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Made For TV Football

By P.F. Wilson · July 14th, 2000 · Channel Surfing
Give the people what they want, and they'll still complain. The National Football League (NFL) has never been more popular, but at the same time criticism of the pro game has also never been higher. Rising ticket prices, players in trouble with the law and owners threatening to move franchises if publicly funded stadiums aren't built for them, are recurring sustenance for sports talk shows.

The NFL has something of a monopoly on pro football in this country, yet anyone who tries to chip away at this conglomerate meets with titters and jeers. You see, the NFL hates competition, unless it's within their closed circle of (now) 32 teams. In the late '70s they sought to wipe out the North American Soccer League (NASL), fearing that all those kids playing soccer in organized leagues would grow up to be adult soccer fans. This of course, would siphon fans away from the NFL. Fortunately for the NFL, the NASL brought about own demise.

In the mid-'70s, the World Football League rose up to challenge the NFL. For about 10 minutes it looked like a serious threat. The new league's founders had previously started successful rival hockey and basketball leagues. The third time wasn't a charm, however, and the league slipped below the surface halfway through its second season.

In the early '80s a gentleman named Don Dixon came up with a new wrinkle to the second football league concept.

Why not play in spring? In 1983 the United States Football League (USFL) debuted. It lasted three seasons before an undertow took it to the bottom the Red (ink) Sea, accelerated by the cost of an anti-trust suit against the NFL in which the USFL was awarded $1.

Now another innovator attempts to take the field. This spring the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), partnered with NBC, will launch the XFL. The jokes and snide remarks abound. Personally, I have never had time for the WWF, but I don't let that taint my view of this new undertaking. Everyone except NBC and UPN sees this as a lark. In 1983, everybody except ABC and ESPN (who both televised USFL games) thought the USFL was a lark.

The XFL promises old-fashioned football with a few new ideas. Popular opinion suggests it will be gimmicky, fixed or excessively violent. Football, though, is violent, and many of the XFL's "gimmicks" aren't gimmicks at all, but actually a return to the past. New things like microphones in the huddle and mini-cams on referees seem intriguing enough.

The eight cities with teams have been announced and nicknames unveiled. In Las Vegas, the team's name met with disappointment: "Outlaws" was viewed as unimaginative. Matt O'Brien writing in CityLife (CB's opposite number in the desert) claimed the cooler nicknames went to New York, Chicago and Memphis with "Hitmen," "Enforcers" and "Maniax," respectively. Yes, Hitmen is a better name, but Maniax with an "x" is just plain dopey. The Orlando Rage and Los Angeles Xtreme are equally dreadful. If it's going to be like the days of old, perhaps the teams should reflect that in their names and logos.

So why is this commentary in Channel Surfing?

It's simple. This league was invented, in part, as programming for NBC. It's not a bad move. The XFL will play in spring, going up against the NBA, NHL and ... well, not much else. Five of the eight teams are in cities without NFL teams (Las Vegas, Orlando, San Jose, Memphis and Birmingham). Of those five, only two compete with another local pro sports franchise (in Orlando, the NBA Magic; in San Jose the NHL Sharks). The other three teams (New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) are in markets large enough to build respectable fan bases.

To succeed, the XFL simply has to show that, despite its relationship to the WWF, it's a separate sibling. Remember, the Bengals (and nine other NFL teams) exist because Lamar Hunt started a rival league in 1959. The WWF and NBC just hope fans give it a shot before they start taking shots. ©



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