Search

The X Factor The XFL drew big crowds and boffo ratings on its debut weekend, but can it keep the ball rolling with a mix of babes, bombast and barely adequate football?

Feb. 12, 2001
Feb. 12, 2001

Table of Contents
Feb. 12, 2001

The X Factor The XFL drew big crowds and boffo ratings on its debut weekend, but can it keep the ball rolling with a mix of babes, bombast and barely adequate football?

The character he plays in the wrestling ring began to overtake the
sobersided businessman again. A familiar pop-eyed look of
defiance came across Vince McMahon's face. He started to pick a
fight.

This is an article from the Feb. 12, 2001 issue Original Layout

There should have been a shutoff switch somewhere, some little
public-relations trick he'd learned long ago to help him act
nice, to play to this press-conference crowd in this interview
tent behind Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas last Saturday night.
Then again, maybe this was the public-relations trick: Tell the
press-conference crowd to kiss his 55-year-old butt in the
middle of Times Square at midnight.

"Where are the questions?" he asked. "There have to be some more
questions."

"This is it?" he boomed. "Somebody's got a question out there,
doesn't he? Come on. Bring it. Bring it....

"You're not going to write about it without asking anything, are
you?"

He sneered the way the Vince McMahon character would sneer on RAW
Is WAR on a Monday night or Smackdown! on a Thursday night,
sneered the way a heel--the old term for a wrestling villain--would
sneer in any World Wrestling Federation production. What could
these media people do to him? He had built one empire without
them, and now he would build another.

Numbers against words, baby. Financial bottom line against the
clever typewritten line. You didn't like what you saw? You
didn't like this XFL kind of football, unveiled before a
sold-out stadium and a whopping national television audience,
with the newly formed Las Vegas Outlaws whipping the newly
formed New York/New Jersey Hitmen 19-0? What, in particular,
offended you? The cheerleaders' cleavage was too deep? The
announcers' words were too coarse? The football was too...what?
Numbers against words. "I've been married to him for 34 years,"
Linda McMahon said quietly in the back of the tent. "Vince never
walks away from confrontation."

Come on. Bring it. Numbers against words. The Saturday night TV
rating would be 10.3, with a 17 share--more than double the
league's expectations and those of its partner, NBC. The crowds?
In Vegas, 30,389. In Orlando the same night, 36,000, selling out
all the available seats.

What were we supposed to do with this plastic pink flamingo that
suddenly had landed on the greenest of our athletic lawns? That
was the question. How were we supposed to react to this chili
dog, unveiled when the waiter removed the silver cover at our
reserved, linen-covered table? What were we supposed to think?
Roll over, P.T. Barnum, and tell Jerry Springer the news.

There never had been a night quite like this in American sport.
With the new league's marquee game played on the edge of a
get-rich-quick city in a get-rich-quick era, this was the
marriage of a traditional American game with good old American
cheese. Should we lock the children in the storm cellar? Or
should we buy season tickets for family and friends--and pick up a
six-pack on the way? Hell and a handbasket and football suddenly
were in the same sentence.

"I was in the Bahamas last week," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of
sports and Olympics at NBC, which is a 50-50 partner with McMahon
in the XFL. "On the way back, I stopped in Miami to switch
planes. I picked up a paper and read a column by George Will,
killing us. Here's a guy, he's waited eight years to get his man
in the White House, he finally does it, and a week later he's
talking about the XFL? Doesn't he have something better to do?"

Jesse Ventura in the broadcast booth. Cameras in the backfield.
On-field microphones picking up curse words. Yes, cheerleaders.
Each game would start with a twist, settled on only a day
earlier: two players sprinting 20 yards to recover a loose
football at the 50-yard line to determine which team would
receive the kickoff. (In Orlando the prekickoff collision was so
violent it dislocated the shoulder of Hassan Shamsid-Deen of the
hometown Rage.) This was a prime-time car crash that had to be
seen.

The curiosity factor was tremendous. Would McMahon be a pied
piper and lead us all, as someone suggested, "over a cliff and
into a vast vat of yuckiness"? Would he reinvent or reinvigorate
a television presentation that had become tired ("third and long,
look for the pass") from constant repetition? No other league,
not the WNBA, not MLS, not the long-ago AFL, had started with
this much attention.

"This is the first league that has tried to succeed without
signing star players," Ebersol claimed. "This is a
production-driven league. This never has been done."

