16 January 2001

XFL Gets the Cold Shoulder From Mainstream Sports Sites

David Sweet - Wall Street Journal

Link to Original Article: http://interactive.wsj.com/articles/SB977353174774013891.htm

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It wasn't the kind of coverage the XFL expected.

In the Jan. 10 San Jose Mercury News, a report bellowed that a "runaway two-ton blimp" promoting the new football league crashed into an Oakland restaurant.

The XFL hopes to persuade sports news sites it's worthy of crash coverage -- as in helmets colliding when the league kicks off Feb. 3.

Burdened by staffing woes in a troubled dot-com environment and curious to see if fans and sponsors embrace football World-Wrestling-Federation-style, sites are yawning at the blustery upstart.

"I don't see us spending a lot of staff hours on this," says George Knue, senior editor of ChicagoSports.com, whose coverage area includes the XFL's Chicago Enforcers. "I've yet to receive my first e-mail complaining about [preseason] lack of coverage."

Mr. Knue, who admits employee cutbacks will affect coverage, will repurpose Enforcers' news from the site's print partner, the Chicago Tribune. The fledgling team will share a section online with the woebegone Bears of the National Football League.

Though brimming with staff writers, CBS SportsLine.com won't immediately assign one to the XFL. The site's message to the league: Prove yourself.

"It will be treated much like the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League, but with a keen eye out for developments," notes Joe Ferreira, vice president of programming for SportsLine.com.

ESPN.com editor John Marvel believes the XFL warrants fewer stories than women's college basketball.

"They've done an interesting job in generating some early buzz, but ultimately it will come down to the product on the field," says Mr. Marvel, who plans to post results, schedules, standings and wire-written game stories. "If the product stinks, it has no chance of succeeding."

Coverage factors would seem to favor the XFL. Traditionally the grimmest sports month, February is a wasteland sandwiched between NFL playoffs and March Madness. Whereas newspapers face space crunches, real estate is limitless on the Web.

The XFL, co-owned by the WWF and General Electric Co.'s NBC Sports, is the first new professional football league created since the Internet exploded. Claiming the NFL is dull, the XFL -- composed of eight teams -- will eliminate the fair-catch rule on the field and encourage cheerleaders to date players off it.

Says John Rawlings, editorial director of the Sporting News Online: "In some instances people in our business are dismissing it [the XFL] because of the WWF-type hoopla. That would be a mistake."

Embracing the XFL is MSNBCSports.com, the Web arm of NBC Sports. (The network will televise XFL games on Saturday nights.)

Already on the site, players extol the league's differences with the NFL via audio. A full array of statistics, expert analysis and interactive elements will be introduced in February, according to editor in chief Merrill Brown.

"We will treat it as a major sport," says Mr. Brown, who acknowledges coverage will be influenced by the NBC relationship. "There will be lots of interest in the new league, I'm sure."

Other editors, though, doubt fans will rush to mainstream sites for XFL fodder. Mr. Knue compares Chicago's Enforcers to minor-league teams, such as the International Hockey League's Timberwolves.

"When we had Wolves' stuff on our site, no one looked at it," says Mr. Knue, who notes the team draws decent crowds. "We couldn't justify doing it. It drives the newspaper guy in me crazy to say things like that."

Lack of significant coverage on mainstream sports venues -- which attract tens of millions of unique visitors monthly -- may simply boost XFL.com's growing presence. In December, XFL.com drew 342,000 unique visitors, only 2,000 fewer than Major League Baseball's long-established site, according to Media Metrix.

Sports news sites reserve the right to take a second look. If fans and sponsors hop on board, so will dot-com venues.

"We will immediately step up our coverage [in that case]," says SportsLine.com's Mr. Ferreira.

Until then, XFL news may pop up on sites as comic relief.

Last week, ESPN.com's Page 2 posed the question: "Who Crashed the XFL Blimp?" Everyone from New York Yankee Jose Canseco to aging Utah center Olden Polynice stood accused of steering the dirigible to disaster.

Mr. Polynice's suggested alibi surprised no one. "Could have taken out blimp easier by shooting free throws from the ground," noted ESPN.com.