While they were hyping their new "smashmouth" football league last year, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol and World Wrestling Federation impresario Vince McMahon bragged that the XFL would make sports television history.
Well, Saturday night it did.
The XFL's matchup between the Las Vegas Outlaws and the Birmingham Bolts picked up a 2.1 rating, according to Nielsen, becoming the lowest-rated prime-time sporting event in network television history. (Each rating point represents roughly 1 million viewers.) The previous low was held by the National Hockey League, whose Game 3 of the Stanley Cup aired last year on ABC and garnered a 2.3.
And that's the good news. The score is the ratings company's overnight analysis of but 49 metered markets. In previous weeks, that early figure has dropped. When the final national numbers from markets across the country are released later in the week, the Saturday XFL rating is likely to shrink to 1.8, firmly in UPN and WB ratings territory, setting a low network mark that will be difficult to surpass.
And in markets without XFL teams where interest is even lower, some of those local ratings are bound to hover around 1.0 -- staggeringly low for network television.
Local TV station managers, who pay their bills with local newscasts that have to follow the ballgames and are losing lead-in numbers because of the league's poor showings, have already made their feelings known to NBC. The Peacock Network had originally committed to the XFL for three years, but it now seems inconceivable the league will be back on prime time next year.
The XFL and NBC began the season by guaranteeing advertisers a 4.5 rating. The WWF's stock was worth $22. When trading opened today, it was worth just under $12.
The TV milestone was not completely unexpected. Ratings for the fledgling football league have been dismal for weeks, despite efforts to spice up the viewing by sending cameras into the cheerleaders' locker room at halftime. But on Saturday night the XFL went up against CBS's second-round coverage of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which grabbed a 6.8 rating and siphoned off a portion of the XFL's small fan base, helping the league achieve its historic low.
All in all, last week was one to forget for the WWF's McMahon. First, he was forced to concede to the Los Angeles Times that hiring Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former WWF champ, as an XFL announcer was a mistake, and that research showed fans didn't like his style. Then, appearing on an HBO one-on-one sports interview show, "On the Record With Bob Costas," McMahon took exception to Costas' having described the XFL as "low rent," and blamed media elites like Costas for trying to bury the league. At one point the hulking McMahon, leaning in close to the diminutive Costas, waved his finger at the host and told him to shut his mouth.
Costas has a full-time job as an NBC sports announcer but has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with the XFL. He looked more amused than afraid. During Saturday's telecast at least one XFL fan took offense and held up a sign that read "Bob Costas Is an Ignoramus." Problem was, more people probably saw the Costas show than the XFL game.