GOING WHERE THE ACTION IS
Believing that college football hotbeds can provide players and
fans for their franchises, NBC and Time Warner are moving
forward with plans to give birth to a new league by the summer
This is an article from the Aug. 17, 1998 issue
Despite skepticism in the advertising community and the media,
NBC and Time Warner are moving confidently toward a June 2000
kickoff for their fledgling pro football league. Architects of
the new league, including NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and
Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner, are considering having 10
to 12 franchises, a 10-week regular season and a championship
game around Labor Day, according to sources familiar with
discussions. The new league would not challenge the NFL, which
traditionally begins regular-season play on Labor Day weekend,
or the NBA, whose national-TV rights are owned by NBC and Time
Warner's Turner Sports. The new league's sole major league
sports competition would be baseball.
In all likelihood the new league won't have NFL-caliber players.
Rather than engage in a bidding war with the NFL for stars, it
would create regional franchises stocked primarily with former
collegians who have a local following and are willing to play
for less than $100,000 a season. One candidate city, for
instance, would be Birmingham, which fervently supported its
United States Football League team in that league's brief run
from 1983 to '85. Last spring 28 players from Alabama and Auburn
who were eligible for the draft--including Tigers star
quarterback Dameyune Craig--weren't selected. Another 53
eligible players from Mississippi, Mississippi State and
Southern Miss were not drafted. No one from NBC or Time Warner
(the parent company of Time Inc., the publisher of SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED) is speaking on the record about the prospective
league, but the planners clearly are counting on large regional
pools of players, mostly in college football hotbeds, to draw
enough fan and TV interest to make the league viable.
Cameras and microphones in the locker rooms and huddles are
among other elements that could serve to distinguish the new
league from the NFL. Also, to capitalize on NFL fans who are
turned off by uncaring millionaire players, the new league may
contractually bind its players to interact with fans--by signing
autographs and making public appearances, for instance.
As fan-friendly as that sounds, the last thing America needs is
a new sports league. So how will the two media giants sell
America on summer football? "The big question is, Can NBC and
Turner create a league that will keep the 21- to 34-year-old
male at home on a weekend night?" says Tony Ponturo, corporate
vice president of media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch,
which buys more than $200 million in commercial time on sports
telecasts. "Baseball's getting stronger, and the growth of
sports is outdistancing the growth of marketing dollars for
advertisers. It'll be tough for the new league, but certainly
you'd have to give it a hearing because of the brains of the
The big test will be if NBC can get a 2 share in major markets
in the dead sports-TV weeks from late June until Labor Day by
showing the likes of Craig and former Florida State quarterback
Thad Busby duking it out for Birmingham and Orlando.
SELLING VIOLENCE WITH VULGARITY
The marketing campaign for NFL Xtreme, an officially licensed
NFL video game whose slogan is "After the coin toss, anything
goes," flies in the face of good taste and good sense. The print
ad for the video depicts a large, opened can with 100% PURE WHUP
ASS on the label. Another image in the ad is that of Cowboys
wideout Michael Irvin flying helmetless through the air after a
big hit. The copy reads, "There's no rules, no penalties and no
boundaries. It's a helmet-popping, trash-talking, late-hitting
No, thanks. Forget for a moment the ad's language (naughty words
and faulty grammar are O.K., kids) and consider its message.
Niners quarterback Steve Young is one serious concussion from a
forced retirement, and this NFL-licensed (and NFL Players
Association-licensed) video game is celebrating late hits.
Darryl Stingley is paralyzed for life after getting nailed in
the helmet by Jack Tatum, and this NFL-licensed video game
extols the virtues of helmet hits. Bryan Cox is penalized and
fined for his outbursts, and this NFL-licensed video game is
selling trash talk. It's shameful. How can the league come down
on cheap-shot artists and hotheads while also endorsing this
"It's more of a fantasy game," says NFL director of corporate
communications Chris Widmaier. "There's no blood, no stretchers.
