It’s sudden death for XFL

League folds, costing WWF and NBC $70 mil

NEW YORK — The XFL pro-football league has folded after only one season, throwing its partners NBC and the World Wrestling Federation for a $70 million loss.

In a conference call with reporters, Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWF, said the failure to get UPN to carry XFL games for a second year was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

UPN’s ratings for Sunday night games from February through April were way below the XFL’s Nielsen guarantees to advertisers, but McMahon said that until this week, he was talking to UPN about shifting the telecasts to Sunday afternoon in 2002.

That shift would’ve proven a hardship to TV stations affiliated with UPN, said Adam Ware, chief operating officer of the network, because many of the affiliates score big ratings with locally programmed Sunday-afternoon movies. The pics are lucrative to these stations, which keep all of the advertising time within the movie telecasts. Replacing syndicated movies with XFL games would result in the affils handing over a large chunk of the ad time to UPN and the WWF for sale to national advertisers.

NBC had already told McMahon that it was not going to continue scheduling XFL games in primetime on Saturday because of abysmal ratings. And Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics, said NBC had no weekend-afternoon availability for XFL games because of its coverage of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics next February and a full slate of National Basketball Assn. games throughout the winter and spring, plus various golf matches.

The poor Nielsen performance of XFL games made the commercial time a hard sell on NBC and UPN, as well as on TNN, the cabler that scheduled a game every Sunday afternoon. The XFL ended up giving away about a third of the commercial spots to advertisers as make-goods because the ratings fell so far below the guarantees.

No hard feelings

McMahon said UPN’s rejection of the XFL will leave no hard feelings with the WWF, which will continue to produce UPN’s highest-rated weekly series, “WWF Smackdown,” to air from 8-10 p.m. every Thursday.

McMahon and Ebersol were in different cities responding to questions on the conference call, but both were complimentary of each other.

McMahon “is a decent, trusting, accommodating partner,” said Ebersol. “The XFL has turned out to be one of the most fun experiences of my life,” he added.

“We thought the XFL would be a smart risk,” Ebersol continued, “because everybody is looking for an insurance policy against the wildly escalating prices for sports events.” NBC walked away from renewing the rights to National Football League games four years ago when CBS came up with a preemptive bid, agreeing to pony up a license fee of $4 billion for an eight-year term.

Most sports-rights deals, Ebersol said, either lose money for the network “or, at best, break even.”

Grappling with WCW

McMahon said the collapse of the XFL will allow him to focus on building up the WCW (World Championship Wrestling), a competing operation the WWF bought from AOL Time Warner earlier this year.

The WCW produced weekly two-hour primetime slamfests for Time Warner-owned nets TNT and TBS, both of which cancelled the programs when the WWF bought the operation.

McMahon is negotiating with TNN to start carrying this summer a non-primetime two-hour WCW telecast Saturdays at 11 p.m., hoping to build up the league over the months so that TNN will eventually give it a primetime slot.

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