You remember the XFL, right? Vince McMahon, with all his hubris and forehead surface area, decided in 2000 that what America was missing was professional football in February; professional football that integrated the ethos of the WWE—increased violence, drama and swagger. There was He Hate Me (along with other, less zeitgeist-y nicknames on the backs of jerseys), that thing where players ran the length of the field to grab the ball in place of a coin toss, and a complete disregard for the lasting effects of concussions.
It was compelling television—at least that first game was. But good ol' Vince learned quickly that no one gives a fuck about minor league football, no matter how closely it resembles Any Given Sunday. If the product isn’t A1, no one’s wasting their Saturday night on it. The XFL folded after one season, and yet another push for a new American pastime was suppressed by the Big 4.
Besides being a sanctuary for mediocre talent, the XFL was also merely trying too hard—Vince’s dreams of a national takeover were as transparent as the league’s black-and-red footballs were lame. What the sport really needed was an organic groundswell, a foundation of fan support from which to build. Whatever was going to become America’s de facto fifth sport was going to need time to blossom—a flash in the pan was never going to cut it.
Which brings us to The Challenge. MTV’s competition/everything reality show spent years building on itself and crafting a product that makes viewers want to come back, even after the first violent flash-bang. Plucking popular cast members from their winning franchises The Real World and Road Rules, The Challenge started merely as a way to extend cast members’ 15 minutes of fame and capitalize on the popularity of Survivor.
Even MTV didn’t anticipate what would happen when they plopped a large sum of money in front of people who had basically already signed over their lives to the network. Before the days of The Challenge, stars of The Real World only had a couple career path choices—they could try reeeeally hard to run away from their (likely embarrassing) time in the public eye, or they could embrace it by showing up at nightclubs or making speaking appearances on college campuses for a small fee. But with The Challenge, they could stay on TV and compete year-in and year-out to win a ton of money.
So people like CT, the psychotic-but-lovable Masshole from The Real World: Paris, and Coral, the no-bullshit boss from Real World: Back to New York, kept popping up on The Challenge, traveling from one end of the world to the other trying to get paid. As any sports fan knows, the three things needed to harbor rivalry are time, proximity, and confrontation. The Challenge was basically a rivalry-churning machine in and of itself.
Now every season of The Challenge is better than the last. The stakes get higher and higher not because the purse gets bigger, but because the contestants get thirstier and the trenches between them get deeper and deeper. And these Real World and Road Rules alums take this shit seriously. (Though, now there are well-established cast members who came directly from The Challenge—that's how old the show is.)
In early seasons, contestants spent their downtime between challenges spooning and shotgunning beers. They still party really hard, but now you mostly see them doing laps around the compound in between bench press reps. They’re training. Because this is how they make a living. This is a job for them, the same way football is a job for Tom Brady. Speaking of, here’s what the aforementioned CT said before he won his first Challenge in 2013: "I really want to win this. I feel like I’m one of the best competitors to ever be on The Challenge, and at the same time, I feel like the Dan Marino of The Challenge. One of the best quarterbacks ever, a Hall of Famer—doesn’t have a ring. I don’t want to be Dan Marino. I want to be Tom Brady." The crazy thing is, the longtime viewers of The Challenge who heard CT say that didn't think he was delusional—they nodded in agreement.
I still have an issue with the way The Challenge films its competitive sequences—cameras abruptly cut back and forth to, I think, create a feeling of intensity when really the action would be better served by the wide, bird’s-eye view lent to every sports broadcast—but in comparison, the show’s status as a real sport is still in its infancy. Bugs are still being worked out. The important part is that The Challenge is still making its contestants do things like the Oklahoma Drill, an exercise that was more or less outlawed in football because of how dangerous it is. And in the end, most of the other things that make The Challenge different from other sports—namely, how it goes behind the scenes to show all the fist fights and makeouts that happen in the proverbial locker room—is why it’s so worthwhile.
The new season, which starts tonight and forces exes to team up (here’s how I feel about that), should continue the show’s upswing in national prominence, with an added force of emotion for its followers. In November, The Challenge lost two of its longtime cast members, both of whom actually competed in this most recent season. Diem Brown lost her decade-long battle with cancer; two weeks later, Ryan Knight was found dead after a night out with friends. It’ll be tough watching them this season, seeing them do what they love while knowing their tragic fates. But the outpouring of support both Diem and Knight will get during each episode will only underscore how serious The Challenge is, and the fervor with which its viewers follow the show.
Vince McMahon whiffed on trying to start a sporting phenomenon. MTV stumbled into one.
Andrew Gruttadaro is the Pop Culture news editor. He met CT one time, and was afraid to look him in the eye. He also tweets here.