STAMFORD, Conn. -- A short 2-mile drive from Titan Towers, where the black flags of the WWF and XFL snap defiantly in the wind, Vince McMahon's dream became reality.
Inside Coach's, the place to toss back a cold one and talk sports in this upper-crust town perhaps best known as the home of McMahon's WWF Entertainment Group, clusters of testosterone-charged men fixated on the bevy of TVs blaring the debut of McMahon's latest morphing of sports and sex. The new low-budget, high-octane football league, it seems, offered the perfect mix of X's and O's with T&A for this crowd, even if it seemed long in the tooth for the supposed target audience of 12- to 24-year-old males.
Yes, history very well may record that the XFL opened with varying reviews of its professional legitimacy, economical viability and questionable taste. But it opened nonetheless with people watching, even if most were beer-drinking, sports-loving, buffalo wings-gobbling, Man Show-worshiping men in their lower 20s.
If the ratio of televisions tuned in to the XFL was any indication, indeed the league's debut was a success. Easily three-quarters of the sets were tuned to the XFL, no matter that home-state favorite UConn was playing Virginia Tech in men's basketball or that UConn coach Jim Calhoun is part owner of this establishment.
If only McMahon could have felt the anticipation when the traditional coin toss was scrapped for a one-on-one scrum for the ball first. If only he could have heard the cheers as one player leveled another with a bone-crunching tackle.
If only he could have heard the beer bottles clinking together in toasts when, during Saturday night's game between the Las Vegas Outlaws and New York/New Jersey Hitmen, a cheerleader introduced Outlaw quarterback Ryan Clement as a guy who "knows how to score."
Yes, McMahon would have been proud.
"It's better than I ever imagined," said 23-year-old Pete Nichols, perhaps the prototype for McMahon's target audience. "I thought it would be awful football with too much of a circus surrounding the game, but it's not. They've definitely got a fan in me."
The sentiments were similar in football stadiums and living rooms across the country. Call the XFL what you want -- a low-brow, tasteless and vulgar brand of minor-league football perhaps, but the new league had quite an opening weekend.
With a product marketed for television and the financial backing of a major network, the XFL's inaugural broadcast between the Outlaws and the Hitmen drew a preliminary overnight rating of 10.3 with a 17 share.
That means an average of 10.3 percent of U.S. TV homes were tuned in to the game at any given moment. The ratings doubled NBC's expectation and gave the network a prime-time Saturday night victory over its competitors.
"We felt over the season we could get between a 4 and 5 rating, which is a great start," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said. "There hasn't been a hit there since the 'Golden Girls,' and most of the people who used to watch that (show) are deceased. But last night's game more than doubled that."
The response was just as strong at the gate, with sellouts of both opening-night games. In Las Vegas, where McMahon, Ebersol, NFL Hall-of-Famer Dick Butkus and other aficionados of the new league were in attendance, 30,389 people squeezed into 27,611-seat Sam Boyd Stadium. Outside, scalpers were charging as much as $75 for a $15 ticket.
One of those in attendance was John Avello, the sports book director for Bally's and Paris Casinos. Like many other Las Vegas casinos, Avello said Bally's was initially leery of the McMahon-led league and placed betting limits of $1,000 on this weekend's games. But after a "better than expected night" of wagering, combined with the entertaining experience in the stands, Avello said he expects the limits to change, adding even more credibility to the league's play.
"The game was wild, it really was," Avello said. "I wonder how they were able to create that much excitement for the first game because it was surreal. The public really picked up on it. And as long as things continue to go that way, there's no reason not to change the limits. I think it's going to be real popular for the fans and on the betting side."
||It's better than I ever imagined. I thought it would be awful football with too much of a circus surrounding the game, but it's not. They've definitely got a fan in me. ”
||— Pete Nichols
In Orlando, where the Rage played the Chicago Enforcers, fans were turned away from the Citrus Bowl after the stadium's 36,000 seats in the lower bowl were sold out. Upper-tier seats were unavailable, leaving many fans enraged.
