Xfl: Sex! Violence! But Will Folks Keep Watching?

Once the novelty fades, the XFL may be hurting for fans

For 10 months, World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. Chairman Vince McMahon has basked in a hail of publicity about his bold move to form a new professional football league, the XFL, in partnership with NBC. The XFL is set for a Feb. 3 launch, and fans are expected to tune in--if not out of post-Super Bowl boredom, then for such smash-mouth rule changes as bagging the "fair catch." A kick-returner getting his head bashed in is exactly the action McMahon is betting will set the XFL apart from today's penalty-stifled games.

McMahon says he launched the XFL because the National Football League has grown stale and folks want more rock-'em, sock-'em football. But the odds are just as likely that the XFL will be the one carted from the field. That turf is already littered with NFL wannabe failures, including the NFL's own World League in the early 1990s. With its eight teams stocked with second-tier players, the XFL will likely be anything but quality play. And if it is as graphic as the WWF slugfests, advertisers seem ready to bolt. "If [viewers] come back a third time, it has hope," says Tom DeCabia, executive vice-president of media buying firm Shulman/Advanswers. "My gut tells me they won't."

A big score on the gridiron would give McMahon's World Wrestling Federation some welcome diversification. The company still sells tons of tickets for its 200-plus wrestling events a year, and its weekly UPN Smackdown! show lures plenty of male teens, who are coveted by advertisers. But there are signs the company is in a headlock, even though revenues have increased by 30% in its most recent six months. Ratings for its Monday night Raw is War are down by 14% a year after McMahon won a legal battle to move the show from USA to the TNN channel. And operating margins have started to slip, according to WWF's most recent filings. The XFL has rejuvenated its stock, up more than 30% since Jan. 1. But, trading in the $20 range, it's only $3 above its 1999 IPO price.

Wall Street, and football-loving audiences everywhere, are no doubt wondering how McMahon will create entertaining football on a shoestring. To keep costs down, the new XFL is paying players $45,000 a year, giving them a chance to split $100,000 bonuses for each victory. In all, WWF and NBC figure to spend $100 million to launch the league--roughly the payroll last year of the Washington Redskins. And any XFL costs are still less for NBC than what it pays for its Saturday night movies.

CHEAP SPOTS. McMahon, on the other hand, has to make ends meet, and ticket sales are spotty in places like Los Angeles and Chicago. Ads are going for as little as $50,000 for 30 seconds--a pittance compared with the $500,000 that ABC's Monday Night Football attracts--and advertisers have an out in their contracts if play gets too violent. "It's like Roman gladiator times," says L. Brent Bozell, founder of the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group. Bozell led a boycott against violence on WWF's shows and says he has persuaded 42 companies not to advertise on Smackdown! McMahon has sued Bozell for slander, but Bozell says he may still target the XFL.

TV executives report that NBC affiliates are finding it difficult to sell local spots for the XFL. Don't tell that to McMahon, who is gearing up for a Wrestlemania-style show. Taunting players will be shown on giant Jumbotron screens behind one end zone, while bodacious cheerleaders will cavort with fans and players alike. And there will be plenty of head-snapping violence. "I think they've got a real shot," says Don Ohlmeyer, executive producer of ABC's Monday Night Football. "And if they fail, they haven't spent that much, have they?" Ohlmeyer figures he'll tune in. But getting his buddies to watch with him might be tougher than trying to wipe the smirk off the face of one of McMahon's 300-pound wrestlers.

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