Are you ready for some Goofball?
Riding both the wave of NFL apathy after a dreadful Super Bowl and the shiny coattails of the peculiarly popular World Wrestling Federation, the XFL kicks off tonight aimed at morphing football into a reality-based athletic soap opera.
With cameras in huddles, cheerleaders in showers and radical rule changes such as no fair catches the XFL won't much resemble your NFL. And, according to NBC officials and WWF chairman Vince McMahon, that's exactly the point.
"The NFL has forgotten about the fan," said McMahon, head of the Stamford, Conn.-based WWF, which co-owns the XFL with NBC. "Middle-class America can't afford to go to an NFL game, which is what brought us to the dance. The NFL is more about corporate America. What we're doing is respecting the fan, giving them more than their money's worth and bringing them closer to the game."
Boldly going where the World Football League and United States Football League failed, the XFL will attempt to body slam the NFL with more style than substance. Tonight's first two games New York/New Jersey vs. Las Vegas and Chicago vs. Orlando begin a 10-week schedule that also features teams in Birmingham (Ala.), Memphis (Tenn.), San Francisco, and Los Angeles, color commentary by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a black-and-red ball, a handful of former NFL first-round picks, an April 21 championship game dubbed "The Big Game at the End" and a prime-time dose of America's biggest turn-ons: sex and violence.
"Will we walk to the edge of danger? Yes," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said. "Will we sometimes fall over it? Sure. It's going to be football presented a whole new way: up close, in your face, with a dollop of tomfoolery along the way."
"But will it be real or scripted?" NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue recently wondered aloud of his newest competition.
The XFL already has cleared that first major hurdle, convincing advertisers, players and even Las Vegas oddsmakers that games will indeed be legit, not fixed with WWF theatrical plots spiced with love affairs and folding chairs. ESPN plans to show the first weekend's scores on its ticker, and several Vegas sports books are carrying point spreads.
The league also boosted its profile by leasing the Los Angeles Coliseum, Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Soldier Field in Chicago and Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco for its four major-market teams.
The Las Vegas Outlaws claimed the league's first sellout. None of the 27,000 tickets remains for their game tonight against the Hitmen. The league said each team has sold between 3,000 and 9,000 season tickets, including 7,000 in Las Vegas.
"It's the NFL that's kind of antiseptic with its long list of don'ts," said Dick Butkus, XFL director of competition and an NFL Hall of Famer. "We'll be raw. We'll be natural. Our games will be real."
Where the WFL folded after 15 months in '75 and the USFL zonked in '86 after being awarded only $1 in a $1.5 billion antitrust suit against the NFL, the XFL believes it has better footing because of its network TV contract, tight leash on player salaries and innovative product.
Viewers will be treated to 15 players miked per game (with a five-second delay, of course), 30 cameras at each game (same number as the Super Bowl, some positioned on the field and in the locker room) and announcers sitting in the stands instead of booths.
But how does McMahon expect to persuade fans to leave the couch to attend games when his league is admittedly made-for-TV?
"For $25 seats at the 50-yard line, 75-foot Jumbotrons, concert-quality speakers and fireworks and light shows galore," he said. "Best bargain in sports."
Maybe, but when the XFL's blimp wrecked before the AFC Championship Game in Oakland, Calif., it eerily outlined two of the new league's possible destinations:
Crash the NFL's private party.
Or simply crash.