L.A. might have been snubbed by the National Football League last year as the home of a new expansion franchise, but pro football is coming back to the Coliseum next year anyway.
The XFL, the World Wrestling Federation’s made-for-TV football league, is preparing for its first kickoff next February at the Memorial Coliseum, just weeks after the NFL ends its season. WWF officials have reached a deal to rent the Coliseum during the league’s inaugural 10-game spring season.
Meanwhile, the XFL is poised to step into a potential bidding battle over the network and cable rights for the new league’s games. But while stadium officials and even some network honchos are taking the XFL seriously, there is widespread skepticism about whether there is room for another pro football league.
“The concept of another football league is difficult,” said Steve Cesinger, self-described die-hard football fan and entertainment analyst at L.A.-based investment bank Greif & Co. “My football is about playing, and not about a bunch of wrestlers. I don’t see it happening.”
Overcoming attitudes like that is only one hurdle the WWF will have to leap if it hopes to make its league succeed. To date, no one has been able to make a secondary pro football league pencil out, despite numerous costly attempts like the now-defunct World Football League and the U.S. Football League.
Stadium officials confident
The XFL also comes at a time when arena football is starting up in a number of major cities. The Los Angeles Avengers begin their season next month at the new Staples Center.
Despite the naysayers, Coliseum General Manager Pat Lynch said he has no qualms about renting his stadium to the XFL.
“This is a real deal,” he said. “They (the WWF) are quality people, and they have the money from their IPO. We are optimistic. We know they have drawing power among kids, and it may work well in football.”
Although the stadium deal has not been signed, Lynch said the contracts are in the mail. The Coliseum and WWF have been doing business together for nearly 15 years, with numerous wrestling matches staged at the Exposition Park stadium. The initial deal for football is for one year, with options to renew.
Officials with the WWF, which is investing around $100 million in the new football league, say they have enough cash to sustain the XFL for at least three years.
“We will bring that younger audience that, for whatever reason, the NFL can’t seem to attract,” said WWF Chairman Vince McMahon. “It’s going to be smash-mouth, wide-open football. This won’t be for pantywaists.”
The XFL plans to kick off with a 10-game regular season in early February 2001 in eight major cities including Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco. By 2005, the league expects to have 16 teams. Former college and NFL players and & #233;migr & #233;s from the Canadian Football League will help staff the new league.
Unlike the NFL, which consists of privately owned franchises, the WWF plans to retain ownership of all teams, including the one slated for Los Angeles. No team names have yet been assigned.
Just what the new league will look like remains a mystery. The WWF has said it will maintain the integrity of the game, but will try to speed it up whatever that means. The WWF also plans to introduce TV cameras into huddles and locker rooms, via “helmet-cams” worn by players.
It is also not known how or whether the WWF might play out the theatrics of wrestling on the football field. Jayson Bernstein, a spokesman for the XFL, said the new league will emphasize the sports element of football and not the staged antics of the WWF.
“This is real football,” he said, adding that WWF wrestlers will not be joining the league. “I can assure you there will be no chairs being thrown on the field of play. We are not looking at turning this into a mockery of the sport.”
Powering the new league is the success of the WWF on television. UPN’s Thursday-night WWF “Smackdown” has turned around the struggling weblet’s ratings. “Smackdown” has also helped UPN attract young male viewers, who have been largely ignored by the major networks in favor of young female viewers. The WWF’s cable show on the USA network ranks among the highest raters every week on cable.
Armed with that ammunition, the WWF has begun talks with several broadcast networks, including UPN, as well as cable companies, for the rights to the XFL. A WWF spokesman declined to elaborate on the talks, although UPN officials have said they are in “the red zone” in their negotiations. (The red zone in football parlance refers to the area between the 20-yard line and the goal line.)
If UPN does get the TV rights to the XFL, the network is expected to expand its programming lineup to a sixth night, possibly adding Sundays for the games.
Although the new league’s first game is more than 11 months away, UPN has an arrangement with its affiliates to notify them six months in advance if a new night is going to be added. That means UPN would have to reach a deal for the XFL by no later than July. UPN’s two-year deal with the WWF for televised wrestling ends in September 2001.
The advertising community has some doubts about the new league’s viability and compatibility with advertisers. “It’s going to be really tough, especially at that time of the year, (to start a new league),” said Bill Cella, a media buyer for McCann Erickson Worldwide. “You don’t know if this is going to be a legitimate league. It is probably going to be more entertainment than professional football.”