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L.A. Needn't Fake Its Xtreme Glee

January 28, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Super Bowl Sunday is hard on those Angelenos who feel this city is not quite whole without a professional football team to call its own. But they can be of good cheer today, because next month there will be a new team in the Memorial Coliseum--even if it is run not by the National Football League, but by the World Wrestling Federation.

Don't get me wrong. While pro wrestling is not my cup of tea, I have no doubt that--even in the scripted and melodramatic style promoted by the WWF--it requires athleticism, and even skill, to be done without anyone getting seriously hurt.

It's just that this isn't quite what I had in mind when I first wrote that the NFL needs Los Angeles more than we need them.

It was six years ago that our two former NFL franchises, the St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders, left town after wearing out their welcome. Ever since, I return to the theme whenever some well-intentioned but football-addled civic leader gets ready to sell this city's soul to the corporate devils who run the NFL.

It hasn't happened yet, thank goodness. The last time it almost did was a couple of years back when Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and some business partners were outbid for an NFL franchise by a group from Houston. I'd hoped such a close call would finally convince everyone else in town there is no point trying to fathom the thinking, much less bargain with, the arrogant clods who run the NFL.

Those greedy suits really believe the Super Bowl game they will foist on a bored television audience today is a major cultural event. In fact, most interest in today's game revolves around a star player on the Baltimore team named Ray Lewis who, after last year's Super Bowl, got into a street brawl in which two men were stabbed to death.

Lewis wound up serving a brief stint in jail for refusing to cooperate with police, then went on probation after copping a plea to charges of obstructing justice. Lewis insists the case is closed and the news media should forget about it. If Lewis thinks that's going to happen, he might consult a former NFL star named O.J. Simpson.

And if the NFL thought Los Angeles was going to pine away in desperation for its brand of entertainment, it also figured wrong. The city moved on to build a spanking new sports arena (at no taxpayer expense) for its pro basketball and hockey teams. And the Coliseum, where the Rams and Raiders once played, is a successful soccer venue. It drew 70,000 fans for a recent Mexico-Argentina match, with another large crowd expected for an upcoming game between Colombia and Mexico.

And now WWF Entertainment and its new football league, known as the XFL, come on the scene in February.

The league was established last year by WWF Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon, who likes to boast that his Monday night wrestling show routinely gets higher TV ratings among young men than the NFL's highly promoted Monday night football game. The league will offer real, not scripted, football, McMahon said, but with the flashy attitude WWF brings to pro wrestling.

I'm not sure that's an improvement, to be honest. But at least McMahon was smart enough to put a team in the Coliseum. And he put a respected and experienced football man, former USC football star J.K. McKay, in charge as the general manager of a new team dubbed the Los Angeles Xtreme.

Another factor that gives WWF Entertainment a leg up where other would-be NFL competitors have failed is a network TV contract. NBC will televise a dozen games and otherwise help promote the new league. And it's worth remembering that NBC's deep pockets helped keep the last real competition the NFL faced--the old American Football League--afloat long enough to force a merger. Don't be surprised if the XFL eventually pushes its way into a similar deal.

So, given whose business the Xtreme and the seven other XFL teams are going after, dubious Angelenos should put any initial unease aside and root for them to succeed.

After all, it could be a lot worse. There are persistent reports out of Oakland that Raiders owner Al Davis doesn't like his stadium deal and is threatening to move back down here.

Say it ain't so, Al.

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