Sports » Sports Feature

The First Time

The XFL has some valuable lessons to learn.



In its first season of fireworks, cheerleaders, and the occasional highlight reel, the Memphis Maniax have -- at the very least -- entertained the 100,000-plus fans who came to the Liberty Bowl. Ironically, the league that was supposed to challenge the networks because of its production savvy instead impressed with its ticket sales, averaging over 24,000 viewers per game per city, drawing more than 1 million people.

But putting butts in the seats, entertaining the home crowd, and playing (mostly) quality football really isn't the point. The XFL, in its television incarnation, underperformed. While network execs promised advertisers a Nielsen 4.5 share, the XFL has struggled to produce a two-point rating, sometimes falling below that.

The result is a threat from co-owner NBC to pull the plug on the Saturday prime-time broadcasts. Another result is the XFL is expanding to new markets sooner than planned in order to build its TV base.

NBC's involvement provided the league and its founder -- the always-ambitious Vince McMahon -- too much hype before anything happened on the field. The first week's rating of 10.3 on Saturday night only accelerated that process. Look for the league's other TV partners (UPN and TNN) to provide the focal point for the second XFL season.

That the XFL will most likely leave primetime is in some sense appropriate in light of its anti-network persona. The XFL has been up-front about its mistakes. The public has never before been exposed to the inner workings of big-league sports productions. Coaches talk about league meetings and rules they don't like. Players talk about officials and don't get fined. Game announcers denounce the media openly and grit their teeth menacingly at the assured backlash. This is revolutionary. No one will ever look at the game of football the same way again.

That's not to the say the league's legacy is secure. For one thing, it's impossible to say what this league is about. Early in the season we got vignettes with cheerleaders and players, then some football, then a rivalry between -- of all things -- an announcer and a coach, then we got cheerleaders in locker rooms, then we got some football, then what? If you asked a car salesman to describe his brand of car and he said, "Well, it's like a Porsche, but more like a station wagon, with some SUV features" you would probably walk off the lot.

Another issue is a fundamental confusion about who the real players in this game are. Attention is divided between owners, announcers, cheerleaders, coaches, and (oh yeah) the guys with the uniforms. It's difficult to know where to focus. While multiple storylines and characters may serve a wrestling show, in the sports world some depth is needed.

One notable exception from this is the league's best facet -- the coaches.When goaded by the governor of Minnesota, New York/New Jersey head coach Rusty Tillman sent a clear message: He is a football coach and his game speaks for him. Even with a 0-4 start, his team was in the playoff hunt until the last weekend.

Maniax head coach Kippy Brown disappointed but still represented himself, his team, and the league well. Though he was not able to coach his talented but underachieving team past a 5-5 record, he at least admitted what he did wrong. At press conferences, he would address the mistakes he seemingly couldn't coach out of his team and what he was doing to improve.

Do not doubt Brown's honesty with himself or others. When the Maniax were still in contention for the playoffs, Brown said of their chances, "If I were a betting man, would I bet on us? No. Because our M.O. has been not to be able to finish [ball games]." How's that for coaches more worried about pissing off star players than saying what's on their minds?

Look at Brown if you want to see this league's potential. He's an inexperienced head coach learning as he goes, trying to tune his athletes who have everything to prove and literally nothing to lose. If the XFL becomes the premier minor league of football, it will be because of coaches like Brown who have shaped their clubs from the ground up, creating teams that wouldn't be possible in the NFL because of player salaries, egos, and intruding owners.

As for salaries, everyone gets paid on a scale, though that model might bend next year for certain players on a case-by-case basis. Also, each player is on a yearly contract, necessary for a league filled with players who would run to the NFL on a moment's notice. The coaches, on the other hand, have extended contracts and are presumably paid more than even quarterbacks, though no salaries have been divulged publicly. That means that the stabilizing factors in this league are the coaches.

And this might come as a shock, but apparently McMahon listens to the coaches and has accepted many of their suggestions. One example is the bump-and-run rule dropped at mid-season. Expect further rule modifications, like the point-after conversion and the rule allowing forward motion -- all because the coaches asked for it. How refreshing is it to see changes happening in the game made by those who know the game rather than those who own it?

Coaches are also going to factor heavily in the off-season as the league drafts rules on player recruitment, player swaps, and the XFL draft, which will next year include college players. Since this is the league's first off-season, it is unlikely that the coaches will be told what is happening rather than giving significant input.

In many ways, the XFL's first season was the anti-cheesy summer movie it prophesied itself to be. There is no glory and only the minimum of satisfaction. There is also the attitude that a serious amount of work needs to be done. Luckily for the league, that work is in the hands most capable: the coaches. ·

You can e-mail Chris Przybyszewski at

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