NEW YORK — The XFL, two weeks away from kickoff, is almost certain to charge onto the field with — in television terms — the best opening day in the history of any new professional sports league. But its potential success as a fan-pleasing entertainment could harbor the seeds of its eventual demise as a legitimate sports attraction.
The new league can justify its boasts of a first-day bonanza because three of the four weekly games played by the eight-team association will get national TV coverage: NBC every Saturday night, UPN every Sunday night and the TNN cable network every Sunday afternoon.
Made for TV
“No startup league has ever enjoyed such extensive reach on television from day one,” says Basil DeVito, president of the XFL, which is a co-venture of NBC and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.
DeVito believes it’s not only the wide availability of the games to a mass TV audience that will spark interest in the league but the humongous marketing machine of the WWF and NBC. He says that together, the WWF and NBC will have spent about $40 million to promote the XFL by its Feb. 3 opening day.
As a result of this advertising blitz, De Vito says league surveys show that between 65% and 70% of respondents have expressed some familiarity with the XFL.
But Ken Schantzer, president of NBC Sports, acknowledges what he calls “the fine line we’re going to have to walk” between the emphatic declaration by the league that the XFL games themselves will be real football — legitimate and above-board — and the reputation of McMahon as a P.T. Barnum-like manipulator who employs more writers than a soap opera to script every grunt emitted in the ring by the WWF’s wrestlers.
“The league’s games are going to be under intense scrutiny,” says David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. “The national and local press will be digging under every rock to uncover even a hint that McMahon is predetermining the outcome of any of the games to pull in bigger audiences.”
But NBC’s Schantzer is convinced that when the players start pounding and smashing each other in the weekly games, there’ll be no doubt about the authenticity of the league. He had just spent a few days at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, one of the XFL’s eight cities, in mid-January watching players battling for a spot on the roster in exhibition games.
“It’s not too extreme to say that these players were fighting for their lives,” Schantzer says. “For many of these guys, it’s their last shot at achieving the dream of playing in a professional football league.”
Another sign the games will likely be legit is the fact that Las Vegas oddsmakers have embraced the league, and will even book bets on games that feature the XFL’s Las Vegas Outlaws. Nevada state law allows sports entities to determine whether betting will be permitted on local teams. The NCAA, for instance, prohibits wagering on games played by UNLV, but the XFL has given the bookies its blessing.
DeVito says he’s also received guarantees by the major newspapers in the eight XFL cities that they’ll assign a beat reporter to the games, another important step in portraying the league as a sports enterprise, not just a showbiz operation.
But DeVito acknowledges that “outside of the markets where we have teams, it probably will be difficult to get coverage.” In addition to Orlando and Las Vegas, the XFL markets are Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Chicago, San Francisco, Memphis and Birmingham.
Attracting the attention of ESPN and Fox Sports will be equally difficult — though the new league is not immediately counting on much coverage from them — because both are part of media conglomerates that pay the National Football League billions of dollars in their current eight-year contracts.
The NFL hasn’t raised a ruckus with CBS, a sister company of UPN and TNN, because — like Arena Football and the Canadian Football League — XFL games won’t compete directly with games of the NFL.
Ratings on NBC, UPN and TNN will be the lifeblood of the XFL. Both DeVito and Schantzer say their goal is to chalk up between a 3 and a 4 rating on NBC, a number that seems low but that could attract swarms of advertisers because the league is pitching its message to males between the ages of 12 and 25. Madison Avenue typically considers that young-male demo harder to reach than any other category.
But even though TV and cable coverage will make or break the economic health of the XFL, Schantzer says he and McMahon are just as dedicated to giving ticket-buyers a better time than they get at an NFL game; the XFL has installed elaborate audio systems in all of its stadiums, Schantzer says, allowing fans to hear the crunching sound of players’ bodies colliding on every scrimmage.
In fact, the league has drawn up an anti-NFL blueprint to liven up the games — no fair catches, no boring point-after-touchdown kicks, encouraging players to showboat when they make a good play. Even the Sports Business Group’s Carter says the changes “could result in a faster, more exciting contest.”
Moreover, adds Carter, a low-scoring, grind-it-out Super Bowl between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens could offer a PR windfall to the XFL, which makes no bones about regarding the typical NFL game as an old-fashioned snooze, of interest mainly to men who dote on ads for denture cream and high-fiber cereal.