Where Did XFL Go Wrong?
Where Is the Fledgling XFL Going Wrong?
By Tracy L. Ziemer
February 28, 2001
If the NFL were a limo, the XFL sees itself as a rusting
Camaro that squeals around the corners yet is loads more fun
to drive. But after four weeks, the upstart league appears headed
for a breakdown.
The XFL, a $100 million joint venture between the World Wrestling
Federation and NBC, billed itself as the anti-NFL—a
working man's football league with hard hits, hard-bodied
cheerleaders and hard-working players earning salaries of
$35,000 to $50,000 plus bonuses for winning games.
The ratings, however, have continued to drop after a strong
debut, and already one advertiser has bailed while others,
like Burger King, are taking a wait-and-see approach.
But league spokesman Jeff Shapes defended the effort: "We're
a new venture, and I think people shouldn't be judgmental
after a few weeks."
Dick Ebersol, chairman of sports at NBC, in the past described
the new league as "a good fun time on a Saturday night,
a chance for viewers to see a splendid football game with
a good deal of tomfoolery around the edges."
Some of that "tomfoolery" has included women frolicking
in a hot tub behind the end zone in Los Angeles, players sporting
nicknames on their jerseys like "Big Daddy" and
"He Hate Me," and enough scantily clad cheerleaders
to assure television won't lose its jiggle just because Baywatch
is going off the air.
WWF star The Rock christened the league by threatening to
throw the XFL's critics off the Golden Gate Bridge prior to
the opening game, and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura is moonlighting
as a color commentator on XFL telecasts. XFL play has been
billed as "smashmouth" football, with no "fair
catch" on punt returns and a race to the pigskin to see
who receives the opening kickoff.
And yet, despite this mix of sex, violence and controversial
personalities, the ratings continue to plunge. After achieving
ratings of 10.3 for the league's inaugural game featuring
the Las Vegas Outlaws and New York/New Jersey Hitmen, the
XFL has seen its viewership base drop drastically. The upstart
league's ratings in Week 2 fell to 5.1, followed by a 3.8.
Last Saturday's 2.6 rating for the game featuring the Hitmen
against the Chicago Enforcers was the lowest-rated prime-time
show ever among the three networks, according to The Associated
NBC nevertheless reconfirmed its commitment to the league
on Tuesday and said the ratings, on average, are still ahead
"This was a business decision for NBC," said Cameron
Blanchard, director of communications for NBC Sports. "For
us, it's a change in the way sports has done business in that
there are no broadcast rights. & Also, in terms of producing
it, it is financially more viable for us than entertainment
Honda Pulls Out
Honda pulled its advertising last week, and the league has
begun offering some free commercial time to keep advertisers
happy. Still, not all XFL sponsors see the situation as entirely
grim and are opting to stick with the league—at least
"Certainly the XFL has had its ups and downs, but it's
early on and there's no reason to jump the gun right now,"
said Andy Horrow, marketing manager for Gatorade, an XFL sponsor.
"We'll take a hard look at it when the first season is
over. But there's nothing really to react to right now, we
About 70 percent of the XFL's ad inventory is sold for the
regular season, with 30-second spots going for $140,000 to
$150,000, according to Shapes.
While television viewers are not tuning in like before, the
XFL maintains that the league is achieving great success at
the stadium. Teams are averaging 28,000 spectators per game
over four weeks significantly higher than the 20,000 fans
projected in their business plan, said Shapes.
The WWF, meanwhile, saw its fiscal third-quarter profit fall
26 percent due to increased spending to start the XFL. Net
income for the quarter ending Jan. 26 was $11.7 million, or
16 cents a share, down from $15.7 million, or 23 cents a share
a year ago. The WWF's live shows, weekly broadcasts and pay-per-view
events pulled in $379 million in revenue last year, and its
various television broadcasts achieve about 22 million viewers
Tech-Savvy Audience Wants Tailored Broadcast
David Carter, head of the Sports Business Group, a California-based
provider of strategic sports marketing services, said one
of the problems is how to define success for the league.
"This is the first sports league that was developed
strictly as a made-for-TV product," said Carter. "It's
a hybrid—not quite entertainment, not quite football—and
they're having a little bit of difficulty with it."
While the WWF is taking more of a risk because it's trying
to extend its brand with the league, NBC's investment still
could be regarded as a success if its other shows benefit.
"For NBC, defining success was using this made-for-TV
programming as a way to prop up programming on their other
shows," Carter said. "They're obviously going after
that young male demographic, so they went after the league
to promote other marketing of Saturday Night Live or the NBA
on Sundays. They may not need to define success if they can
catch the imagination of the viewers early, then it might
translate to their other properties."
A league that was created for TV also struggles when two
teams in major television markets—the Chicago Enforcers
and New York/New Jersey Hitmen—have one win between
them in four weeks.
A Harris Interactive poll of just under 500 viewers of the
league's inaugural game found that while 75 percent of the
respondents had considered themselves fans of WWF, 55 percent
of all those polled said the XFL was worse than expected while
people ages 18-24 responded the most favorably.
"The one thing that I found most fascinating from the
data is the XFL has potential and they're mismarketing themselves,"
said Nadine Gelberg, executive director of sports research
for Harris Interactive.
The data also showed that the crowd expressing early interest
in the new league is tech-savvy, and Gelberg questions why
the XFL—which does not have a single tech sponsor—has
not done more to scale back on titillation and ramp up technology
to aggressively pursue this audience. She recommends the league
implement high-tech aspects into the telecast, such as a variation
on the yellow first-down marker used by the NFL.
"This is not an audience that adheres to traditional
kinds of sports," said Gelberg. "These are fans
who are interested in new and different forms of sports and
entertainment, and part of that profile is that they're interested
in video games and technological advancements of the broadcast."
Defining the Message
Late-night talk show hosts often include the XFL in their
punch lines, and sportswriters have criticized the quality
of the product the level of play is not on par with the NFL
and the entertainment factor is suspect. The XFL needs to
do a better job of reining in that criticism, experts say.
"I think [the XFL] needs to not allow other people to
define what their chartered course is going to be," said
Carter. "Media and others are looking at XFL fans and
are asking what kind of ghoulish mentality does it take to
follow this league. [The XFL] is letting comedians and others
dress down their fan base."
Overemphasizing the XFL as the anti-NFL also poses some drawbacks.
"The league can't alienate a very important base,"
Carter said. "Their very flagrant shots at the established
sports leagues could hurt them because their broadcasting
partner, NBC, shows the NBA. So there's a very fine line between
getting the troops fired up to play and going over the top."
"This is critical for NBC," Carter continued. "They
were criticized for devastating coverage of the Olympics.
If this goes poorly, this would be two very big mistakes for
them. It might give them cause to stick it out and exit gracefully
after their commitment."
Recapturing some of that initial excitement for the league
is critical to the XFL.
"I think a lot of people anticipated [the XFL] and were
excited and looked forward to it, and it's going to be a real
challenge—for the league, NBC and the sponsors as well—to
overcome that first impression," said Gelberg.
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