No XFL on NBC next season, McMahon says

Apr 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

XFL founder Vince McMahon has written off NBC as a Saturday night football date and seems to have decided that his smash-mouth football league will play only on Sunday afternoons next season.
Mr. McMahon told the Los Angeles Times last week that NBC, which Mr. McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation Entertainment took on as a 50-50 XFL partner, will not be televising the XFL games next season.
Still to be decided, said the WWFE chairman, is whether NBC retains any business interest in the league, which wrapped up its maiden season Saturday with the “Million Dollar” championship game between the San Francisco Demons and the Los Angeles Xtreme.
Mr. McMahon indicated he’s banking on being able to work out sophomore-season TV deals with UPN and TNN. Both networks are owned by Viacom, which has a broad deal with Mr. McMahon’s WWF.
While Viacom executive Herb Scannell sounded positive last week when asked whether TNN would be inclined to go with the XFL for a second season-“I think we would,” said the president of TNN, Nickelodeon and TV Land-the sounds emanating from the UPN camp were more ambivalent.
UPN affiliates have noted year-to-year improvements in ratings, particularly among young men, but there is fear that factors such as the negative press for the XFL and deep spot discounts by NBC this year have created an obstacle to selling local commercial time next season.
UPN Chief Operating Officer Adam Ware would only say, “We’re having a hard time dealing with all of the issues that a second season brings up. We’re generally supportive of new ventures, and the league had great promise, but all of the negative press and the problems with NBC may be too much for UPN and its affiliates to overcome.”
XFL President Basil DeVito Jr. took a look in the rear-view mirror last week and talked about what the football league did right and wrong in its first season.
The steep drop in the Saturday night TV audience for the league has been well-chronicled, and Mr. DeVito sounds like a man who has learned to embrace that particular pain.
Minus Saturday’s “Million Dollar Game,” the 11-week ratings average shows the XFL delivered about 67 percent of the Saturday night audience and 65 percent of the Sunday night UPN audience promised to advertisers, Mr. DeVito said.
“I’m not proud of 66 percent,” he said, “but it also is not the whole story.”
He said licensing “outperformed our business plan by 30 percent,” and Internet, merchandising, international distribution and in-stadium merchandise sales either met budget projections or were within “plus or minus a percent or two.”
The XFL overachieved on ticket sales across the eight founding franchise cities. (The plan to expand to 10 cities now seems likely to be delayed until the 2003 season.)
“Our goal was to sell 800,000 tickets,” Mr. DeVito said, “and in the end we’ll be much closer to a million.”
The XFL also “absolutely” proved that its wholly owned, managed-from-the-top business model is a sound one, he said. “What we have done is create a working professional league. Every aspect of our business plan, in the whole macro sense, including the eight teams, comes in plus or minus a couple of percent. We basically executed the plan we expected.
“The one significant underperformance was ratings.”
The XFL started with more than 25 percent of its commercial time unsold and within weeks of its staggeringly successful launch on Feb. 3, when more than 10 million viewers tuned in to NBC, had begun giving advertisers-40 of which stuck with the XFL-extra spots to make up the difference as viewers peeled off in the millions each week.
Through last week, NBC’s average national household rating was a 3.0; UPN’s average was 1.3; and the third weekly telecast on TNN averaged a 0.93. The cumulative weekly average of 5.0 was only 53 percent of the 9.5 promised to advertisers.
Asked what the first season ended up costing the partners, Mr. DeVito said, “I’m not prepared to, nor am I in a position to, make that kind of statement.”
The XFL executive said the preseason plan had pegged start-up and first-season losses at about $30 million. By midseason, XFL officials were projecting losses for the season near $40 million, a figure some in the TV sports world say is conservative.
While NBC still says it will wait until the end of the season to make an evaluation of the situation, it has been getting loud and clear signals from affiliates for weeks that they did not want to be stuck with XFL games again next year.
The stakes appear somewhat different for the XFL’s other TV partners.
For TNN, which is doffing its country-fried image and repositioning itself as broader-interest network, the XFL games produced a 69 percent boost in household ratings and a 154 percent hike in adults 18 to 49 in the games’ time period compared with the month before the league’s launch.
UPN, likewise, has many ratings reasons to look fondly at its first season with the XFL. In February, 87 of 109 UPN affiliates saw year-to-year growth in household ratings in the Sunday time slot that was previously programmed locally; 94 of the stations saw gains in men 18 to 34, and 61 showed “significant increases” in males 12 to 17.
UPN stations’ year-to-year increases ranged from 4.2 percent in households to 64 percent in males 12 to 17 and more than 78 percent in men 18 to 34, with a 50 percent jump in men 18 to 49.
Mr. DeVito was adamant that the XFL feels “really good” when it is measured against short-lived start-up leagues that preceded it. But he concedes the preseason was too short to produce quality play in the first few weeks, when the largest audiences were tuning in.
So a second season would “absolutely” have a longer preseason warm-up to let the teams work out the playing kinks, he said.
Mr. DeVito said the question of Gov. Jesse Ventura’s role as an analyst would not be taken up with the Minnesota chief executive until after the end of the season. Where the XFL failed, he added, was in not reaching out to the press in non-XFL cities.
“We received almost no coverage from sports pages in America,” he said.
While he claimed that using the NFL as a sort of boogeyman and punching bag was not a “conscious” choice, it was “counterproductive. … Instead of saying what they’re not, why don’t we say what we are,” he said.
Mr. McMahon had dreamed of an all-access league and production package that would take viewers into the game (critics generally seemed to like the thudding close-ups of the actual play) and the locker room (where invariably there was so little naturally occurring drama that one week the XFL concocted a cheerleader fantasy).
“I think we can generally accept that there are no Knute Rocknes in the XFL,” Mr. DeVito said. “That would be fair.
“Along with the Easter Bunny, we may have inadvertently revealed secrets that we didn’t intend to reveal. Those are hard lessons that we learned.”