The third iteration of the XFL moves into the second half of its season this weekend with two showcase games on ABC. The league is hoping it can give its lackluster ratings a boost, especially with the looming threat of the USFL’s second season on the horizon.
While all three versions of the XFL have differed, one thing they’ve all shared in common is a focus on access. For Vince McMahon’s initial version, that sometimes meant something salacious. The 2020 XFL used that access to generate in-game storylines and drama between players and coaches. The latest version of the spring football league has toned down the drama but still promotes the kind of access you’d never get from college football or the NFL as one of the core components of its broadcast (sometimes even a little too much access).
Large portions of XFL games are given over to head coaches, offensive coordinators, and defensive coordinators directing traffic on the field. Quarterbacks are mic’d up in the middle of the action. The real-time ability to watch an official review take place has also been a hit with audiences.
However, the tentpole of the XFL’s access engine is its sideline reporters. Given their ability to navigate sidelines freely, it’s not uncommon to watch an XFL wide receiver make a big play, and then, a minute or two later, explain how it all came together. And that access can create memorable moments and surprising admissions in an environment that audiences are used to being shut out of.
“They’ve done a great job. The league has been telling the coaches and telling the players that this is what we want,” said ESPN sideline reporter Tiffany Blackmon. “The XFL is all about access.”
Blackmon has been covering XFL action this season alongside announcer Matt Barrie, analyst Joey Galloway, and sideline analyst Eric Mac Lain. She told Awful Announcing that roaming the XFL sidelines has been a unique experience compared to her work in college football and the NFL.
“It’s crazy. It’s kinda like ‘throw out all the rules.’ In particular, throw out all the rules when it comes to being on the sidelines,” said Blackmon. “Like, in college football, there’s no way in heck I’m allowed to go into the bench area and walk up to a coach and ask him ‘Why did you decide to not go for it on fourth and what?’ You can’t do that. With the XFL, that’s what they want you to do.
“I gotta remember when college football season rolls around to not walk into the box and ask [Oregon coach] Dan Lanning, ‘Hey, why did you do this?'”
While Blackmon, the daughter of former NFL assistant coach Donald Blackmon, says she and other sideline reporters have the ability to roam the sidelines and speak with whoever they want, they still try to be courteous. Oftentimes, she’ll give the team’s PR person a heads-up to minimize the sense of overreach.
“I’m a coach’s kid, so I try to be respectful of the game,” said Blackmon. “I’d say there’s a little bit more of a heads-up [given] to coaches.”
Since so many of the coaches working in the XFL previously worked in the NFL, Blackmon is able to leverage her personal relationships with them to gain access as well.
“Some of these coaches I’ve either known NFL-wise or…they coached with my dad,” said Blackmon. “I had Ray Sherman last week. Gregg Williams and my dad were together in Buffalo. Sometimes those are relationships that you already have and sometimes there’s a relationship that’s just yours, and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stick this microphone in your face,’ so they know it’s coming. And I try to make sure I go to every pregame and do a little chit-chat, that ‘Hey, I’m gonna come up to you [during the game].'”
There’s only so much pre-planning that XFL sideline reporters can do, however. Sometimes, you’re at the mercy of the moment. When a big touchdown is scored or a defensive player comes up with a huge turnover, the opportunity to speak with them comes together in a hurry.
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“I think the important thing is, in those moments, because we never get to hear from these guys in a situation like that, is that instant reaction,” said Blackmon. “You may have all these notes stuck in your head but I want to keep it as simple as possible because I want to just be the facilitator of that and I want to get out of the way.
“I’m thinking on my feet, of course. I’m trying to hustle out to… get through the celebration because I want him to enjoy that moment with his teammates. And then it’s like, okay, how can I formulate this question so that I’m asking a good question? And I’m also getting out of the way cause this dude also needs to catch his breath.
“It’s more about how can you get the instant reaction that tells you something you would never get. Maybe he’ll take you through the play or maybe he’ll take me through the excitement of actually just getting in the endzone.”
Invariably, certain players also bring narratives and storylines with them, and the interviews after big plays provide an opportunity to dig into that context and allow audiences the chance to get to know them a bit better.
One of those players is Seattle Sea Dragons wideout Josh Gordon, who is hoping for some redemption in the XFL and, perhaps, one more shot in the NFL. Blackmon knew there was a decent chance that the receiver might score a touchdown (or two) that night, so she was ready to capitalize on the opportunity.
“I already kind of knew Josh wants to tell his own story,” said Blackmon. “He’s always been known as a playmaker. Hopefully, he’ll get a touchdown. I’m gonna ask him about the play but I also know I want to get his quick feeling on being in the XFL. So that was one of those games where I knew there was kind of a storyline already, which was really cool.”
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“There was another one. [Reggie Northrup] who plays for the Defenders. He’s like an MMA fighter and he also plays defense. So I’m able to time it out right where I have this story. I want to come to him after he makes a tackle. And he had a bunch of tackles in that game. So then I can work in something about the play as well as ask him about his technique and MMA when he’s in the cage, and how that translates into being a better football player.
“And he gave me a great answer.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the season so far for Blackmon wasn’t about getting access to players or coaches, but to the infamous beer snake that was working its way through the DC Defenders’ home crowd a couple of weeks back. The sideline reporter got the chance to “feed the snake,” though not without a little goading from her colleagues.
“Matt Barrie and Joey Galloway were just egging me on to go do it and I’m thinking ‘I need to keep my job, I don’t know about this.’ I definitely didn’t do that without getting approval first, I’m not an idiot.”
“That was actually really cool because I did it without really thinking it totally through. I mean, I know I got permission, but to go up there in a sea of fans is probably crazy. But the DC fans could not have been more polite. Someone held my notebook for me. When I actually left without it, they made sure they got it back thanks to the wonderful security guy that was with me.”
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Blackmon sees the XFL’s interest in access as something beneficial not just to the audience, but to the players themselves.
“These guys have a chance to kind of tell their own stories, especially if there’s a really good one that we can highlight during the game,” said Blackmon. “It’s cool to catch them in the moment while they’re doing their craft and then you catch them being a little vulnerable and open with you. It’s really special.
“The access, I feel even cheesy saying that word, but you don’t get this anywhere else. It’s even still cool for me and I hope it’s cool for people who do tune in. I hope it continues to be cool for them.”
Ultimately, all of the access that the XFL affords to players, coaches, and fans also means that Blackmon gets to relish the kind of opportunities that just don’t happen in college football and the NFL.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my career,” said Blackmon, who joined ESPN in 2021. “I’ve been in a lot of different markets. And obviously, I was with NFL Network for a number of years. But I just always wanted to be on the sidelines and I was never allowed to go to work with my dad. To be my age and have done a lot of things, I’ve just had a blast. I feel like I’m sounding really cheesy right now. Being at ESPN has been so much fun for me. So when they came to me about the XFL, I was thrilled for this opportunity, and by far the last two years have been the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire career.”