Archive for Friday, April 20, 2001

XFL has been NBC’s football folly

After Million Dollar Game, network should waste no time in dumping $45 million mistake

April 20, 2001

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The XFL will play its "Million Dollar Game" Saturday. For NBC it will be the end of its $45 million game.

The network won't wait more than five seconds to pull the plug on this botched enterprise. According to industry sources, it cost NBC about $45 million to do this dance with Vince McMahon.

That doesn't include the untold cost to its reputation.

The only dividend for NBC was that it gave Jay Leno plenty of XFL-bashing material for his monologues.

When NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol goes into full spin, he will counter that the financial losses are relatively insignificant in the scope of prime-time television. The network still feels it would have lost much more if it remained with the high-priced NFL.

NBC also will fall on the "no risk, no gain" platform. Saturday night television is a wasteland for ratings, so why not take a chance?

There's some validity to that point. At the outset there were those who doubted the viability of ABC's "Monday Night Football."

Still this is the XFL, not the NFL. In the end the gamble was as pointless as leading with a pair of 3s.

Mistake No. 1 for Ebersol was putting too much faith in his old buddy, McMahon. Before the debut Ebersol said nobody delivers young viewers like McMahon. Trouble is those young viewers enjoy getting their brains scrambled on the World Wrestling Federation. Football is a different story.

McMahon and Ebersol tried to bring the WWF shtick to the XFL and it blew up in both of their faces. They trotted out "The Rock," campy skits with the "cheerleaders," WWF announcers, among its other silly toys.

The worst error was inserting Jesse Ventura as the lead analyst. The Minnesota governor was the wrong fit. He made it even worse when in a contrived WWF-manner he tried to pick an oral fight with New York/New Jersey coach Rusty Tillman.

The whole approach failed on two fronts. The broadcasts didn't have enough of the WWF components to satisfy that audience. And it was too over-the-top with the wrestling stuff, turning off the traditional football viewers.

NBC and the XFL eventually realized their mistake, transforming the broadcast into a more serious football-oriented approach. But by then the audience had left the tent.

Last Saturday night in prime time, the XFL on NBC did a 1.8 rating for the San Francisco-Orlando playoff game. That's the broadcast equivalent of getting a 400 for just signing your name on the SAT exam.

Ebersol, the man who helped create the Not Ready for Prime Time Players for "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-1970s, should have realized the XFL wasn't ready for prime time. It was a fatal flaw for McMahon, too.

If the league had started only on cable and on a smaller syndicated-oriented network like UPN, as was the original plan, it would have had the chance to grow, experiment and blunder without the bright spotlight.

Instead, being on NBC in prime time, everything got magnified. The XFL suffered a weekly deluge of poor ratings and attacks from critics.

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