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NBC bows full partnership with WWF for XFL

NEW YORK — The World Wrestling Federation’s proposed new football league, the XFL, has shifted from long shot to sure thing.

NBC has signed up as full partner, scheduling 12 Saturday primetime games during the XFL’s opening season, from Feb. 3 to April 21, 2001.

The NBC deal was a surprise because recent reports said that the WWF might do an exclusive network-primetime deal with the Viacom-owned UPN net for XFL games. These stories said that the UPN contract would be part of an overall deal with Viacom/CBS, which would pull the five hours of high-rated WWF wrestling matches away from USA and shift them to CBS-owned TNN.

Following the press conference held Wednesday to announce the NBC-XFL deal, Vince McMahon, co-founder and chairman of the WWF, said that he’s still negotiating with Viacom/CBS over a possible second primetime game, this one on UPN, possibly on Wednesday.

Wrestling with decision

Other sources say that the USA Network — fiercely bent on making sure that it doesn’t lose the WWF wrestling shows, particularly the two-hour event on Monday night (the highest-rated regular series in all of basic cable) — is ready to give the XFL a primetime slot in the middle of the week and one or two weekend afternoon berths during the 10 weeks of the XFL’s regular season. USA’s contract for the WWF wrestling shows expires in the fall of 2000, although the network has the right to match any competing offer.

Basil DeVito, president of new-business development for the XFL, said at the briefing that the WWF wants to get all of its deals in place for wrestling and football “within the next 30 to 60 days.” Broadcast and cable networks will have to know by then whether they own the rights to these programs so they can start selling them to advertisers in the upfront marketplace.

CNBC coverage

Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, said that no serious discussions took place to funnel weekend XFL games to CNBC, even though the network’s contract with cable operators “allows CNBC to program some sports activity,” such as Olympics cablecasts. CNBC and MSNBC will share coverage of the Olympics with their parent network, NBC, through 2008.

The XFL deal is “incredibly important” to NBC because “we’re a partner, not a rights-holder,” says Ebersol. NBC has bought about 2.3 million shares of stock in WWF Entertainment at $13 a share for a total investment of $30 million. That figure represents 3% or so of the total number of WWFE shares outstanding.

That investment also makes NBC a 50-50 partner in the XFL. “This is not a standoffish investment,” Ebersol says. “We’re partners — heart and soul — in editorial input and production” of the XFL games. He says NBC’s business plan calls for the XFL games to start making a profit for the partners at the beginning of the third year.

NBC will also share with the WWF in the selling of advertising time within the Saturday-night XFL telecasts. That’s a departure for the WWF, which has in recent years insisted on taking over the sale of time on wrestling both in the USA cablecasts and the UPN telecasts.

‘Smashmouth football’

McMahon calls the XFL “smash-mouth football.” Ebersol says he’s cheerleading for McMahon’s philosophy, adding that when NBC engineered the research for a proposed new football league in partnership with Time Warner a year ago, “it became obvious that the fans craved a more wide open game” than that of the NFL, which discourages showboating by the players and drags out the games with 40-second play clocks and 15-minute halftimes. The XFL will shorten the play clock to 35 seconds and limit halftime to 10 minutes. NBC and Time Warner killed their football-league proposal last year.

For the XFL, “we’ll be very fan-friendly,” says Ebersol. “You’ll see cameras and microphones in the huddles, on the sidelines and in the locker rooms.”

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