Why the XFL tanked

Vince McMahon and NBC were going to change the face of broadcast sports. Instead, they made the wrong kind of history.

Published May 11, 2001 7:38PM (EDT)

Vince McMahon once bragged that, according to General Electric CEO Jack Welch, the creative partnership behind the XFL would one day be studied at Harvard Business School. That partnership, a 50-50 joint venture between McMahon's WWF and GE-owned NBC, may indeed turn out to be fodder for study -- but for all the wrong reasons.

Last week NBC and the WWF officially folded the XFL, after reportedly losing $35 million each on the venture. The move came as no surprise: On March 10 the fledgling league earned the lowest ratings ever for a sporting event broadcast during prime time on network television. One week later it made network television history again, when its 1.6 rating became the lowest ever registered in prime time by any program -- sporting, news or entertainment.

So much for "changing forever how sports are viewed, broadcast and promoted." That's how one overly excited XFL consultant described what the XFL's lasting impact would be last year.

In retrospect, it's hard to say who looks worse, NBC or the WWF.

As programmers by trade, shouldn't NBC executives have realized that Saturday night was the one night on the prime-time schedule that virtually guaranteed failure for the XFL? That's because Saturday night's a ratings graveyard for males 12-24, the XFL's must-have demo.

NBC's "Saturday Night Movie," which preceded XFL last fall, attracted fewer than a half-million of those boys-to-men viewers each week. And the number of males aged 12 to 24 watching Saturday night TV at 9 p.m. on NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC combined equaled just 2 million. For the XFL to succeed, the games would have had to triple that number.

It never came close. McMahon was insistent throughout that he was in the brand-building business and that such a task simply could not be completed in one season. Then what was McMahon's XFL doing on prime-time network television, the antithesis of patient brand-building? The truth is, if any other NBC prime-time show had pulled the type of numbers the XFL did, the program would have been yanked off the air without discussion after three weeks, tossed down a memory hole and never mentioned again inside NBC's executive corridors.

Which is why NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol's spin yesterday, that the XFL's failure was no worse than canceling any other prime-time show, rang so hollow. He conveniently ignored what was supposed to be the genius of NBC's plan with the XFL: the joint-partnership, the fact that NBC owned half the league.

"Everyone knows the economic model with the XFL," bragged an NBC Sports spokesman before things went bad. "If it hits, it's ours."

Of course, if it turns out to be a flop, it's still NBC's. So for more than two months the network had to flip the switch every Saturday night and hand over its prime-time schedule to the modern day Edsel of television programming. And that's really what made XFL's run so perverse to watch week in and week out as its numbers sagged and then reached historically low proportions. What was amazing was that the games were still being broadcast at all, that a major network had voluntarily tied its hands and was suddenly helpless in the face of massive ratings carnage.

As for NBC Sports, the experiment was a flop on many levels. Coming off its disappointing Summer Olympics coverage, where ratings were weak and too much of it was broadcast on tape delay, the network hoped the XFL could provide a boost of new energy and excitement. Instead, high-profile commentators like Bob Costas publicly distanced themselves from the brash league. (Waiting for NBC News to cover the XFL debacle? Don't.) Elsewhere, network executives had hoped the XFL would help draw new, younger viewers to NBC Sports, and in particular to NBA games, which have been suffering during the post-Michael Jordan era. Instead, this spring's NBA All-Star game was the lowest-rated in history, off 25 percent from last year.

The truth is that McMahon's WWF viewers couldn't care less about the XFL. That key, young male demographic was among the first to bail after the XFL's highly rated debut broadcast, which poses a slight problem for McMahon. He's created a massive, and lucrative, cult following for his WWF wrestlers, and has gotten fans to buy pay-per-view feeds, T-shirts, videos and books. Yet he simply cannot corral that herd of consumers into non-wrestling pastures.

For now, McMahon will turn his attention to relaunching WWF competitor World Championship Wrestling, which he recently purchased from AOL Time Warner. A man of endless ambition, perhaps McMahon will have to settle for being the king of the ring.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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