XFL's Plug Gets Pulled

The XFL never lived up to its advance promise of being a brash, ridiculous, delicious sporting parody of the stuffy NFL. But when the league brass backed off, all that remained was lousy football. As "me too" dot-coms that failed to distinguish themselves fall all around us, the failure of the XFL shouldn't surprise anyone.

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By Dave Marino-Nachison (TMF Braden)
May 11, 2001

The XFL, the would-be NFL-slaying joint venture between General Electric's (NYSE: GE) NBC division and World Wrestling Federation Entertainment (NYSE: WWF), got dot-commed today when WWF Chairmain Vince McMahon eulogized it thusly: "While we believe that it is an extraordinary accomplishment to have created a new professional football league in what amounts to less than a year's time, we feel that it is in the best interests of our shareholders and our partners to discontinue the XFL."

What, exactly, did the XFL achieve that could be called "extraordinary?" The league burned through cash, turned in some of the worst prime-time sports broadcast ratings in the history of television ratings, and ultimately amounted to nothing, despite the backing of two organizations that should have done better.

Picking apart the XFL's faults is the topic du jour for sports and business writers the world over, but the league's failings can probably be summarized by the fact that it abandoned its supposed pirate ship premise to become one of the most glaring "me-too" operations since heywesellpetfoodtoo.com.

The XFL's promise, while perhaps a little rough around the edges, had everybody talking for a time. Given its advance press, would-be fans were led to expect head-ripping tackles, soap opera antics from players and coaches, and bodice-ripping cheerleading squads with one thing on their minds. (Cheering.)

Instead, we got third-rate football with second-rate production. The drama amounted to a few occasional canned jock quotes displayed on the stadium monitor. The pom-pom ladies certainly sported outlandish outfits, but never crossed the line of (what goes for) good taste. David Gardner saw problems and wrote an open letter to the league, but it came too late.

Like it or not, the XFL's promise was to take something staid and sacred -- professional football, NFL style -- and take it somewhere newer, cruder, and more like entertainment than hallowed sport. There lay the opportunity for a different, special, and better product competitors could or would not provide. NBC, meanwhile, gave it enviable access to TV time any startup league would crave. And wasn't expertise in the department of delicious crudity what WWF and McMahon were supposed to provide?

Somewhere along the line, the XFL brass backed off its idea, taking their idea and clipping its potentially distinguishing qualities. In the end, it was just a sports league in a tough business with a megapowerful and unforgiving competitor. Ironically, the NFL will almost certainly pluck a few broadcast wrinkles from the league and institute them smoothly and quietly, as if buying computers for pennies on the dollar from the bankrupt Internet company next door.

Is there room in the dot-com graveyard for a wanna-be pro football league? Leave your bodice at the door.

Dave Marino-Nachison loves to say "gubernatorial." Gubernatorial. Gubernatorial! He owns shares in General Electric, and his other stock holdings can be viewed online, as can The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.

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