The strength of the league and the weakness of the league were
tied together. With centralized ownership, with player payrolls
limited to about $1.8 million per team--$50,000 for quarterbacks,
$35,000 for kickers, $45,000 for all others--and bonuses awarded
for winning games ($100,000 per regular-season game to be split
among the players, $7,500 per player for a playoff win, $1
million for the championship team), there was a system of
financial incentives and economic control. Without star players,
the bells and whistles would have to carry the show.

"I think it'll go," said Bob Caporale, a former owner in the
failed United States Football League, now a Boston consultant for
investors in sports franchises. "There are two reasons leagues
fail. One is that [teams] don't have enough capital at the start,
and when the red ink comes, they can't handle it. Two is that
they start with enough capital, but they go crazy--in our league
Donald Trump started paying big money for Herschel Walker and
other players--and then they don't have enough capital.

"That is not a problem here. Vince [along with NBC] owns
everything. To tell the truth, the day he announced the league
at a press conference--I probably shouldn't say this, but I
will--I bought stock in his company, the WWF." (The stock, which
closed at $17.38 the day of that announcement, closed at $17.81
last Monday.)

With Ebersol and his network on board, the league had instant
exposure. With the WWF marketing and merchandising machine
already in place, there was instant organization. With the
oddsmakers of Vegas--courted from the start--ready to take bets,
there was an instant, strangely earned credibility. With McMahon
at the front, there was, well, noise.

"We're going to show you things you've never seen on a football
field before," McMahon promised. "We're going to show you the
snot coming out of a lineman's nose. We're not only going to
change the way professional football is broadcast, we're going to
change the way all sports are broadcast."

The extra microphones would pick up the noise and chatter of
competition. The cameras on the field--cameramen wore helmets and
pads--would present a close-up view. A remote camera attached to
wires above the stadium would give the viewer the perspective of
a video game, the quarterback's view of the action. The
catchphrase was reality television. The XFL would ride the
Survivor wave.

"You know what's the highest-rated television show on Saturday
nights?" Ebersol asked, sketching out the league's 8-to-11 East
Coast time slot. "There is none. Whatever you bring home from
Blockbuster Video is the highest-rated show on Saturday night.
Are you going to watch Armageddon for the seventh time? Or are
you going to watch us?" Who could resist?

The only problem when the great night came was the football. The
big question XFL president Basil DeVito always had to answer was,
"Is this going to be real football?" His answer always was "Yes,
of course it's going to be real football"--as opposed to the WWF's
scripted mayhem, a cataclysm every 10 minutes. The problem was,
real football sometimes is boring.

"It's funny," one NBC staffer said. "We had our production
meeting, and everything had checked out and we were ready to go
and someone said, 'What if it's a bad game?' Then he said, kind
of joking, 'Too bad we couldn't have a script.' All this talk
about this being real football and, in the end, you kind of
wished you had a script."

The reality was, this was a dull game. With the Outlaws storming
to a 19-0 lead at the half, and the poor Hitmen unable to muster
any offense, the burden of keeping viewers tuned in weighed ever
more heavily on the production, which hipped and hopped and was
out of sync.

The sideline reporters, Mike Adamle and Fred Roggin, so silly in
the first place that they made Jim Gray look like Walter
Cronkite, looked sillier still as they hounded players and
coaches for interviews. "Is this the proudest moment of your
life?" Roggin asked Outlaws lineman Lonnie Palelei after Palelei
caught a tackle-eligible pass for a one-point conversion. Huh?
Grade: D.

The governor of Minnesota, Mr. Ventura, the color man, seemed
lost. Had he been caught in budget hearings all week? Trapped in
disputes with welfare mothers? He clearly hadn't done much
homework. He didn't know anything about the players or the
strategies or the game. His analysis didn't move much beyond the
comment, "Oh, boy!" after a good hit. Ventura and play-by-play
man Matt Vasgersian were selling, selling, selling. They acted as
if they were working the World Series, when they were really at a
Thursday-night game between the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit
Tigers. Grade: F.

The cheerleaders were drawn out of the Little Annie Fanny
sketchbook, but no more provocative than anything shown on MTV
about 100 times a day. Grade: B.

The taped "comic" bits--"Do you know how to score?" cheerleader
Crystal asked Las Vegas quarterback Ryan Clement in one--were the
sophomoric jokes of the WWF, targeted for the league's core
constituency, young males with deep thoughts about Pamela
Anderson. Grade: D.

The video production was, as advertised, revolutionary, but
whether this was a good or bad revolution depended on the viewer.
The action jumped from image to image, now in the huddle, now in
the sky, now on the sideline, now in somebody's face. The
highlight was the view of the locker rooms at the half, showing
not the diatribe that Ventura had promised from New York coach
Rusty Tillman but an ordinary, workmanlike discussion of the
Hitmen's situation, between the coach and his players. There was
a documentary kind of truth to the pictures. In the WWF somebody
would have been hit with a crowbar. Grade: B.

