The XFL in search of itself

Posted: Mar 13, 2001 12:00 AM
There is no good news for the much-ballyhooed XFL. After its first-week ratings bonanza, the new football league's television audience has largely evaporated. The last hour of the March 3 NBC telecast, that network's most recent at this writing, may have been, in the words of the Washington Post's Paul Farhi, "the lowest-rated primetime hour ever on one of the Big Three networks." Concerning the ongoing train wreck that is this WWF-NBC joint venture, a few observations: -- To examine the XFL concept is to understand why most football and wrestling aficionados have found the league wanting. Unlike, for example, the AFL in the '60s and the USFL in the '80s, the XFL doesn't compete with the NFL for talent, nor does it aspire to do so. It is, by design, a minor league. The XFL had calculated that it could sustain the interest of football fans if it coupled minimalist professionalism with outrageous packaging. But for this audience, the XFL immediately became a joke, a boring, almost pathetic parody of itself. They didn't laugh; they left. -- Then there was the other target market: The Officially Brain-Dead TV Viewer. Despite occasional raunchy remarks from the announcers (color man Brian Bosworth likened two teams having trouble scoring touchdowns to "fat people makin' love. (They just can't stick it in)," skimpily clothed "cheerleaders" better suited to pin-ups adorning truck-stop latrine walls, and sideline microphones designed to pick up juicy comments ("Move that f---ing camera out of the way"), the whole spectacle simply hasn't been vulgar enough for the typical WWF fan. For this crowd, the fact that the XFL doesn't allow linebackers to club quarterbacks with metal folding chairs is a significant minus. -- For the XFL to succeed in the major leagues of television -- Saturday night, prime time, on the Peacock network -- it would need to earn respect from the critics. It never happened. From the start, most journalists have had the good taste to disdain the XFL. The New York Times' Caryn James called it "trashy," the New York Post's Phil Mushnick described it as "unmitigated garbage," and Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times opined that it was "tedious" and "inept," adding, "Roller Derby beats it any day." "Most journalists" doesn't include Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who, last month, declared that the outraged response to the XFL's pandering crudity is "further evidence ... that the world is steadily losing its sense of humor." The league, she added in Deep Thought Mode, offers "good comedy (with) an element of very real social criticism." Even if you grant that there's an element of comedy in the XFL (and I don't), it doesn't follow necessarily that it's good comedy. See if you can spot the humorous side of the XFL experience in this account from Dann Halem, who attended a Chicago Enforcers-Los Angeles Xtreme game and wrote about it for the online magazine Slate: "If you're looking for a poorly organized riot, the XFL (crowds) might be right up your alley ... One fan, a 46-year-old paraplegic and die-hard sports fanatic, brought his nephews to the Coliseum because the teenagers love the WWF and had never been to a pro football game. By the third quarter, with beer flowing, women flashing, and fans angling for a view of the girls, the fan and his wheelchair were caught in the crossfire of a violent drunken skirmish. Seconds later, he was pushed headfirst into a concrete walkway six feet below. Lying in a puddle of his own blood, with multiple gashes and a black eye, he had beer and garbage thrown on him until paramedics arrived. (He's now recovering nicely.)" -- Last weekend, the XFL was going to place cameras inside the locker room of the Orlando Rage cheerleaders. A TV promo called this "a desperate attempt to increase television ratings." It's actually more than that. It's a last-gasp, desperate attempt to keep the league alive. At the February 2000 press conference at which the XFL's formation was announced, a reporter asked WWF mogul Vince McMahon if the league meant he was "going legit." McMahon answered, "May I never, ever be thought of as f---ing legit." Judging from the public's reaction to the XFL, it would seem that the sentiment is widely held. NBC is putting forth a brave face on this debacle with the perfunctory statements about its "commitment" to the XFL. But it cannot sustain the advertising losses, and it's only a matter of time before it pulls the plug, at which point its tens of millions of dollars in investments go down the drain and into the sewer, where this idea belonged in the first place.