s game, but the five young chicks sitting several rows ahead of me loved the passing and hitting as much as the middle-aged guys to my right.

In fact, the only complaint brought to my attention was that the game fell on a Sunday, which meant that Giants Stadium wasn’t serving beer.

At halftime, I asked a guy buying a Hitmen jersey for his young son what he thought of the game. “Charlie Puleri’s f***ing awful but the defense has hung in there,” he said. “We’re having a great time.”

Would they come back? “Oh yeah, definitely,” he said with a nod. “Ya know the price is right and there’s other stuff going on if the game gets boring.” I sensed his son agreed by the haphazard way he hurriedly pulled on his new shirt.

This is where the action is at in the XFL, the stands. Among the basic lessons my mentor instilled in me while learning the ropes as a reporter was that journalists need to dive into the subject of their writing and experience it in order to fully understand what is being written about. But the media covering the game that day must have been taught from a different syllabus than me. Despite having access to virtually anyplace within the stadium, the writers sat in one place from the pregame scramble to the final gun. Only after a winner was decided that a few went into the postgame conferencing area to talk to a few coaches and players.

Some say that there’s a media conspiracy hell-bent on digging the XFL’s grave. But I don’t think that the majority of these sports pundits really want to see the league fold. They’re simply consumed with the Xs and Os when they need to take into account the other 24 letters of the alphabet as well. The league isn’t only about post patterns and power sweeps. A big portion of the XFL’s philosophy is getting at the crux of what drives the players, coaches, games and the fans.

There’s still a heap of intriguing stories in the XFL just begging for an enterprising reporter to come along and blow the dust off of them. Before Joe Reporter goes to report on the events of the upcoming playoff games, he should check out a tape of a UPN broadcast. During the action, play-by-play man Chris Marlowe and analyst Brian Bosworth do something that other commentators should learn to do every now and again: they shut up. For several minutes, the viewer hears coaches barking instructions, quarterbacks calling signals, trash talk, hits, blocks, screams, whistles, cheering, arguments and everything else that makes football a fantastic spectator sport.

By being reintroduced to the actual sights and sounds of football, maybe the press would see that the XFL is more than what it’s being made of. Maybe then they’ll loosen their ties, go into the stands and actually see for themselves what football is like up close. Leave the opera glasses at home.

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