When the XFL kicks off its first season Saturday night on NBC, the wildly hyped, trash-talking sports start-up backed by Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation will try to do what no other challenger to the NFL has been able to do: survive on its own.
McMahon remade so-called pro wrestling into a billion-dollar money-minting operation, turning the crotch-grabbing, babe-gawking WWF wrestling into every teenage boy's fantasy (and every junior high school teacher's nightmare). Backers are banking on McMahon and the renegade XFL's ability to tap into that same maverick vibe and create a franchise for the ages.
McMahon and the involvement of NBC -- on board as a deep-pocketed partner, guaranteeing an instant, prime-time media exposure no other start-up league has ever enjoyed -- have given the XFL an enviable credibility. That's something some previous failed football leagues -- the World Football League and the USFL -- have lacked.
Since the league's announcement last March, McMahon has been earning his P.T. Barnum stripes, crowing about how the XFL will, alternately, change football, change sports or change television. So far his shtick seems to be working.
The new league's debut is a three-hour broadcast Saturday, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time; a team called the New York/New Jersey Hitmen is playing the Las Vegas Outlaws; to hedge its bets, NBC is also broadcasting footage from another game, the Chicago Enforcers against the Orlando Rage.
While some cranky sportswriters belittle the new league, the XFL has received mostly fawning coverage from the star-struck consumer press. Having never seen the product, the media has been taking McMahon and NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol at their word and willingly going along for the ride.
Newsweek gave McMahon's brainchild a wet kiss in the form of a two-page spread, complete with the XFL-endorsed headline, "Not Your Father's NFL." The magazine gushed, "The early buzz is strong, thanks to a popular Web site and a witty 'Gladiator'-style ad campaign." The writer went on, "Viewers raised on MTV will feel right at home tuning in to the XFL. The NBC telecasts will feature more cameras than Michael Douglas' wedding, with key combatants miked to amplify every grunt and taunt."
McMahon and Ebersol couldn't have scripted it better themselves. Problem is, as both a professional sports entity and prime-time television product, the XFL is built off flawed blueprints and is doomed to fail.
McMahon insists that while soap-opera story lines off the field may be tarted up, the action between the goalposts will be legit, and there's no reason to disbelieve him. Convincing skeptics they're playing real ball, though, is the least of the XFL's worries.
More pressing is the fact that the league has been built around the hollow premise that fans resent the NFL's allegedly stodgy brand of ho-hum games, played by pampered stars.
Record NFL attendance and profits suggest otherwise. The XFL brain trust insists that by eliminating the fair catch on punts, and introducing supposedly new elements like sexy cheerleaders (has the XFL never seen the Dallas Cowboys' sideline squad?), and letting their players unleash their "attitude" (has the XFL never seen an Oakland Raiders game?), it will find a profitable niche.
But that doesn't mask the real challenge:
The XFL is the wrong league broadcasting on the wrong night of the week.
Make no mistake, the XFL is a pure TV play. The league's own plans envision just 20,000 to 30,000 fans buying bargain-basement tickets for each game. (Would you sit in Chicago's frigid Soldier Field for a night game in February?) The XFL will live or die on its TV ratings.
The problem is the night NBC has set aside for the new franchise. In order to succeed, the XFL has to change the social habits of millions of young sports fans by getting them to stay home on Saturday night.
Talk about a Hail Mary pass. "Traditionally, Saturday night has been a graveyard," explains John Lombardo, who covers football for Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. "It's the black hole for prime time."
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The numbers do not lie. After initially assuring Madison Avenue that XFL's prime-time Saturday-evening games could garner a 5.5 rating, the league backed off, scaling the guarantee back to 4.5 for Saturday night.
A ratings point is equal to a bit more than 1 million viewers. Desperate for advertisers, the XFL is charging just $60,000 for a 30-second spot; the U.S. Army is the biggest taker to date.
But because the XFL will be so narrowly targeted, with very few women or viewers over the age of 45 expected to tune in, it's doubtful it will be able to sustain that modest 4.5 mark week in and week out. (Thanks to a relentless promo campaign, the league could win big ratings the first week from curiosity seekers. A ratings drop will likely follow.)
For instance, the XFL will be replacing NBC's "Saturday Night Movie." Despite attempts to lure viewers by doling out $100,000 cash prizes on air each week, the series averaged just a 4.9 rating. Nearly half its small viewership was women, and more than 50 percent fell outside the 18-to-49 demographic.
