Despite skepticism in the advertising community and the media, NBC and Time Warner are moving confidently toward a June 2000 kickoff for their fledgling pro football league. Architects of the new league, including NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner, are considering having 10 to 12 franchises, a 10-week regular season and a championship game around Labor Day, according to sources familiar with discussions. The new league would not challenge the NFL, which traditionally begins regular-season play on Labor Day weekend, or the NBA, whose national-TV rights are owned by NBC and Time Warner's Turner Sports. The new league's sole major league sports competition would be baseball.
In all likelihood the new league won't have NFL-caliber players. Rather than engage in a bidding war with the NFL for stars, it would create regional franchises stocked primarily with former collegians who have a local following and are willing to play for less than $100,000 a season. One candidate city, for instance, would be Birmingham, which fervently supported its United States Football League team in that league's brief run from 1983 to '85. Last spring 28 players from Alabama and Auburn who were eligible for the draft—including Tigers star quarterback Dameyune Craig—weren't selected. Another 53 eligible players from Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Miss were not drafted. No one from NBC or Time Warner (the parent company of Time Inc., the publisher of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED) is speaking on the record about the prospective league, but the planners clearly are counting on large regional pools of players, mostly in college football hotbeds, to draw enough fan and TV interest to make the league viable.
Cameras and microphones in the locker rooms and huddles are among other elements that could serve to distinguish the new league from the NFL. Also, to capitalize on NFL fans who are turned off by uncaring millionaire players, the new league may contractually bind its players to interact with fans—by signing autographs and making public appearances, for instance.
As fan-friendly as that sounds, the last thing America needs is a new sports league. So how will the two media giants sell America on summer football? "The big question is, Can NBC and Turner create a league that will keep the 21-to 34-year-old male at home on a weekend night?" says Tony Ponturo, corporate vice president of media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, which buys more than $200 million in commercial time on sports telecasts. "Baseball's getting stronger, and the growth of sports is outdistancing the growth of marketing dollars for advertisers. It'll be tough for the new league, but certainly you'd have to give it a hearing because of the brains of the people involved."
The big test will be if NBC can get a 2 share in major markets in the dead sports-TV weeks from late June until Labor Day by showing the likes of Craig and former Florida State quarterback Thad Busby duking it out for Birmingham and Orlando.
Selling Violence With Vulgarity
The marketing campaign for NFL Xtreme, an officially licensed NFL video game whose slogan is "After the coin toss, anything goes," flies in the face of good taste and good sense. The print ad for the video depicts a large, opened can with 100% PURE WHUP ASS on the label. Another image in the ad is that of Cowboys wide-out Michael Irvin flying helmetless through the air after a big hit. The copy reads, "There's no rules, no penalties and no boundaries. It's a helmet-popping, trash-talking, late-hitting free-for-all. Enjoy."
No, thanks. Forget for a moment the ad's language (naughty words and faulty grammar are O.K., kids) and consider its message. Niners quarterback Steve Young is one serious concussion from a forced retirement, and this NFL-licensed (and NFL Players Association-licensed) video game is celebrating late hits. Darryl Stingley is paralyzed for life after getting nailed in the helmet by Jack Tatum, and this NFL-licensed video game extols the virtues of helmet hits. Bryan Cox is penalized and fined for his outbursts, and this NFL-licensed video game is selling trash talk. It's shameful. How can the league come down on cheap-shot artists and hotheads while also endorsing this video?
"It's more of a fantasy game," says NFL director of corporate communications Chris Widmaier. "There's no blood, no stretchers. Guys pop right up after they're hit. The marketing of this game is consistent with how to get the attention of the upper-teen and early-20s market."
Each year the NFL's highest individual honor, the Man of the Year award, is given to a player who has demonstrated ability and leadership on the field and dedication to charity off it. Last year's winner, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, looked over the ad and shook his head. "I'm not surprised," he said. "The NFL's like NASCAR. NASCAR says it doesn't want to see car wrecks, but what does America want? Car wrecks. Same thing with the people at the NFL. They want this stuff. It sells."