Early Returns: XFL Delivers

XFL founder Vince McMahon addresses sellout crowd at the inaugural XFL game in Las Vegas. AP

Style over substance certainly sells.

The XFL's television debut was deafening, dizzying and strewn with double entendres, relegating the mediocre football itself to sideshow status.

And that formula, devised by the fledgling league's owners NBC-TV and the World Wrestling Federation, could be precisely why the show drew impressive preliminary ratings Saturday night for the Las Vegas Outlaws against the New York/New Jersey Hitmen.

An average of 10.3 percent of television households tuned in at any given moment, giving NBC a prime-time victory over the other networks. That rating based on the country's 49 biggest markets, each preliminary point represents roughly 675,000 TV homes - is more than double what advertisers were told to expect.

It's also about 25 percent higher than NBC's broadcast of Game 4 of the American League championship series between the Yankees and Mariners drew on a Saturday night in October.

"As long as (the rating is) somewhere between 3, 4, 5, we're gold," WWF mogul Vince McMahon said.

Said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol: "We're trying to bring Saturday night viewers back to NBC, and last night's game more than doubled the time period."

The network averaged a 4.2 prime-time national rating on Saturdays last month by broadcasting movies. The national rating for the XFL opener is due to be released Tuesday.

The premise of the XFL is to appeal to male viewers aged 12-24 the same audience with which the WWF thrives and it's clear there will be nothing highbrow or low-key about the shows.

From the preponderance of shots of barely clad cheerleaders to cameos by snarling WWF wrestlers to the fascination with nonsensical nicknames stitched on players' jerseys to downright silly "interviews" with fans, there was little question the XFL is more about spectacle than sport.

During an XFL broadcast Sunday afternoon on UPN, one of the league's two other broadcasts, an announcer made a joke about Monica Lewinsky and a cigar.

"I don't think there's ever enough sex," McMahon said.

Even the emphasis on "All-Access" coverage, with players wearing microphones and cameras everywhere, did little to enhance the broadcast from a football standpoint. The oft-used angle from behind the line of scrimmage was disorienting, making it nearly impossible to understand how far downfield a play carried, while the quick cuts between cameras were nauseating.

It was innovative to allow spectators to hear play calls piped from offensive coordinators to quarterbacks, but if the XFL were really about the game, announcers would translate what "solo right, 324 Dakota" means.

And it's groundbreaking to take cameras into the locker rooms for pregame and halftime glimpses, but it's hardly exciting to hear Outlaws coach Jim Criner implore his players to "lay it on the line, play as hard awe can for four full quarters."

Perhaps the censor armed with a 5-second delay should be on the lookout for cliches as well as profanity (a few examples of the latter slipped past, by the way).

The main announcing pair, Minnesota governor and former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura with Matt Vasgersian, was loud and lewd and, as might be expected when the broadcaster owns the product, full of hyperbole in discussing how "historic" and "fun" and "big and ugly" everything was.

They're pitchmen and they know it.

"This is classic voyeurism," Vasgersian proudly noted at one juncture, with Ventura chiming in, "And I love intrusiveness." Trying to see exactly what their governor was up to, viewers in Minneapolis produced a 14.9 rating, second only to Las Vegas.

The overall viewership might have been inflated by the novelty factor and the media attention leading up to the debut.

On Saturday, ESPN2's bottom-of-the-screen crawl showed the scores of the XFL games before results from the NBA and college basketball. ESPN's 1 a.m. EST edition of "SportsCenter" led its intro with XFL clips, then ran game highlights and a snippet from a McMahon news conference 10 minutes into the broadcast.

Regardless of how seriously the XFL's football is taken, the early indication is the league could be a TV force.

During prolonged ground-up shots of cheerleaders after a commercial break in the first quarter, Vasgersian summed up the scene with a simple declaration: "I feel uncomfortable."

Apparently, millions of viewers did not.


©2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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