- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

So when exactly did things begin to go wrong for the XFL?

Most theories point to Feb. 3, its opening day, when a full year of Vince McMahon-fueled hype dissolved into an unfulfilling mass of minor league football and trash-talking announcers.

Other critics suggest the downturn began the following week, when a wrestling star named "the Rock" opened a game in Los Angeles with a bizarre, angry screed against the NFL. And even more concrete signs of panic came by midseason, when XFL officials tinkered with marketing approaches and on-field rules on an almost-weekly basis.

Whenever the problems began in earnest, this Saturday's championship game between Los Angeles and San Francisco recently renamed "the Million Dollar Game" after being known earlier as "the Big Game at the End" marks the end of them at least temporarily. Gone will be the weekly reports of record-low TV ratings. So, too, will be the regular putdowns on late-night talk shows. Calls from disappointed network affiliates and sponsors will ebb.

And without daily public attention, XFL executives will begin the long process of trying to save the struggling league.

"We learned our lessons," said XFL president Basil DeVito, who insists the league will return in 2002. "We will do a much better job, a much clearer job, explaining our story to people."

The league must do just that if this year's disastrous numbers are to improve. Regular-season ratings averaged 3.3 on NBC, 27 percent below the 4.5 promised advertisers. The combined 10.0 rating on NBC, UPN and TNN also promised was reached only in the first two weeks and barely halved for the season. Each ratings point is worth about a million households.

Sponsors began demanding and getting free air time to compensate for the low ratings less than a month into the season. Revenue shortfalls will push the league's loss for the season past $40 million. And offshore bookies have begun taking bets on the XFL's outright demise. Recent odds were 10-to-13 in favor of folding.

Several changes are certain. Training camps and scouting combines will be longer and more organized than this season's more chaotic sessions. Marketing pushes will focus much more on the players and their backgrounds, rather than leaving viewers to decipher what "He Hate Me" on the back of a jersey means or why they should care.

The XFL already has downshifted its smashmouth theme in favor of player personalities, but the change appears to have come too late to save this season.

The XFL's big question, of course, is what NBC will do for the 2002 season. The league co-owner has a year left on its two-year contract with McMahon's World Wrestling Federation Inc. But with national TV ratings at historic lows for major network prime-time TV for nearly two months now, expectations have been rampant that NBC at best will move the XFL games into Saturday afternoons or at worst leave altogether.

Publicly, the network's party line has been that it will honor the deal and air games next year. But even McMahon and DeVito have openly begun to prepare for life without NBC, likely airing all the games on UPN and TNN.

"It's clear we must do a better job so it makes sense for both parties," DeVito said.

The league also intends to figure out a way to translate its successful live experience to TV. Average league attendance, though slipping in recent weeks, still reached 23,410 a game, 17 percent over initial projections. Season ticket sales more than doubled those for Major League Soccer, a five-year-old league. But the XFL also must do so without overselling an image.

"Playing the expectations game for a new league is as important as what you accomplish on the playing field," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago sports consulting firm. "But they spent more time focusing on promotion and not enough time focusing on the product, and as a result raised expectations far beyond what they could deliver."

DeVito recently admitted as much, but the league faces an uphill, if not impossible, challenge in developing a consistent and high quality of play. Not only is the NFL adding the Houston Texans next year, creating another 53 big league jobs for players, but NFL Europe and the partially NFL-backed Arena Football League still represent far more attractive alternatives for players.

Then the league must convince departing sponsors to come back and take another shot. Before the season opener, companies such as Gillette were bullish on the somewhat unique chance to market squarely to young males. By season's end, they were downplaying that they were ever on XFL telecasts.

"Given these [ratings] being what they are, the chances of us advertising next year are slim," Gillette spokeswoman Melissa Szynal said. "We, like everyone else, fish where the fish are."

Beyond NBC's intentions, a larger, more fundamental question looms: How big does the XFL intend to be long term? McMahon, who rarely does anything low-key, sought to take on the all-powerful NFL and was rudely rejected. Smaller leagues such as Arena Football, meanwhile, have no such pretensions and have successfully operated below the radar of big-time, mainstream sports.

"There's a potential future for the XFL but as a minor league sport, not a major league one," Ganis said. "They could be a viable niche player. But is that what they want?"

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