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SPORTS WEEKEND | TV / RADIO

NBC Gives XFL the Backing It Needs

March 31, 2000|LARRY STEWART

Just what Los Angeles needs, another X-rated pro football team.

We already have the Avengers, the Arena League team whose lone home exhibition game at Staples Center is April 9 and its regular-season home opener April 20. The Avengers have caused a stir with billboards deemed obscene by many. An Azusa city official was arrested for vandalism this week after painting over some objectionable words on one of the the billboards.

And now it's a near-certainty that an XFL outdoor team will begin a 10-week season at the Coliseum next February.

The XFL is no longer just a Vince McMahon made-for-TV idea. It's now a TV-owned league, with money behind it. NBC bought in for half, agreeing to buy $30 million worth of stocks in McMahon's World Wrestling Federation. It is the first time an American network will have a business partnership with a sports league.

Los Angeles, in all likelihood, will get one of the eight teams.

The pairing of the WWF and NBC, on the surface, seems odd. But there is some history here. Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, put McMahon's WWF shows on NBC as fill-in programming in 1985, and Ebersol says he and McMahon have been friends since.

Another odd pairing is Ebersol and Mike Weisman. When McMahon announced the formation of the XFL on Feb. 3, he named Weisman head of television production.

There is some history behind Ebersol and Weisman too. But it's not all good.

After Ebersol, a longtime NBC vice president, was put in charge of sports in 1989, he fired Weisman, who was then NBC's award-winning executive producer. Ebersol brought in his guy, Terry O'Neil, to be the executive producer, then later fired him too.

Weisman, reached in Tokyo, where he produced the Chicago Cub-New York Met telecasts for Fox Sports Net, said he and Ebersol recently reconciled their differences.

"I'm looking forward to working with two of the foremost creative people in sports, Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon," Weisman said.

ANTI-NFL

Ebersol and McMahon took a few shots at the NFL, saying no felons would be allowed in their league and that individual and group celebrations would be encouraged, not penalized.

They say XFL games will be real football, not staged, as is the case with WWF matches. But it will be football with an edge. No fair catches, for one thing.

"Microphones on players and coaches, cameras in the locker rooms and everywhere," Ebersol said.

Saturday night telecasts on NBC and others that might be carried by UPN-Channel 13 and/or a cable outlet will be designed to appeal to the 18-34 age bracket. NBC figures the games to be an ideal lead-in to "Saturday Night Live," which, coincidentally, Ebersol helped Loren Michaels launch in 1975. In fact, Ebersol, a young vice president at the time, hired Michaels.

Ebersol also has close ties to Don Ohlmeyer, who recently decided to come out of retirement to produce ABC's "Monday Night Football." Ebersol and Ohlmeyer started out at ABC about the same time, became proteges of Roone Arledge, and then moved on to NBC.

One reason Ebersol was interested in helping start a new pro football league was NBC's decision not to re-up with the NFL three years ago. "We saw ourselves in a position where, at $500 million a year, we would lose $150 million a year," Ebersol said. He figures by the third season, the XFL and NBC will be showing a profit.

One suggestion: reasonable ticket prices. A near-empty Coliseum won't look good on television. And isn't looking good on television what this league is all about?

SHORT WAVES

It's a big four-day span for sports--the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers on Fox Sports Net and TNT tonight and the Lakers and New York Knicks on NBC Sunday, the men's Final Four on CBS Saturday and Monday night's championship game, the women's Final Four on ESPN tonight and the championship game Sunday, the Mighty Ducks and Kings on ABC Saturday at 3 p.m., the Ericsson Open tennis finals on ESPN Saturday and Fox Sunday, and the real beginning of the baseball season Monday, with ESPN and ESPN2 combining to show five games. . . . So what will get the highest rating? Probably Monday night's NCAA championship game, or in L.A. maybe Sunday's Laker game. But the World Figure Skating Championships from Nice, France, on ABC no doubt will fare well. Figure skating always does. . . . The King-Duck game is probably the hockey game of the year so far in L.A., so it should do well. ABC, now in its third week of NHL coverage, is getting better ratings than Fox was at this time last year. The ABC announcers Saturday will be Steve Levy, Darren Pang and Daryl Reaugh.

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