- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

A year of hype is finally over. America finally will get its chance starting tomorrow night to decide whether the XFL is really smashmouth football, as creator and pro wrestling maven Vince McMahon claims, or simply the latest reality show with a football theme.
Determined to create anything but just another sports league, McMahon will invade eight cities and living rooms across America with a brand of football that he intends to be glitzier, sexier and more aggressive than anything the NFL has produced.
"The NFL has forgotten about the fan," said McMahon, who built the World Wrestling Federation into a multimedia, multibillion dollar empire. "What we're doing is respecting the fans, giving them more than their money's worth and bringing them closer to the game."
The XFL's difference-at-all-costs from the NFL will extend from the field into the TV booth. On the field, punt returners will have no fair catches. In-the-grasp rules to protect quarterbacks and extra-point kicks are gone. In are bump-and-run pass coverage and a shorter play clock. Touchdown and sack celebrations, which bring five-figure fines in the NFL, are encouraged.
The league's TV coverage, led by NBC, aims to do no less than redefine the medium's live coverage of sports by placing microphones and cameras everywhere, with virtually no restrictions. Formerly off-limits spots such as locker rooms during halftime, coach-player conferences during games and huddles are now central to the broadcasts.
And cheerleaders, slowly losing prominence and exposure within the NFL, will be stars in the XFL. Several racy promos featuring them already have run on NBC, and the women will be a fixture during coverage.
But league officials say mounting criticism of the XFL glorifying sex and violence to sell itself are overblown.
"When the whistle blows, between the lines this is going to be real football," said Dick Butkus, NFL Hall of Famer and the XFL's director of football competition. "I think people are going to be surprised at the quality of the game."
McMahon announced his plans for the XFL last Feb. 3 one year to the day before the first games. The bravado was instantly greeted with jeers, derision and dismissal from millions of sports fans and much of corporate America. WWF stock took a 25 percent hit that first day, and though it has more than recovered, McMahon's reputation as the quintessential marketer to teen-age boys is at risk.
"I think it's doomed to fail," Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, said last February. "We did years of research when I was at CBS, and I've done some myself, and there's just no market whatsoever for an offseason professional football league."
Yet McMahon now has won over legions of ardent critics, including Pilson.
McMahon's first big move was bringing NBC into the mix, not only as a network broadcast partner but as co-owner of the league. The network will air a nationally featured game each Saturday night during the 12-week season. NBC, without the NFL since 1998 and searching for a viable ratings grabber in Saturday primetime for nearly 15 years, sees a solution to both problems in the XFL.
"There is a real appetite for football outside of the usual football season," said Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports. "And all of us in network television see Saturday night in primetime as a failure. There hasn't been a legitimate hit of any kind since 'The Golden Girls.' The real star programmer on Saturday nights is now Blockbuster Video. Decade to decade, as an executive or as a producer, you better change or get left behind."
NBC is not paying the XFL a broadcast rights fee but instead will share in the league's profits.
With NBC in tow, McMahon quickly assembled his eight franchises, lined up key football personnel for each, signed cable broadcast deals with UPN and TNN, and hired Minnesota Gov. (and former WWF star) Jesse Ventura as the lead color announcer for the NBC games. When the state legislature tried to prevent Ventura from taking the paid job on ethical grounds, McMahon and Ventura beat that rap, too.
Then came a sales job unrivaled by any other start-up league in recent times. Marketing primarily to young males, fans of extreme sports and the companies that cater to them, the XFL has sold more than 500,000 tickets half its goal for the season and more than 70 percent of its total TV ad time. Games this weekend in Las Vegas and San Francisco are already sellouts, and crowds in Orlando and Birmingham are expected to top 25,000.
The league's guarantee to TV advertisers of at least a 4.5 average rating on NBC and 10.0 on all three networks appears all but assured this season. The only looming hurdle comes in March against the NCAA men's basketball tournament on CBS.
"We've been targeting young males for our Right Guard Xtreme, and have been involved in other sports with that product, such as the Winter X Games," said Arlene Henry, spokesman for Gillette, an XFL sponsor. "This league, we think, is going to deliver that kind of audience. We feel comfortable about what they're doing."
The XFL also has gotten approval from Las Vegas, with books taking bets on games up to $1,000. XFL officials said the move represented a major endorsement for the league's integrity because skepticism remains high that results will be scripted, as in the WWF, in the name of ratings.
The press is a different story. Newspapers in the eight cities with teams plan to assign beat reporters to those clubs. But most national outlets do not plan regular coverage of the league until it proves its viability.
"Full media coverage of this league is clearly a major, major goal of ours," XFL president Basil DeVito said.
Despite the XFL's strong early numbers, the league's success likely will hinge on how confrontational it becomes with the NFL. Despite the public relations disasters of Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth, American fans hold a special reverence for the NFL far above all other football leagues.
And even when the image-conscious NFL loses in court to its upstart rivals, it still wins as the U.S. Football League painfully learned in the 1980s. No outdoor pro league has mounted a successful long-term challenge to the NFL. And the only viable indoor league, Arena Football, now operates under the partial support of the NFL.
"The day the XFL decides to take on the NFL for players, for the fall schedule, for whatever that's the day they start to die," said Marc Ganis, president of Sports-Corp Ltd., a Chicago sports consultancy.
Already within the XFL's upper ranks there is division about how to discuss the NFL. McMahon has been openly dismissive of the NFL's brand of football, using the XFL's many rule differences as a primary selling point.
"This will not be a league for pantywaists or sissies," McMahon said. "The XFL will take you places where the NFL is afraid to go because, quite frankly, we are not afraid of anything."
Ebersol has been far more diplomatic.
"We're selling the differences between us and conventional football. We have a lot of respect for the NFL," Ebersol said. "But what we're doing is tinkering with some of the duller elements."
Understandably, the NFL isn't losing sleep over the newcomer.
"Frankly, it's been a minor aspect of what we worry about, or in many cases it's just a complete non-issue," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "NBC is obviously an experienced network, but [the XFL is] not something we've spent much time on."
The league's true impact may not be felt most in its renegade style of football or marketing strategy but rather in its television production and ironclad allegiance to improving viewer intimacy. With better-than-ever access always paramount in TV sports, rival leagues and networks already are taking notice.
"Even the NFL is going to be open to new ideas of theirs, if they work," Ganis said. "Look at basketball. There's no doubt that the NBA became a better, more entertaining league because of the ABA and the things they did before the merger, such as the 3-point shot and more uptempo style. The ABA had trailblazed a better game, and the NBA took notice.
"That's an important lesson for the XFL, too. It doesn't have to be the NFL, and even if it wanted to, it couldn't. The XFL can simply be what it is and carve a niche for itself."

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