NEW YORK, AP
“He Hate Me” — aka Rod Smart — was right.
The XFL player who drew attention simply by stitching his nickname to his jersey didn’t have TV viewers in mind when he selected that sobriquet, but he might as well have.
The football league founded by the World Wrestling Federation and jointly owned by NBC folded Thursday, less than three weeks after its inaugural championship game drew about 25 percent of the television audience that the highly hyped debut produced.
“The launch worked, the people were there, and we didn’t answer their expectations, I guess,” NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said.
The idea was to put the games on NBC on Saturday nights, when few people watch television generally, and use WWF impresario Vince McMahon’s promotional skills to draw young male viewers that advertisers crave.
That plan worked. For about a week in February.
The WWF’s share of after tax losses will be about US$35 million. NBC’s loss should be similar.
“Despite where our heart was, we just couldn’t make it work from a financial standpoint,” McMahon said. “We tried to figure out every conceivable way to make this work.”
Once it was clear NBC wasn’t going to keep airing a product that in Week 7 set a record for the lowest prime-time rating ever on one of the three major networks, McMahon set out to keep the eight-team XFL on the air.
But a deal couldn’t be worked out with the league’s other broadcasters, UPN and TNN.
“It was a risk we all thought was a smart one in this wildly escalating TV rights scene,” Ebersol said, whose network lost its NFL contract after the 1997 season.
The XFL had a shorter life than another outdoor spring football league — the USFL, which started airing on ABC in 1983 and folded after three seasons.
But the XFL couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be more about sport or spectacle.
“I never had faith in the concept,” said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, a consultant. “If they had pitched it closer to football, they would have lost the wrestling audience. If they had made a burlesque out of football to conform to the expectations of the wrestling audience, they probably would have lost NBC, which as I understand it wanted to play quality football.”
Early games had lascivious cheerleader shots, anti-NFL bluster from WWF types, sophomoric double entendres and screaming announcers — including Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former wrestler — who sounded more like shills than analysts.
Ventura, asked for his reaction, said: “I don’t care. I don’t work for them anymore.”
The XFL even changed the on-field rules to speed up games after a double overtime contest in Week 2 delayed “Saturday Night Live.” Other rules changes came as late as the playoffs, and tinkering with the production side never ceased.
By the end, though, most of the circus atmosphere was gone.
Although the quality of the football might have improved during the season, it was telling that the league’s MVP, Tommy Maddox, threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns during a brief NFL career.
At stadiums, the eight-team league said it sold about 1 million tickets. The championship game drew a crowd of only 24,153 to the 90,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum.
Plummeting TV audiences prompted the league to give away about 30 percent of its ad inventory to sponsors whose commercials weren’t reaching as many viewers as they had been promised.
“The audience didn’t like it in the numbers we needed to go forward,” Ebersol said.
The TV rating for the April 21 championship game — for the record, the Los Angeles Xtreme beat the San Francisco Demons 38-6 — tied for 93rd place among prime-time shows that week and was lower than for anything else on NBC, CBS, ABC or Fox.
NBC already was distancing itself from the disaster Thursday.
The headline ticker running above the “Today” studio in midtown Manhattan read, “World Wrestling Federation folds the XFL after only one season.”