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Madden: XFL starts fast, but will it last?

Saturday, February 10, 2001

Just one week old, the XFL has drawn huge outbursts of media criticism. The lousy football, the overexposure -- in more ways than one -- of the cheerleaders, the in-your-face attitude that pervades every aspect of the product, the silly rules ... the XFL has been lambasted in every manner possible.

Thing is, it's a hit so far.

Lowbrow? Sure. Appealing to the trailer-park set? Absolutely. But God must have loved the lowest common denominator because He made so many of them.

The XFL's average attendance last weekend was almost 35,000, well above the league's projected average of 25,000. The Nielsen rating for the XFL's Saturday game on NBC was 9.5, more than double the 4.5 that advertisers were promised. The UPN game Sunday did a 3.1, one-tenth of a point more than what advertisers were promised. The XFL's numbers blew away the NHL All-Star Game. It might be fair -- already -- to call the XFL North America's No. 4 sports league.

Let's face it, the main reason serious sports types don't like the XFL is because wrestling impresario Vince McMahon owns it, and his WWF has done blasphemous things like take a big chunk out of Monday Night Football's ratings and steal a lot of interest away from traditional sports. Those in the legitimate sports media have no patience for a circus-like product -- unless, of course, they work for the New York Post, in which case they participate in the publication of one.

Nothing succeeds like success, which is why most criticisms of the XFL ring hollow.

The success, however, might not last. The XFL's vital signs are already poor in some respects.

Breaking down that 9.5 NBC rating, the game started at 12.0 during the first quarter-hour but finished at 7.6. The audience declined steadily during the course of the telecast. That could mean the XFL was merely victimized by a poor first game. Or it could mean a lot of curiosity-seekers tuned in, didn't like what they saw and quickly tuned out. It could also mean that a lot of wrestling fans tuned in, saw substandard football instead of sex and story lines and grabbed the clicker with great haste.

One thing is certain: Plenty of people who watched Saturday didn't watch Sunday. OK, so NBC is a more established network than UPN, but UPN isn't cable access, either. It's quite viable and visible.

The game Saturday night did a great rating among teen-age boys, posting a 10.6 in the 12-17 male demographic. That's similar to the 12-17 male audience for WWF Monday Night Raw. The Sunday game did a 2.4 among 12-17 males. That's similar to the 12-17 male audience for a typical NFL telecast.

A lot of teen-age boys watched Saturday but disappeared Sunday. The XFL needs those kids to watch. That's the audience Raw aims for, and it's the audience the XFL aims for.

The attendance was blown a bit out of proportion. A lot of tickets were given away in some cities so the stands would be packed for TV. Orlando was a legitimate sellout, and the XFL glories in saying 4,000 fans were turned away there. But the upper deck wasn't open in Orlando. Had the whole stadium been used, the game would have had 39,000 people in a 60,000-seat stadium.

All in all, the XFL should be happy with its first week. But it also should heed signs of potential decline.

It will be interesting to see what McMahon does should ratings and attendance slip below acceptable levels. Will he come up with sidebar-style story lines involving, say, players and cheerleaders? Will he go so far as to script games? If he tries to do that, what will the reaction of the players be? These guys signed up to play legitimate football. Scripting games might seem far-fetched -- for one thing, it would difficult to execute -- but McMahon is all about results and control.

The XFL also will be hurt when the NFL copies its good ideas -- which, make no mistake, will absolutely happen. I guarantee you'll see cameras on the field during NFL games within two years. It's a great idea just for the bone-jarring close-up replays. It wouldn't shock me if the NFL adopted certain elements of the XFL's punt rules -- or rather, the XFL's relative lack thereof.

Once the NFL steals the XFL's good ideas, the impact of those innovations will diminish as far as the XFL goes. No one will want to see "He Hate Me" Rod Smart sort out the quandary of the no fair-catch rule in the XFL once the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis is doing the same in the NFL.

McMahon will do everything possible to make the XFL succeed. He has a powerful ally in NBC, and he's desperate for mainstream acceptance after decades of being seen as a glorified carnival barker. In fairness to McMahon, the XFL should be judged on its own merits, not on McMahon's reputation as WWF owner.

The XFL's first-week telecasts weren't great football games, but they were fun TV shows. I'd rather watch the XFL than the NBA. The athletes might be lesser, but at least they're giving an honest effort for an entire game. I'd rather watch the XFL than "Temptation Island" -- although, as mentioned, don't be surprised if McMahon eventually incorporates elements of that show into the XFL.

And I'd rather watch the XFL than the Bill Cowher Press Conference. Lord, I'd rather watch anything besides that.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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