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Savran: Don't expect upstart XFL to be a dummy for the NFL

Sunday, October 08, 2000

The National Football League has always managed to beat back all its challengers save one ... the American Football League, which was absorbed to make the NFL the monolith it is today.

Also, before it dissolved in the early '50s, the All-America Conference managed to place a few of its franchises in the NFL. But all others, the World Football League and the USFL, were capsized in the NFL's monstrous wake. The league has gone forth and multiplied, and become more prosperous than its founders could ever have imagined.

But now, it's that time again. The XFL, the offspring of the renegade World Wrestling Federation, mounts a challenge, although challenge is probably an inaccurate depiction. Challenging the NFL is suicidal: The USFL was doing well until its ego (read Donald Trump) got in the way; Trump urged moving from a spring to a fall schedule to compete directly with the NFL and the lambs were led to slaughter.

But right now, the proper climate exists for an upstart to nudge for a bit of football turf. And the NFL knows it. Why else would they allow Monday Night Football to attach microphones to players for replay at halftime? Or consent to officials being outfitted with mini-cams on their hats? Because they know the XFL has a chance to survive for four very good reasons.

First, there's an audience for it ... the same audience that has drowned personalities like Goldberg and Stone Cold Steve Austin in celebrity. This predominantly male, 18-to-whatever age group is a maxi-action, mini-attention-span audience that craves the instant gratification which typifies this generation. They want their entertainment to be in video-game form, with lots of explosive swooshes and flashes. If they don't get it immediately, they're gone and on to the next potential thrill. For them, with the notable exception of the St. Louis Rams, the thrill is gone from NFL football.

Second, this audience has been disenfranchised from the NFL. My Dad started taking me to games when a crowd of 40,000 was considered outstanding. This group targeted by the XFL grew up in an age of sellouts. Tickets in sold-out stadiums are harder to come by, therefore, they don't go to games Sunday after Sunday as you and I did. The NFL is not part of their routine, or as it was in my case, a ritual. They may have grown up watching games on TV, but they didn't grow up experiencing it in person. It's difficult to create an obsession through a television screen.

Third, unlike other start-up leagues, they've got a TV contract. NBC, the odd man out in the game of TV musical chairs, was anxious to get back on the playing field, thus has lavished enough money on the XFL to stabilize the wobbly early days.

Last, say what you want about professional wrestling, they have a chokehold on marketing genius. They know how to promote. They have to, because they're not presenting an actual athletic contest, so it's the sizzle, not the steak they sell. More importantly, they understand who they're selling to, and how to reach them. That audience wants football with an edge played by free-wheeling gladiators who aren't bound by a coach's computerized tendency chart. Couple that with the WWF's expertise in promoting heroes and bad guys, with an always fuzzy distinction between the two, and you've got an engine ready to be hot-wired.

One word of warning to Vince McMahon and the wrestling wonks. They must not only be concerned with the brand of football they present, but with the legitimacy of it as well. The most devoted wrestling fans realize, at least I think they do, that the outcomes are pre-determined. That may be fine for a show, but not for a real athletic contest. If the XFL clouds the veracity of the competition with even the slightest hint of suspicion that the games are scripted, the whole thing collapses in a heap, no matter how entertaining the football. Given what we know about the parent WWF, it's an image the XFL must rise above immediately.

That aside, they have a chance to make it. And by making it I don't mean competing directly with the NFL. The XFL can make it merely by capturing a little patch of turf and audience to call its own. All the right ingredients are on the table. All they have to do is mix them together properly.

Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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