Guys pop right up after they're hit. The marketing of this game
is consistent with how to get the attention of the upper-teen
and early-20s market."
Each year the NFL's highest individual honor, the Man of the
Year award, is given to a player who has demonstrated ability
and leadership on the field and dedication to charity off it.
Last year's winner, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, looked over
the ad and shook his head. "I'm not surprised," he said. "The
NFL's like NASCAR. NASCAR says it doesn't want to see car
wrecks, but what does America want? Car wrecks. Same thing with
the people at the NFL. They want this stuff. It sells."
BUT WHERE'S THE SWIMMING POOL?
This season the Buccaneers and the Ravens move into new
stadiums, giving the NFL a total of six facilities that have
debuted in the last seven years. Docked behind the north end
zone at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is a 103-foot long,
78-foot tall replica of a pirate ship. After each Bucs
touchdown, eight cannons will be fired, shooting confetti and
miniature footballs into the stands.
The stadium in Baltimore, which sits next to Oriole Park at
Camden Yards, boasts the two largest permanent video screens in
the world--100 feet high, 24 feet wide. Following 1 p.m. games,
fans can stick around and watch the late-afternoon NFL games.
For instance, if there are five late games, the one with the
most appeal to Ravens fans will be carried on one screen, and
the other four games will be shown simultaneously on the other,
which will be divided into quadrants for this purpose.
BROWNS RECEIVE A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
If you're a Cleveland Browns fan, you should be delighted that
Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore two years ago. If he
hadn't, here's what you'd be facing this year: another season in
ramshackle Cleveland Stadium with no franchise quarterback and a
Instead, you're a year away from a preseason date with the
Cowboys. You have a new stadium under construction. You will
have an ownership group, no matter which one of the six
candidates is awarded the franchise, with some of the deepest
pockets in sports.
In addition the Browns will have two distinct advantages the
Jaguars and the Panthers lacked when they entered the NFL in
1995. Those two teams picked in a quarterback-poor draft, while
Cleveland could get a franchise passer (Kentucky's Tim Couch or
Washington's Brock Huard, if either comes out after his junior
season). Also, with no competition from another expansion team,
the Browns will be able to select the top players from a pool
made up of at least five players from each of the 30 NFL teams.
Jacksonville and Carolina had to split the pot, meaning each got
14 of the best unprotected players from the 28 teams then in the
league. Says Falcons coach Dan Reeves, "Whoever buys this team
is going to have some incredible advantages that no expansion
team has ever had."
MARINO NOT THE RETIRING TYPE
Next year Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino could be confronted
with his own professional mortality. As he prepares for his 16th
season, he's enjoying a strong training camp, and he says
flatly, "I'd love to play a lot longer." The question is, Does
Miami want that? Coach Jimmy Johnson seems as if he'd like to
wean the Dolphins from Marino--who will count for $7.14 million
against the salary cap next year--and break in Craig Erickson in
If you're wondering why NFL teams, with multimillion-dollar
training facilities in their home cities, light out for the
countryside each summer, listen to Giants coach Jim Fassel. He
likes having his players bunk two-to-a-room at the University of
Albany (N.Y.). "Guys are rich today, living luxurious lives," he
says. "It's great to get them back to the basics for a month. It
gets their mind-set right."...
The seven-year, $46.5 million contract that the Panthers' Sean
Gilbert signed last spring awes fellow defensive linemen. "That
was the craziest contract of all," says the Bucs' Warren Sapp,
who signed a six-year, $36.1 million deal in March, "but I think
it's right that all the defensive tackles made the big money
this off-season. If you're going to pay a quarterback an
astronomical sum, why not pay the man who knocks the quarterback
out of the game the same price?"
JUST WAITING TO EXPLODE
Troubled out-of-work running back Lawrence Phillips has a tattoo
of a bomb on his back, with a wick that snakes over his right