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After closing the second of a ten-week season, you can bet that Vince McMahon and his partners in the XFL are already back at the drawing board, trying to figure out how to save themselves from a spectacular football flop.
The league is in serious need of retooling. After storming out of the gate Feb. 3 with a 10.3 television rating--that is, 10.3% of American households tuned in at any given time--the XFL audience shriveled by more than half, to 5.1 on Feb. 10. That's almost a point better than NBC's typical Saturday ratings for this time of year, but it's a sign that the initial boost was driven at least in part by curiosity and hype. NBC, a unit of General Electric, is a half-owner in the league.
The ratings are the end result of other problems with the XFL. Television critics and sports writers have panned the quality of play. The league made the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, but the best the writer could say was that the ratings were good. The issue was published before the second week's games--and now that's not even true.
Another issue is fan base. Clearly, XFL antics--busty, scantily clad cheerleaders, trash-talking players and a commentator's sophomoric sexual innuendo--is targeted toward the World Wrestling Federation fan. That seems like a sound strategy, since WWF shows are among the highest-rated on cable.
The problem lies in the conflict of appealing both to young boys looking for a cheap thrill and to serious football fans who would normally tune into NFL games. WWF fans don't seem to be the same as NFL fans, and the XFL will have a very tough time trying to appeal to both.
In a previous interview, XFL President Basil DeVito was unequivocal in his stance that the new league was not competing with the NFL and, in fact, planned on garnering an NFL audience with a more free-form (read: violent) style of play.
But most XFL games, at least so far, have included commentators and WWF guests slamming the NFL, characterizing it as a stiff organization playing a boring game. That seems like an odd strategy for appealing to NFL fans and indeed may be having the opposite effect.
It's been a little more than a year since McMahon, a third-generation wrestling promoter, announced the XFL. Shortly after, NBC's sports chief, Dick Ebersol, contacted McMahon and pledged about $50 million to jumpstart the league. Since then, WWF's stock is up 33%, to $15.10 in early afternoon trading today, outperforming the Standard & Poor's 500 and Nasdaq Composite indexes, which are down 4% and 44% respectively in the same time period. WWF will announce third-quarter results Feb. 15.
McMahon is nothing if not resourceful, with an obvious understanding of what sells. After taking WWF national in the mid-1980s, the league lost ground to Ted Turner's rival wrestling program, World Championship Wrestling. McMahon refashioned the WWF, promoting outlandish characters and soap-opera-like scripts to accompany its live events, always a sellout. WWF was the first to acknowledge that its version of wrestling is fake.
His marketing savvy helped him take the WWF public in 1999 and landed McMahon on The Forbes Four Hundred Richest in America list last year. He's got a tough challenge ahead in proving that he can sell to a wider audience. If he doesn't pull it off soon, don't expect NBC to commit to another year.