XFL's Fast-Mouth Football

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It is January, two weeks before the first XFL game will be played, and the New York/New Jersey Hitmen already have fans. Rabid fans. Fans who scream "those wusses!" in a bar in Secaucus, N.J., when general manager Drew Pearson announces that the Hitmen beat the Chicago Enforcers in a scrimmage. Pearson, the former Dallas Cowboys great, is at Bazooka's--which is like a Hooters without all the pretension--surrounded by cheerleaders in black leather pantsuits with cutouts just below their belly buttons. "We will be violent out there," he yells to the crowd. "If a quarterback slides, God bless him, because we're going to hit him anyway. That's Hitmen football."

At the other end of the bar, Jonathan Travers, 26, the fan who publicly questioned the masculinity of Midwesterners, and Pete Bonavita, 22, perform their own cheer for XFL cameras in an attempt to add two opening-game tickets to the seven season tickets they have already purchased. They signal hands-over-crotch for the X, stick up middle fingers for the F and give the international "loser" signal, thumb and index finger smacked onto forehead, for the L.

These are just the kind of fans the National Football League wants, and the kind that the World Wrestling Federation has been able to drag blindly into its new enterprise, the first major pro league to be launched since the three-season flop of the United States Football League (USFL) in the mid-'80s. The XFL is a joint venture by the World Wrestling Federation and NBC that debuted last Saturday night. It is trying to sell itself as a more violent version of the NFL (no fair catches, taunting encouraged) with more sex (cheerleaders in revealing outfits), but that's not really the product it has. After all, the only way to make football more violent than the NFL is to find MVP linebackers who were actually convicted of murder. As far as sex is concerned, those hot, skanky-looking cheerleaders in the XFL television ads were in fact pricey Los Angeles models who can't dance, while the actual XFL cheerleaders are former cheerleaders who can't dance.

WWF CEO Vince McMahon's business plan is to turn sports into reality TV: miked players, coverage of the coach's halftime talks, a "bubba cam" operator in protective padding behind the linemen, reporters interrupting players between downs and, for some reason, fireworks. "There's no reason to do scripting," McMahon says of the difference between the XFL and the WWF. "This is a reality show--live. It's real. It's not someone who is alleged to eat a rat when it was really chicken. We're going to find out who these players are as human beings."

The XFL is gambling that access will substitute for talent on the teams, which are made up of NFL has-beens and college players who never made it. Why would anyone want to know so much about people they don't care about? TV execs stopped asking that question around the second episode of Survivor.

Before its first game, the XFL sold more than 500,000 tickets and a staggering number of red-and-black footballs. Still, new leagues have a worse record than the Cincinnati Bengals; the day that investors found out McMahon was launching a league, the WWF's stock dropped 25%. (The company had sales of $379 million and operating earnings of $59 million last year.)

The XFL's business plan isn't as stupid as its product, however. By splitting the anticipated $100 million in start-up costs over the first two years with nbc, McMahon isn't risking nearly as much as the USFL did. By owning all the teams and offering all the players the same $45,000 one-year contract with a one-year option (quarterbacks get $50,000; kickers, $35,000), he can control his costs; the entire XFL payroll is less than half that of a single NFL team. And the league needs only to deliver a mediocre 4.5 Nielsen rating to make its 10-week 8 p.m. Saturday time slot on nbc a success, as long as it attracts the overvalued young male demographic. Networks are increasingly willing to play cable station with their off-peak hours.

And even if NBC is just doing this because it is still bitter about losing the NFL to Fox, it is still a cheap drunk. "If we had signed the deal to stay with the AFC, we would have lost $150 million to $160 million a year," says NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who made McMahon an offer just hours after the WWF announced the league's launch. "So worst-case scenario to us would be a third of what we would have lost."

McMahon has a carny's flair for attracting attention, but it was guys like Ryan Clement, a former University of Miami quarterback who got in trouble for, as he puts it, "having too much personality," who took the field for Saturday's opener for the Vegas Outlaws. He considers this second chance a gift--one that he plans to exploit to the fullest. "Every [night]club here has been letting us in for free," Clement says. "And as soon as we're on NBC Saturday night, the groupies will be here."

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