The XFL and NBC are actually chasing an even more specific, and elusive, demo: males between the ages of 12 and 24. By comparison, NBC's "Saturday Night Movie" attracted fewer than a half-million of those boys-to-men viewers each week. For the XFL to be a hit, NBC has to increase that number nearly tenfold, and fast.
And it's not as if NBC can just lure those young males from other networks with the promise of gyrating cheerleaders and ferocious backfield hits.
Those viewers simply are not home watching television on Saturday night. Fact: The number of males aged 12 to 24 watching Saturday night TV at 9 p.m. on NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC combined equals just 2 million. That's in a nation of nearly 26 million males between those ages, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
In other words, there's a reason McMahon's WWF doesn't air its pay-per-view bouts, which form the hub of the company's money machine, on Saturday night: His fans aren't home watching TV. (PPV's are a Sunday-night ritual for WWF fans.)
Yet if anyone can pull it off it's the WWF honcho, right? He's been toasted as the smash-and-trash Pied Piper of the 12-24 male demo. "Vince McMahon is the most powerful marketer to young males in the world," NBC's Ebersol has boasted. And this clichéd statistic is spit out in nearly every XFL press clip: WWF's Monday night "Raw is War" routinely outdrew ABC's "Monday Night Football" in the 12-to-24 demo by 47 percent last season.
But note the night of the week: Monday, not Saturday. Ebersol, who's been in the programming business for three decades, seems blithely unaware of the XFL's Saturday-night dilemma. Either that or he's in deep spin mode. Last March he boasted XFL would crack Saturday night, or what he called Blockbuster night: "People go out and rent videos. We want to reinvent that night."
Ebersol seems to have a firm grasp on the viewing habits of suburban, middle-aged America. The problem is that that's not the league's audience. How many 16-, 18- or 20-year-old males do you know who spend their Saturday nights at home snuggled up on the couch in front of the VCR? (If the XFL simply attracts a ton of teen viewers, some advertisers, like Budweiser, will balk.)
And anyone assuming that prime-time professional sports will keep young males home Saturday night is kidding themselves. Just ask the NBA. Last year it experimented with Saturday-night broadcasts on NBC. They were a ratings debacle.
One April telecast between two hoop titans, the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, drew just a 2.7 rating, and a minuscule 1.2 among 18-to-49 year olds. The night went down as one of NBC's poorest prime-time performances ever.
Yet the XFL, an untested league featuring unknown players broadcasting from half-empty stadiums, is going to best the glossy NBA's Saturday ratings by more than 50 percent?
While NBC is clearly aligned with the XFL from an entertainment-programming point of view (i.e., to fill its Saturday prime-time slot for 12 weeks), it's NBC Sports, coming off the lowest-rated NBA prime-time finals in history as well as a just-OK performance from the Sydney Olympics, that's responsible for the final product and whose credibility is on the line.
Recently asked about the start-up league, NBC's classy sports anchor, Bob Costas, simply demurred: "I'm not involved in NBC's XFL coverage and I'll leave it for the most part to those who are to comment," he told reporters.
McMahon insists XFL announcers will be "brutally honest," but with NBC in bed as a business partner, don't expect much critical commentary if the league starts to implode.
Meanwhile, NBC's Jeff Zucker, named the network's head of entertainment after the XFL deal was announced, sounds guarded. When asked how the XFL's brash bad-boy image fits on NBC, which has been touting itself to advertisers as the home of "quality shows" like "ER" and "The West Wing," Zucker told TV critics the network operated under "a big-tent philosophy and there is room for everybody." In an interview with a TV industry trade magazine, he suggested "the XFL is a good example of rolling the dice."
That's a far cry from Ebersol's boast to the press: "When 'Saturday Night Live' started, it was the one show in television that changed everything. And I look at this league in much the same way."
McMahon agrees: "I would suggest the way we're going to cover this is going to revolutionize not only the way football is covered but sports itself," McMahon told one reporter during a modest moment.
The XFL, though, could pay a steep price for creating such wildly inflated expectations.
"They have an opportunity for massive sampling with that first game," notes Stephen A. Greyser, a senior professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School who specializes in sports. "But if for some reason the product is not the right mix and doesn't measure up to the hype, than you have large runoff and bad word of mouth."
Didn't the XFL and NBC learn from Fox? A few years back, when the real bad-boy network outbid CBS for NFL rights, executives there boasted they were going to reinvent broadcast sports and change the way people watch football. Turn on an NFL game today with the sound off -- it's nearly impossible to tell whether you're watching Fox, NBC, ABC or ESPN. Football is football.
