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Upstart leagues doomed by network impatience

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Whew, I don't know about you, but I'm still cleaning up the mess from my Million Dollar Game party Saturday. Man, the Tostitos bowl went flying when Reggie Durden returned that punt for a 71-yard touchdown, which not only gave Los Angeles a commanding lead, it assured my victory in our XFL fantasy league.

Tommy Maddox
L.A. Xtreme quarterback Tommy Maddox is trying to do for the XFL what Andre the Giant did for the WWF.
During its 12-week season, the XFL went from oddly compelling curiosity (like that roadside accident you just have to slow down to stare at) to official national punchline, thanks to the sort of ratings normally reserved for a PBS documentary on campaign finance reform. Many expect NBC to drop out next year while XFL creator/huckster Vince McMahon says he probably won't schedule games in Saturday primetime (thereby avoiding that notoriously tough ratings competition from "Walker, Texas Ranger").

Aside from the league being neither good nor interesting, the major mistake of the XFL is that McMahon and NBC created a league not to meet a fan need but merely to fill a programming void. There are a lot of lame sports out there, but none developed solely because a television network needed a show for its Saturday night lineup.

While it's certainly possible to create a national television hit from virtually nothing -- "Survivor," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and Fran Drescher -- it's a much different and far more difficult task to do so in sports. Lord knows fans and media alike can be so dumb we don't get the jokes in a Farrelly brothers movie, but we are discerning enough that we won't instantly be interested in a brand new league filled with players clearly inferior to the ones we already follow.

Or at least not as long as we can reach the remote control without leaving the couch.

The sports world is glutted enough, what with 29 NBA teams, 30 major league baseball teams, 30 NHL teams, 31 NFL teams and more than 200 NCAA and NAIA teams, as well as the pro bowler's tour. As it is, after calculating the weekly performance in their fantasy leagues, the average fans barely have enough time left in their day to phone a sports radio talkshow to complain about Alex Rodriguez's contract. It's all I can do to remember what sport the Tennessee Titans play, let alone in which city they play it.

Faced with that sort of competition, no league can start up from scratch and instantly generate the sort of ratings a national network requires. If high ratings are the major criteria, no league will ever survive its initial season. Even if Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Anna Kournikova were all in it.

The mistake we all make, then, is in using those ratings as a limbo pole for a league's quality.

It takes years, decades actually, for a league to develop a fan base large enough to produce ratings that are remotely acceptable by network standards. McMahon's WWF is a ratings monster, but it built its popularity on decades of half-nelsons and folding chairs. The Rock would not be nearly the cult figure he is had it not been for Andre the Giant and all the other wrestlers before him paving the way.

A new league cannot expect instant success. It must start small and build over the years. It must build a fan base with season after season of dramatic title races and festering rivalries. It must have teams in cities throughout the country, not in a few limited markets.

It takes a good product. It takes patience. And it takes time. None of which the XFL had.

But better luck next year, XFL. And same to you this summer, WUSA. Continued progress, WNBA. Stay the course, MLS. May you all stick with it long enough to find the niche needed to succeed.

In the meantime, I'm still waiting for Los Angeles Xtreme head coach Al Luginbill to receive his congratulatory phone call from the President.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for

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