The XFL: Pro Sports Should Be Hearing Footsteps

A new generation of fans is tuning out the staid, old NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB -- and they don't seem to have a clue

By Rick Burton

Pssst. Didja hear the circus is coming to town? On Feb. 3, the XFL pulls its wagons into America's living rooms, courtesy of NBC Sports. Like all good traveling acts, the XFL has already sent out advance men. Listen, and you can hear the media shouting furiously into their megaphones: In this ring, see Violence! like never before. On the other side of the tent, Scantily Clad Cheerleaders! right before your eyes. Don't miss the No Fair Catches! sideshow or The Bald-Headed Man Who Governs Minnesota! Step right up and have a look.

But the curious crowd gathering around the barkers has had less to do with the work of brilliant marketers (although Barnum & Bailey had nothing on XFL honchos Vince McMahon and Basil V. DeVito) than with the sorry state of professional sports in the U.S. Truth is, it's a bore. Oh, the big leagues mean well. But what they serve up for the most part now is bland, overcooked pageantry. The XFL has promised to put some blood back in the meat (for another take on this subject, see BW, 2/12/01, "XFL: Sex! Violence! But Will Folks Keep Watching?").

Harvard University Professor Clayton M. Christensen recently asked in his book The Innovator's Dilemma: Why do well-managed companies fail? One of his insights is that they become blind to the disruptive techniques that smaller competitors can employ.


  The innovation that made Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Assn., and the National Hockey League so powerful in the past 50 years was television. Here's how it worked: The big networks, eager for programming content, bought broadcast rights from the leagues for increasingly large sums. To offset costs and turn a profit, the networks sold commercial time to advertisers that wanted to target men.

Under this scenario, the leagues, teams, players, and networks prospered. The advertisers footed the bill. Then technology changed the playing field. The advent of cable, the proliferation of channels and sports leagues, the introduction of interactive entertainment via the World Wide Web, and the overcommercialization of games started to make the telecasts seem long and lumbering. Consider this: An average NFL game takes 3 hours and 10 minutes, but it features just 16 minutes of live game action. That's right -- 16 minutes. The rest is commercials, replays, and huddles.

Such a stagnant pace might have continued to work if the consumer universe had remained tired Baby Boomers cradling a beer. But guess what? The boomers had kids. They begot Gen Xers and Echo Boomers, who live on Internet time and are hardwired by high-tech advances to reject slow games and endless, mind-numbing commercials.


  Thus, ratings of major sports events are plummeting. Each of the past three World Series has surpassed the previous record for low ratings. Viewership for the Sydney Summer Olympics was disappointing at best. Viewership of Super Bowl XXXV was the lowest-rated since 1992 among adults aged 18 to 49. And the numbers for the NBA are worse than they were last season.

To fix their problems, here's what the leagues have done: Baseball came up with interleague play. The NFL added a two-point conversion (borrowed from the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.) and banned removing one's helmet. The NBA stuck with three-point shots but watched Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman hang up their sneakers. And the NHL introduced the glowing puck. Be still my heart.

While the big leagues were doing all that staid repackaging for their aging audience, along came McMahon and his World Wrestling Federation. By using cable before it was cool and by developing outrageous programming and comic-book melodrama, McMahon figured out what attracts many of the species masculinus couch-potatus Americanus. Namely, action, sex, and fewer commercial interruptions.


  By the end of 2000, the WWF's Monday Night Raw was beating the NFL's Monday Night Football by almost 50% in the coveted demographic of 12- to 24-year-old males. So McMahon chose the network left outside the NFL's big top and figuratively said: "Let's rock the big leagues' conservative world."

NBC Sports bought into the idea (with an equity position), and now Saturday nights will feature the Chicago Enforcers, Las Vegas Outlaws, New York/New Jersey Hitmen, and five other teams of the XFL. Large men will collide, cheerleaders will jiggle, and advertisers will pore over the ratings.

Where will it all lead? Well, if the XFL takes Baby Boomer ratings from the NBA (same network), blue-collar viewers from the NHL (by offering more mayhem), and Hooters fans from wherever, the major leagues could finally wake up to the fact that their business models are just slightly less dated than M*A*S*H reruns. Wake up and smell the coffee, gang.

Rick Burton is director of the James H. Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon's business school

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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