Rougher, but a smash hit?

NBC and WWF's audacious league targets the macho demo with a brazen brand of football

Ever look back wistfully to the days when an NFL defensive lineman could wind up and give his opponent a vicious bone-jarring slap right upside his big knotty head, knocking him senseless?

Well, wish no more. The head slap is coming back to football next January via the XFL, the upstart, made-for-television football league being jointly developed by NBC and World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. This concession to offensive linemen: They still get to wear helmets.

As the NFL has gotten gentler over the years, some think it has also become staid and a little boring. That's the hook the XFL is trying to exploit as it positions itself as a rougher, sassier and more exciting brand of football. In a phrase-and a phrase that XFL executives never tire of saying-it's "smash-mouth football."

That's not the only thing that will get smashed. The league is also doing away with the "in the grasp" rule that protects the quarterback from extra bumps and bruises (if not concussions) once a defensive player grabs hold of him. In the XFL, as long as the quarterback keeps struggling for yardage, the defense has the right "to bury him," as Dick Butkus, newly named head coach for the XFL Chicago franchise, puts it.

Although the plan isn't finalized yet, NBC is considering coverage of two games each Saturday night, one beginning at 8 p.m. on the East Coast, followed by a West Coast contest three hours later. In addition, UPN will carry a Sunday-night game. And soon, Broadcasting & Cable has learned, the league will announce that Viacom's revamped TNN (future home of the WWF itself) will carry a weekly Sunday-afternoon game.

The XFL has told advertisers it expects to average a 5.5 household rating for NBC Saturday-night games, with about 2.7 million men 18-49 tuning in. The Sunday-night UPN telecast should average about a 3.0 rating, with a little more than 1.2 million men 18-49 watching. The Sunday-afternoon game on TNN should do a 2.5 rating, with about 1.3 million men 18 to 49.

Agency sources said the XFL was shopping sponsorships in the range of $2 million and up. Those sources estimate that a single 30-second spot in NBC's Saturday night game might cost between $17,000 and $20,000, if the games reach the ratings targets.

The league partners have committed close to $100 million in startup costs, and both NBC and WWF are putting heavy emphasis on first kickoff Feb. 3, six days after the NFL's Super Bowl. (In addition to its 50% share of the start-up costs, NBC has acquired 2.3 million shares, or 3%, of publicly traded WWF Entertainment Inc. for $30 million.)

The XFL will control and sell all the inventory in the games, WWF's new President Basil DeVito says. That way, he explains, NBC and UPN and TNN won't be sending conflicting messages about the league to advertisers. DeVito promises the XFL will announce several advertising and licensing deals soon.

Ad agency sources say the XFL has sold sponsorships for the beer, auto, candy and soft-drink categories but won't identify the sponsors. As for pricing, agency execs say the league will likely get rates more akin to cable (a cost-per-thousand-viewers rate in the $6 to $8 range) than to the NFL (with an average $15 CPM).

So will it make it where many leagues have failed before? Schulman/ Advanswers National Media Buyer Tom Decabia says, "It's not a bad product to put at that time of year for the male audience. They should find out within a month or so whether the true sports fan accepts or rejects it."

NBC and Turner considered a football league venture two years ago but couldn't make the numbers work. When CBS lost the NFL in 1994, it too considered a startup league, says media consultant Neal Pilson, then president of CBS Sports. "When I looked at it for CBS, we didn't feel there was a public demand for the product," he notes. "I'm sure NBC and WWF have reached a different conclusion five years later."

For the most part, agency executives remain open-minded about the new league. "It's something [to which] we're paying close attention," says Tim Spengler, head of national broadcast buying for Initiative Media, Los Angeles. "Who knows what will become of it long-term, but, for a young-male demo, it's probably worth taking a shot."

