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Tuesday, March 27
DeVito says NBC not necessary for next year



WASHINGTON – The struggling XFL will back next year, with or without NBC, the league's president said Tuesday.

Visiting the nation's capital to discuss expansion, Basil DeVito also candidly discussed the numerous mistakes made by a league whose television ratings have reached historic lows.

"We're going to be here," DeVito said. "There was a business plan in place prior to NBC coming in to the XFL, and that business plan still exists, still makes sense."

Over the weekend, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said there would have to be an increase in ratings for the network to keep the league on the air.

The league's Week 8 broadcast Saturday night drew a 1.8 rating, up from 1.6 in Week 7 – believed to be the lowest prime-time night among NBC, ABC or CBS in Nielsen Media Research history.

The XFL's ratings on NBC had plummeted since the debut earned a 9.5 rating, falling steadily until Week 5 and Week 6 both drew 2.4. This weekend represents the first time the show hadn't dropped from the week before.

DeVito said if NBC does pull the plug, the XFL would maintain its broadcast agreements with UPN and cable network TNN, where DeVito said the ratings have "faired very well." Without NBC in the picture, DeVito said the league would consider moving its feature games from Saturday nights to the more traditional football viewing period of Sunday afternoon.

After a promising debut that won its time period on NBC, the XFL's ratings have plummeted. The Week 7 broadcast was believed to be the lowest-rated prime-time program ever on one of the three major networks.

"There are some things that quite frankly we were unprepared for," DeVito said. "We didn't do everything well out of the gate."

A 50-50 venture between NBC and the World Wrestling Federation, the XFL had the benefit of two great promotional machines to get off the ground. What got lost, DeVito said, was the actual game of football.

"We probably didn't give our football operations enough time to create a football product on the field," DeVito said.

DeVito said the league has listened to fan input. A football analyst is now in the broadcast booth, and the league is trying harder to market recognizable "star" players.

"Please give us one Kurt Warner," said DeVito, a reference to the NFL's 1999 MVP whose Arena Football League background gave the AFL some free, positive publicity.

As the league enters its final weeks, DeVito said the teams have evolved to the point where they are playing decent football. Drew Pearson, general manager of the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, agreed.

"Is it what I expected? It's coming now to be what I expected," Pearson said. "The emphasis now is on football."

Despite the new emphasis on the game itself, DeVito said the XFL was not taking the path of other unsuccessful football leagues, such as the WFL and USFL. The key, he said, was striking a balance.

"The XFL will always have a distinctly contemporary attitude," DeVito said. "That is what will separate us from anything that is out there."

Though expansion may seem like an untimely topic, DeVito said the visit to Washington was consistent with a long-held plan to add two to four teams in 2002 or 2003. He said a decision to expand next year would have to be made by June.

While television ratings have been disappointing, DeVito said the XFL will average 25,000 fans per game this season – 5,000 better than the league's target. He said the in-stadium innovations – large video screens, better sound systems, microphones catching the players' and coaches' interactions – have been successful.

A Washington franchise would play at RFK Stadium, former home of the Redskins. While many professional leagues have cities practically begging for a franchise, D.C. sports official Bobby Goldwater said there has to be some negotiating before the league is greeted with open arms.

"Right now we've decided we're going to see if we want to date," Goldwater said. "And then we'll see if we're going to go forth with a long-term relationship."

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