XFL folds after disappointing first season
Updated: Thursday May 10, 2001 9:49 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- X-it, stage left.
The XFL folded Thursday after one season that was a critical and TV ratings disappointment for the football league founded by the World Wrestling Federation and jointly owned by NBC.
The WWF said its share of after-tax losses will be about $35 million. NBC's loss should be similar.
"Despite where our heart was, we just couldn't make it work from a financial standpoint," WWF chairman Vince McMahon said. "We tried to figure out every conceivable way to make this work."
Even with adjustments on the fly, very little worked for the XFL between the much-hyped and well-rated season opener and the April 21 championship game, which was watched by about 75 percent fewer people than the debut on NBC.
The final game's national rating was a 2.1, tying for 93rd place among prime-time shows that week and lower than anything else on the four major networks. Each rating point represents a little more than 1 million TV homes.
The Week 7 broadcast on NBC is believed to be the lowest-rated prime-time program ever on one of the three major networks.
"It was a risk we all thought was a smart one in this wildly escalating TV rights scene," said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who had hoped to provide his network with football after it lost its NFL rights contract after the 1997 season.
NBC hoped to parlay McMahon's promotional skills to draw the young male viewers that advertisers crave and air games on Saturdays, which generally have poor TV ratings.
In the end, 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.
"We knew it wasn't going to work [in prime time] from early March on," Ebersol said. "The launch worked, the people were there, and we didn't answer their expectations, I guess."
In addition to Saturday nights on NBC, XFL games were shown on UPN and TNN. McMahon indicated the death blow for the fledgling league was that no deal could be struck with those secondary broadcasters, which became 100 percent clear Thursday.
The XFL didn't seem to be able 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 WWF wrestler -- who sounded more like shills than analysts.
By the end, most of that nonsense was gone.
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.
J.K. McKay, general manager of the first and only XFL champion Los Angeles Xtreme, said the demise came as a surprise, especially since the league held meetings just a week ago in Connecticut.
"I feel very badly," McKay said. "It's been a lot of fun. We took a lot of heat in the media. We tried to put a good product on the field and allow people to come to football games who never could have afforded to."
Ventura, asked for his reaction as he left a speech in Minneapolis, said: "I don't care. I don't work for them anymore."
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.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league would have no comment -- a position the NFL maintained throughout the XFL's existence.
At stadiums, the eight-team league said it sold about 1 million tickets, but the championship game drew a crowd of only 24,153 to the 90,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum.
But the television viewership plummeted after a promising Week 1, prompting the league to give away about 30 percent of its ad inventory for free 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 XFL did give fans impressive access to the game, including cameras in huddles and microphones in helmets.
"In terms of the innovations that NBC and WWF brought to the game -- I would suggest that you will see those in the NFL," McMahon said. "Our whole imprimatur was to bring the game closer to the fan."