And as a player, it might be all right if you can take a hit. The XFL has several ways it intends to rough up the game. For example:

  • There won't be a point-after-touchdown kick. Teams will have to run or pass the ball for an extra point.
  • Forward motion by the offensive backfield will be allowed before the ball snap.
  • The bump-and-run returns, allowing defenders to give offensive receivers a good pop at the line of scrimmage. The current NFL rule bars defensive contact with receivers until 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.
  • There are no fair catches. On punt returns, the ball will be in play until someone takes possession and gets tackled.
  • Sorry, no touchbacks on the kickoff. The kickoff starts from deeper in the kicking team's territory than in the NFL, but, even if the ball reaches the end zone, the receiving team will have to attempt to run it back.
  • A shorter period of time is allotted to initiate a play.
  • A player needs only one foot in bounds for a legal pass reception.
  • Now there will be spontaneous player "celebrations," currently banned by the NFL but permitted by the XFL (as long as they don't delay the game).

The league will have an unprecedented amount of TV and radio coverage at launch. It's likely that all four weekly contests will receive national TV exposure from the start.

On the radio side, local teams are starting to shop around local-rights packages, and there may be a national radio game of the week as well, says DeVito.

Although the XFL will clearly be a more violent brand of football, officials say they don't intend to let the games degenerate into the brawls that figure so prominently in the National Hockey League. "It has not been contemplated to allow unrestrained fighting" on the field, says an XFL spokesman. The same penalties that apply in the NFL would apply to the XFL, up to and including ejection, he maintains.

But XFLers have built-in financial incentives to win every week: They'll be paid thousands of dollars less when they lose. During the 10-game regular season, each winning team in each game will split a $100,000 bonus pool. Losers get no bonus.

For the championship game, the winning team splits a $1 million bonus pool, while the losers get nothing. Thus, over the course of the season, players have the opportunity to more than double their take-home pay in bonuses.

League officials say the average player base salary will be $45,000, far less than the NFL but more than any other football league. (Arena Football players make about $25,000 per season; Canadian Football League players, about $31,000.)

Meanwhile, the league is establishing franchises in eight cities: New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; San Jose, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Las Vegas. Chicago is furthest along; just last week, it named NFL Hall of Famer Butkus head coach, the XFL's first.

The league has stadium deals in six of its eight markets and is in discussions in New York with the operators of the New Jersey Meadowlands Stadium, home of the New York Giants, and Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.

DeVito has little experience on the business side of football outside of a brief NFL internship during his college days. But he does have a sports-marketing background and the backing of WWF founder Vince McMahon, for whom he has worked for 12 years.

Others in the XFL front office are doing much of the day-to-day crafting of the league. Vice President, Football Operations, Mike Keller, a former player with the Dallas Cowboys, has held executive positions with the NFL, the defunct USFL and the World League of American Football. Vice President, Administration, Billy Hicks is a founding partner in the WLAF and one-time president and general manager of the Dallas Burn, a Major League Soccer franchise.

On the player front, the league has received more than 10,000 applications through its Web site, according to Keller.

Most of the 800 to 900 players who will be put under contract will come from the Arena Football League, Canadian Football League, World League and players who have been cut from the NFL, says Keller. In October, the eight teams will each draft 70 players who will go to training camp. Player trades and waivers and additional drafting will go on until the first game.

The XFL also thinks it can create a more intense viewing experience for the home audience by having more cameras and microphones in more places in and around its games than are currently allowed in NFL coverage.

Coaches will be wired for sound and tracked by cameras throughout the game-including the half-time locker-room session. Much of the sideline banter will also be taped. But none of it will scripted, a spokesman insists. "We're just telling the coaches to be themselves but, if they see a cameraman following them, not to slug him, because it will be our cameraman."

With three national TV outlets carrying its games, the XFL is rich in promotional vehicles. NBC aired a promo with McMahon during its coverage of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and plans to air a "significant number" of XFL promos during the second week of the Olympics, DeVito says.

"Having these resources certainly helps make a marketing opportunity just about everywhere we turn," DeVito says.

But Tom McGovern, director of sports media for OMD, New York, isn't so sure. "I think the closer it stays to real football the greater their challenge will be," he says. "Vince McMahon's success has always been pushing the envelope. People aren't craving more football."

The WWF and NBC, of course, are making a $100 million bet that just the opposite is true.