But the XFL is promising much, much more. It's hyping a faster-paced game with announcers sitting in the stands and cheerleaders interviewed during the games. It also plans an all-access broadcast with cameras and microphones everywhere, including in huddles, on the sidelines and in the locker rooms.
Beware, cautions sports-marketing consultant Dean Bonham: "I've been around professional athletes and the four-letter words get old fast."
Just ask CBS. The network thought it would be fun to mike lots of players for the Super Bowl last Sunday and give couch potatoes a real sense of the sideline excitement. Guess what? Hyped up for the big showdown, players let the profanities fly, right onto the airwaves during the pre-game show. CBS's switchboard was bombarded with angry callers.
On Sunday, CBS unveiled its mind-bending Eyevision replays at the Super Bowl, which offered viewers a three-dimensional, nearly 360-degree look back at crucial plays. In a head-scratching decision, McMahon has been bragging about how fast-paced XFL games won't have time for slow-motion instant replays, let alone 3-D versions. "That's a mistake," warns Street & Smith's Lombardo.
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While XFL's TV front is troubled, what about its potential as a no-holds-barred sports league, one whose hard-nosed players will show up the NFL, or what McMahon calls an "over-regulated, antiseptic league" made up of a bunch of "pantywaists"? Good luck.
NFL players as pampered sissies? Did McMahon not notice that this year's Super Bowl MVP, Ray Lewis, is a former murder suspect? Or that former Carolina Panthers star Rae Carruth is doing time for having his pregnant girlfriend killed? Or that Green Bay Packers All-Pro tight end Mark Chmura is currently on trial for sexual assault involving a minor?
Over-regulated? McMahon must have missed the sideline scrum that broke out at the Super Bowl between Ravens and Giants players. It looked more like a barroom brawl than a football game, yet no penalties were assigned.
Or maybe the XFL can recruit San Diego Chargers safety Rodney Harrison, who was busy this season piling up NFL fines for the illegal and sadistic hits he's laid on unprotected wide receivers.
McMahon would love Harrison, because if there's one thing the XFL is selling above all others, it's sheer violence. And in an odd turn on its own investment, the XFL's public enemy No. 1 appears to be its own quarterbacks.
"The protection of the quarterback is something that the NFL invented simply to protect their investment; it has nothing to do with safety," complained McMahon, who wants to return to the day when "the whole idea was to kill the quarterback."
That's why XFL quarterbacks won't be allowed to end their runs with slides in order to avoid head-on collisions with linebackers. There will be no "in-the-grasp" rule to protect them from pile-ons, and referees will be discouraged from making too many unnecessary roughness calls on players pumped up on steroids.
Bottom line? "They're going to be carrying quarterbacks off the field this year," XFL assistant coach Keith Millard recently boasted to the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times. "They're going to go down. They're going to go down hard."
Bonham for one, is not amused. "That strikes me as tasteless. Quarterbacks are human beings with families and careers and aspirations for themselves. If the only way the XFL thinks it can make it is to damage a person and ruin their career with concussions, then the league will last an even shorter period of time. We've got enough serious violence in football. And if they continue to hype that theme, somebody's going to be paralyzed or killed."
(The idea's not that far-fetched: McMahon's WWF recently paid an $18 million out-of-court settlement to the family of wrestler Owen Hart, who plunged to his death during a WWF pay-per-view telecast in May 1999.)
It seems as if McMahon is trying to give fans something they don't want. How many football fans, watching Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman stagger off the field yet again with another concussion, resent the NFL for trying to protect its quarterbacks?
McMahon seems to take a peculiar pride in underpaying and underinsuring his XFL players, all of whom earn the same $45,000 per-season salary. (Most NFL players make more than that per game.) McMahon spins it all as the return of blue-collar, smash-mouth ball, but it's really just a smoke screen to keep his costs down.
No surprise, since the WWF impresario is not used to working with professional athletes. His wrestlers are essentially company employees who need the personal approval of McMahon and his script writers to become stars. And until recently those stars were drastically underpaid, given the revenue they were generating for the WWF and compared to superstar salaries in other entertainment and sports fields.
The problem for wrestlers is that McMahon essentially owns the sport. He calls all the career shots. The same now goes for the XFL; there will be no bidding wars for players since the league owns all the teams.
You could probably fill an XFL roster with disgruntled former wrestlers who were summarily dumped when injuries or run-ins with McMahon rendered them replaceable. His theory has always been there's another young wrestler dying for a chance at the big time.
And now he's holding that same carrot out to backup, B-level players across the country; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be seriously underpaid and underinsured while providing cheap programming for NBC's prime time. What UPS-truck-driving, NFL wannabe would pass up that opportunity?