- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

When former Dallas Cowboys star Drew Pearson stepped into RFK Stadium yesterday, he probably still had the boos from Washington Redskins fans reverberating in his head.

Hoots have been loud and frequent, too, for his current employer, the XFL. But that did not stop the general manager of the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, and three XFL officials from visiting Washington on the first stop of their expansion tour.

The struggling eight-team league intends to expand by up to four teams in 2002 or 2003, and the District of Columbia is the leading candidate. No deal for a local XFL expansion team emerged after a morning-long meeting yesterday with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, operators of RFK Stadium.

"We're definitely off to a good start, but we need to go back now and determine if this makes sense for us, and they need to do the same thing," said Bobby Goldwater, Sports & Entertainment Commission executive director.

The meeting, however, presented the XFL with an opportunity to begin remarketing the XFL. After a better-than-expected start, the league's ratings on NBC have sunk to and remained at the worst levels in the history of major network prime-time television. And despite an average attendance of 24,883 that beats initial league projections by 25 percent, criticisms have been widespread over both the spotty quality of play and an over-the-top presentation style too similar to the XFL's creator, the World Wrestling Federation.

As a result, big changes are likely in store for the XFL, said league president Basil DeVito. NBC, a 50 percent owner of the league, already has hinted several times it will sever its two-year agreement with the XFL after this season. DeVito said yesterday the league is prepared to forge ahead should that happen, and changes such as moving away from Saturday night games, regionalized TV broadcasts and additional grass-roots marketing in non-franchise cities are under consideration.

"I don't think we were prepared for how difficult it has been," DeVito said. "If I could do anything again, it would be to have our entire presentation from Week 4 and beyond on the air back on Week 1. I think we'd be having a very different conversation if that was the case. We think everything has improved so dramatically from the initial weeks.

"We're hoping for one more chance to make a first impression," he said.

The XFL will tour between five and seven other prospective expansion cities, including Detroit and Portland. A decision will be made by June if any new team is to be created for the 2002 season.

Washington originally was intended to be one of the first eight XFL markets when WWF chairman Vince McMahon formed the league last year. But a combination of NBC's preference for some larger TV markets and better lease deals in some smaller markets pushed the District out of the original picture.

"When I used to come [to RFK Stadium] as a Cowboy, it was the greatest experience it's a shame there's no pro football here now," Pearson said. "The fans here know and love professional football, and hopefully we can work something out."

What kind of XFL will exist should it arrive in Washington next year or 2003 hinges first on NBC's plans. Ratings from the final four weeks of the season will weigh heavily in the network's decision. While DeVito said there is no target number, he acknowledged the ratings must improve and that NBC's threat to leave is real.

"NBC has been extremely fair. They've given us more publicity than we could have ever imagined. It is a great partnership," DeVito said. "But it's clear we must do a better job so it makes sense for both parties."

If NBC does leave, the XFL will likely seek more exposure on UPN, its other broadcast network partner.

"We're going to be here. When we announced the league on February 3 last year, the XFL was 100 percent owned by the WWF, and TV coverage was to be a combination of UPN and a basic cable deal. We hadn't even talked to NBC yet," DeVito said. "That business plan still exists and it still makes sense."

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