The football, in the end, was just ordinary football. It would be
easy to say that it was bad football--This just in! These guys
don't play in the NFL!--but it was good enough football, with good
enough players. Grade: B.

The game was one-sided. Grade: C.

The Outlaws, it should be noted, covered the 5 1/2-point spread.
The crowd, it should be noted, was boisterous and young. Nobody
died. No virgin was sacrificed. No cow jumped over the moon. An
earthquake did occur 10 miles away in Red Rock Canyon during the
second half, registering 3.4 on the Richter scale. Nobody seemed
to notice.

"Did you think there was enough sex?" a reporter finally asked in
the press-conference tent.

"I like sex," McMahon said. "I mean, I've been married 34 years.
My wife is here. Yes, I like sex."

"Were you disappointed there weren't more end zone celebrations?"
a reporter asked. "Didn't you want more?"

"We never said they had to celebrate," McMahon said. "We said
they could celebrate if they wanted. I mean, we're not going to
order them to celebrate. We're not going to teach them how to
dance. We're not going to teach them pirouettes."

He tried to be nice, tried to find the switch, but sitting there
at the end of a table next to Ventura and Ebersol, McMahon was
wary and defensive. The familiar big hair. The familiar big
chest. The familiar look.

A sense of conflict filled the air. McMahon could have been
standing in the middle of the ring, microphone in hand, calling
out Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, a tag team of crazed
bikers, an army of midgets. Already the reviews were being typed
across the country.

"The XFL is a wreck, a ruin-in-progress that the World Wrestling
Federation and NBC will try to save, but will almost certainly
fail," wrote Richard Sandomir in The New York Times.

The X in XFL, said Mike Penner of the Los Angeles Times, stood
for "Xceptionally Xaggerated Xpectations. Xtravagantly
Xcruciating Xecution. Xcessively Xcitable Xperts Xuding
Xasperation."

"Here's one reaction....Yawn," Barry Horn wrote in The Dallas
Morning News. "Worse for the XFL: the 14-year-old boy in the
house--the league's targeted audience--abandoned the TV set for
backyard basketball after the first quarter."

What did all that matter? Words. Numbers against words. Financial
bottom line against clever typewritten line.

Will the XFL make it? Will the customers who came this week come
again next week? Will the viewers who tuned in tune in again?
Will the league become a Saturday-night fixture, as strong as
Saturday Night Live, a staple of late winter and early spring? Or
will it flutter and flop, gone to the graveyard of failed sports
enterprises?

On Sunday, at Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, the hometown Demons
would beat the visiting Los Angeles Xtreme in the last second of
play, 15-13, before a sold-out crowd of 38,000. At Legion Field
in Birmingham, a walk-up throng of 15,000 would jam the ticket
windows before the Memphis Maniax beat the Birmingham Bolts
22-20, in front of a crowd of 35,321. The concession stands would
run out of beer. The telecast would outdraw the NHL All-Star Game
and, with a 4.2 overnight rating, would double UPN's usual
viewership during the same time slot.

Come on. Bring it.

Vince McMahon, as always, would take his chances on the side of
the numbers. Chili dogs for everyone.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN COVER Cheap Thrills Will sleazy gimmicks and low-rent football work for the XFL?COLOR PHOTO: CHIP SIMONS The X Factor The XFL started big, but can it roll on with its mix of bombast and so-so football [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above] [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: CHIP SIMONS [See caption above] [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER PLAYING THE STRIP Vegas headliners included (from left) Brandon Sanders, Tara McClintic, Crystal Aldershof, Kurt Gouveia and Mya Collins.COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN JUST SHOOT ME San Francisco's Eric England played to the camera after tackling L.A. quarterback Tommy Maddox.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO SMACKDOWN The Xtreme's Todd Doxson won the opening race to the ball but got a nose job during the run-in with Jimmy Cunningham.COLOR PHOTO: CHIP SIMONS SMOKIN' The fans were in the right frame of mind--frenzied--as fireworks went off before the start of the inaugural game, in Vegas.COLOR PHOTO: CHIP SIMONS PIED PIPER The always understated McMahon showed in Vegas that he was in tune with his juvenile target audience.COLOR PHOTO: PAUL SAKUMA/AP [See caption above]
What were we to do with this plastic pink flamingo that had
landed on the greenest of our athletic lawns?
The crowd, it should be noted, was boisterous and young. Nobody
died. And no virgin was sacrificed.