By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
The rule changes are minimal: The play clock is five seconds shorter, halftime is only 10 minutes, and receivers need only have one foot in bounds on catches. Yes, the players can date the cheerleaders. But you can do that in the NFL, too.
The XFL deserves all the skepticism it is getting for one simple reason: Start-up pro football leagues fail. The United States Football League made promises similar to the XFL's when it launched in 1983 -- it had a deal with ABC, a spring schedule, fan buzz, and the revolutionary helmet-cam -- but lasted only three seasons before folding, $160 million in debt. In 1992, the Professional Spring Football League died before its inaugural season even began, when two of its main investors backed out at the last minute. Shortly after that, the Canadian Football League tried to extend south of the border to cities like Baltimore, Sacramento, and San Antonio, but fans didn't come and team owners abandoned their sinking ships after two years. Even the NFL has had trouble expanding its operations. Its European venture, the World League of American Football, launched in 1991, canceled its entire 1992 season due to financial troubles. To this day it can claim only modest success, as European audiences still prefer their own brand of football to America's; ABC discontinued its stateside broadcasts when audiences failed to get behind epic battles like, say, Scotland vs. Frankfurt.
If there's ample proof that people don't want more pro football, what's so different this time around? Both the XFL and NBC argue that the viewers are there, citing research saying that interest in pro football is at its peak during the Super Bowl.
Which isn't anywhere near the same thing as saying people want more football after the Super Bowl's over.
The XFL's Hicks cites an ESPN poll saying that pro football is America's favorite televised sport, regardless of the time of year. "The number of homes using television is at its peak [in February], it's still cool outside, and people are still looking for something to watch on TV," he says. By exploiting springtime's "dead zone" for pro sports, and getting a choice slot on network television, Hicks argues that the XFL will get the audiences and ratings that other leagues have failed to.
But the main difference, he says, is storytelling. Because everybody's contracts, from the coaches to the players to the cheerleaders, are owned outright by the XFL, they can all be used to the league's purposes in any way it sees fit. "From a TV standpoint, we're going to tell a story," Hicks says. "Whether it's the fact that Vegas has posted a line on the game, the offensive coordinator is feuding with the quarterback, or there's two drunk fans passing out in the stands. Whatever the stories are, we're gonna tell them."
Or, as NBC Sports spokesperson Cameron Blanchard says, if a wide receiver blows a catch and runs out to the sidelines, "Somebody will be right there with a microphone asking, "What happened? Butter on your fingers today?'"
Advertisers are interested in the marketing ploys -- but they're hedging their bets. "I would say the odds are pretty good for the first year," says Keith Bruce, vice president of sports marketing for the San Francisco advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding. But while Bruce notes that there's been little difficulty lining up advertisers for the XFL's inaugural season, he says they're getting in cheap -- at reportedly a third of what ABC's Monday Night Football charges. Those advertisers are also being tentative for the time being. "Most of our clients are taking a wait-and-see attitude," Bruce says. "They're asking, "Is it going to be competitive football or a rowdy sideshow?' There's a concern that it'll just be, pardon my language, a T&A display."
Terry is the director of race and sports booking for Station Casinos, a chain of four hotel-casinos swaddling the neon-encrusted Las Vegas Strip. In his office at the Palace Station Hotel, where the Demons are staying during their January training camp, he's taking a break at the midpoint of a long day in the smoke-drenched betting room, where weary-looking retirees grumble over their racing forms and watch the opening minutes of the Raiders-Dolphins playoff game. Terry himself can't resist glancing at the game on one of the three TVs in his office, as he explains why he has decided to take bets on the XFL.
Part of the reason is that Terry is being careful. With a bill floating through Congress proposing to ban NCAA betting, Vegas is keeping an eye out for other options. "People are looking for those other avenues, where they can still get people to come to our hotel rooms and give them something to wager on," he says. "I don't think that bill will pass, but we're all looking for those angles."
Another reason is simply that Terry believes the XFL will play legitimate football, though nobody can speak to its caliber. Assistants are now poring through rosters -- studying quarterbacks in particular -- to judge the teams and set appropriate lines. At first, Terry says, there will be tight limits on the amount somebody can bet -- a thousand bucks, tops, for the first season. "That game there," he says, pointing at the Raiders-Dolphins action on the TV, "I'll go up to 30, 40 thousand dollars."