It was the largest home-opening crowd for an Orlando-based professional sports team. Combined with Saturday's opener in Las Vegas and Sunday's in San Francisco between the Demons and the Los Angeles Xtreme, it gave the XFL three sellouts among the four games on its opening-week schedule.
In the weekend finale in San Francisco, the game actually outdid the keg party atmosphere as Mike Panasuk, a schoolteacher from Lebanon, Ind., who was signed on Friday, booted a 33-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Demons a 15-13 victory over Los Angeles. The true all-access theme of the league was evident on the game-winning drive, as a sideline reporter pestered Panasuk about his nerves with the game's outcome resting on his leg.
Panasuk shrugged off the questions, and as the ball sailed through the uprights and the clock hit 0:00, a television graphic read, 'Mike Panasuk, $2,500 kick.' Just a reminder to viewers of the added pressure of the bonus given to players from the winning team each week.
Not a bad start, though one that was hardly unexpected, if history is any indication. When the USFL made its debut in March of 1983, the average attendance for the six home openers was 39,170. The national television ratings for those six games was 14.2, with a 33 share, meaning that 14.2 percent of all TV households and 33 percent of all people watching television tuned in to the USFL debut.
The NFL season opener between the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football last season drew a rating of 15.3 with a 27 share, meaning that 15.3 percent of the U.S. TV homes were tuned in at any given moment, and 27 percent of all people watching TV watched the Sept. 4 debut.
Perhaps the biggest challenge now for the XFL will be maintaining a consistent level of fan interest. But with the XFL's unique combination of old-style smashmouth football, the latest in television technology and the marketing savvy of the WWF, anything is possible.
For Saturday's nationally televised game between the Outlaws and the Hitmen, NBC's production team used 27 cameras and 26 wireless microphones. One camera, a wireless "X-cam," was guided by a pulley system on a strand of electrical wire above the stadium. It provided unique angles such as the view from just above and behind a running back as he was inching toward an open hole.
In addition to the "X-cam," another fan favorite was a roving cameraman. Wearing a helmet and protective padding, he roamed the field throughout the game, filming inside huddles and getting in player's faces after an important play.
As promised, the cameras and microphones went into the locker rooms at halftime, where players were nibbling on orange slices, listening to their Walkmans and making gameplan adjustments with their coaches.
At Coach's in Stamford, a far suburb of New York City, the behind-the-scenes access seemed to help fans quickly identify with their new team. At one point, someone pounded his fist on the bar when New York quarterback Charles Puleri threw an interception.
"I'm banging my head around and getting all into it, so I guess this must be growing on me and I don't even realize it," said Mike Mackie, a Stamford bartender who, at 36, is three times as old as McMahon's youngest target fan. "I didn't plan on being a fan, but I guess I am one now."
Not everyone was sold, though. Some die-hard wrestling fans said they found the contest boring.
||I'm banging my head around and getting all into it, so I guess this must be growing on me and I don't even realize it. I didn't plan on being a fan, but I guess I am one now. ”
||— Mike Mackie
One complaint centered on the highly publicized no-fair-catch rule on punts, which many thought would bring a host of bone-jarring hits. But a rule giving the receiver a 5-yard cushion to catch the ball all but eliminated such highlight-film plays.
"It's a joke," said 22-year-old Shawn Moore, who watched the game at Coach's with five of his friends. "All this hype about big hits and almost naked cheerleaders and it was just another football game, the same old thing."
Whether or not the league survives is anyone's guess, but in addition to a rousing opening weekend, consider the following:
The league has already sold about 75 percent of its advertising time for the season, according to NBC. It is also more than halfway to its goal of selling a million tickets this season, and Sandbox.com reports that 210,000 people already have signed up for an XFL fantasy league.
"I thought that there was the right complement of sexuality and of confrontation and the right complement of real good, hard-hitting football," McMahon said Saturday night in Las Vegas. "I think that the viewer experienced the game.
"This is a start-up. We might make some mistakes along the way. But if we do get knocked down on our keister, we'll get right back up and dust ourselves off. We're going to listen to the audience because that's what we're all about."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report
||It's a joke. All this hype about big hits and almost naked cheerleaders and it was just another football game, the same old thing. ”
||— Shawn Moore