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It's One & Out for the XFL

Football: Failure to get a TV replacement for NBC dooms McMahon's venture after one year.

May 11, 2001|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's now the ex-XFL.

The experimental football league folded Thursday after one season that lasted 12 weeks and concluded April 21.

League founder Vince McMahon, chairman of the World Wrestling Federation, said during a late-afternoon conference call that the decision to fold the league was made earlier in the day, after a deal with the UPN television network fell through.

"I came to the realization that we could not continue four hours ago," McMahon said.

NBC, which came in as a 50-50 partner a month after the league was formed in February 2000, had told McMahon several weeks ago it would no longer carry Saturday night games and would not switch the games to weekend afternoons.

McMahon did not offer specifics as to why the UPN deal fell through but said, "That was the straw that broke the camel's back."

He said once UPN declined, so did TNN. UPN and TNN had carried Sunday afternoon games.

Before speaking with reporters, McMahon, XFL President Basil DeVito and other league executives held a conference call with general managers, coaches and staff from the league's eight teams to deliver the news.

DeVito said that wasn't easy. "We did the best we could in both a professional and compassionate way," he said.

The league champion Los Angeles Xtreme will close its office a week from today.

"I feel very badly," said J.K. McKay, general manager of the Xtreme. "I thought the play from the very start was good. And I think the fans who came to the games had a great experience."

McKay said he had no idea what he would do next.

Only eight of the Xtreme's 45 players remained under contract to the XFL. The others had earlier opted out to explore the possibility of signing with an NFL team.

In the last 10 days, five Xtreme players have signed with NFL teams--wide receivers Jeremaine Copeland and Damon Dunn with Dallas, running back Saladin McCullough and Jose Cortez with San Francisco, and punter Noel Prefontaine with Baltimore.

McMahon said he tried to keep the league afloat despite NBC's defection, possibly coming back with only six teams before expanding to 10.

"Despite where our heart was, we just couldn't make it work from a financial standpoint," he said. "We tried to figure out every conceivable way to make this work."

According to the Associated Press, the WWF said its share of after-tax losses will be about$35 million. NBC's loss should be similar.

The failure of the XFL signals a troubling turn for McMahon's WWF Entertainment, which largely has been unable to find success outside of wrestling programs.

The demographics of the XFL's TV ratings suggested the WWF's core young male audience wasn't loyal enough to McMahon to follow him to the football field.

McMahon claims some credit for the blockbuster box office performance last weekend of "The Mummy Returns," a movie featuring WWF star The Rock. But McMahon's core wrestling show on TNN, "Raw Is War," isn't matching the ratings it once drew on cable's USA network.

McMahon insists, however, that his company can continue growing without football, by capitalizing on still more wrestling, with the recent acquisition of AOL Time Warner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) division, as well as through international sales.

"Our growth is boundless, quite frankly," he said.

The WWF's stock closed Thursday at $13.15, down .10 and off its initial public offering price of $17.

The XFL didn't last as long as another outdoor spring football league--the USFL, which started airing on ABC in 1983 and folded after three seasons.

"We knew it wasn't going to work [in prime-time] from early March on," NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said. "The launch worked, the people were there, and we didn't answer their expectations, I guess."

Ebersol, who has been grilled in the media for getting his network involved in the league, said, "Strange as it may seem to hear, this was one of the most fun experiences of my life. Working with the players, coaches and Vince has been great.

"There isn't a more decent, trusting and accommodating friend than Vince McMahon."

Asked what the XFL's failure might do to his reputation, Ebersol said, "Life is cyclical. Every 10 years or so, there are bumps in the road. We worked hard, it didn't work and we all move on to things such as the [horse racing] Triple Crown, the NBA playoffs and the mostly live Winter Olympics."

Those Olympics could have played a key role in the demise of the XFL. One source said UPN was reluctant to put XFL games on against the Olympics next February.

Ebersol said one mistake the league made was not taking enough time before the first game, time for players to practice, time for TV rehearsals and time to plan media strategies.

The mainstream media, by and large, panned the league, but McMahon did not put any blame on the media.

"It clearly rests on my shoulders, my vision," he said. "It's not the media's fault, it's mine.

"We should have spoken directly to media members, one on one, early on. That was another failing on my part.

"We needed to explain this was football, not entertainment that we were promoting."

Of the media criticism he took, McMahon said, "I support the freedom that allows anyone to write what they want, whether they like something or not. I have a pretty big mouth, although I generally back up what I say."

*

Staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.

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