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XFL might be thisclose

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It's late Saturday afternoon and NBC's chipmunk-cheeked Dick Ebersol stands outside the Los Angeles Coliseum unable to conceal a rare uncertain look on his face. You know the one: You're tossing a party, and where the hell is everybody?

Dick Ebersol
NBC exec Dick Ebersol was happy to see L.A.'s late-arriving fans flock to the Coliseum.
Behind Ebersol -- in the stadium that housed two Olympic torch-lighting ceremonies and which tonight houses a catwalk for boob-shaking cheerleaders and a hot tub full of strippers -- just 20 minutes before the second game of the new XFL season, there are almost no fans in the seats. Ebersol's career (on the heels of his panned Olympic telecasts last year), not to mention his network's investment, won't long survive no-shows or non-viewers for the L.A. Xtreme's home opener against the Chicago Enforcers.

Then Ebersol reminds himself: "L.A. fans are the latest-arriving fans in the country." This savvy recollection seems to buoy him.

Ebersol hotfoots it off to reassure Vince McMahon, his business partner, and Jesse Ventura, the color commentator who moonlights as governor of Minnesota. Back by the network trailer, they're in a nervous knot. It's a moment to be justifiably nervous about. Not just as backers, flacks and producers involved in a new entertainment-sports endeavor. But because they might be close, thisclose, to making it work.

Consider the first week's numbers: Fifty-four million TV viewers, far bigger ratings than anything NBC has tried there before. Sponsors like Busch and Burger King and Pennzoil. A genuine shot at turning Saturday Night into its own Monday Night Football, especially because on Saturday night, as Ebersol has shrewdly noted, the only real home entertainment competition is Blockbuster.

Yes, they're thisclose, because we can measure such things nowadays. Thisclose to rocking the world. Ebersol has a producer's vision -- the steadicam work and wiring of all the participants, the "reality football" of it, puts any NFL broadcast to utter and everlasting shame.

And McMahon has that invaluable American talent of getting everybody acting like witless old women holding their skirts up and shrieking from the kitchen table top. It all depends on the numbers tonight. The second week. Repeat viewers. Word of mouth. Is the XFL fake or real -- not in the athletic sense, but in the bigger, "real-er," bottom-line sense.

Vince McMahon
XFL founder Vince McMahon never stops with his promotion of the new league.
How will they do tonight?

"The line on the game is five ... and they're taking over-unders," the Minnesota governor informs Ebersol in his overpronounced growl, the way you add what optimistic tidings you can to gin up nervous buddies.

You might think McMahon would covet the bookies' stamp of legitimacy. And you'd be right. But he is way beyond that now. More interesting to him at this crucial moment is the First Amendment. Tonight, Vince McMahon is as big on the First Amendment as Floyd Abrams. McMahon has scholarly views on free speech. They allow him, he says, to respect the "old farts" in every sports section in the country who have derided the XFL as a scam -- because America is listening. At least last week. Fifty-four million of them. We'll see how they do this week.

They're thisclose.

Ebersol turns out to be right, about the fans at least. More than 35,000 come out under threatening skies -- no small feat in a town where the rumor of dew brings canceled dinners, snarled traffic and rescheduled surgeries. That's 35,000 more than Eli Broad or Mike Ovitz have managed to get to watch football in L.A. with their failed NFL franchise efforts.

The game as well turns out to be as Ebersol has advertised: fun. Of course, everyone's got his own definition. I say 30 seconds of 15-foot boobs gyrating on a jumbotron while AC/DC howls "Highway to Hell" over the loudspeakers are 30 seconds well spent. You might not agree.

You might get bent out of shape by that rowdiness in the stands. Part of Vince's smackdown leitmotif. A few hard objects getting tossed around at the Coliseum are a few too many. But it needs to be said this is nothing more untoward than used to bedevil the cops at Raiders games.

Tommy Maddox
NFL reject Tommy Maddox is putting up big numbers for the L.A. Xtreme.
The so-called experts are predictably too gassed up over the "inferior" level of play compared to the NFL. So L.A.'s quarterback is "Touchdown" Tommy Maddox, a slinger who lacks the core commitment of needing to see where his passes will go. But didn't Dave Brown take a few snaps for the Cardinals last season?

Let's concede the issue, though not without adding that some of the difference is narrowed by rules that add to the excitement. The no-kicks-allowed PATs and the overtimes, particularly as employed in L.A.'s ultimate, come-from-behind double-overtime 39-32 victory, are both way more interesting in the XFL than the NFL.

"Look, this is the best of the next best" is the way Al Luginbill, coach of the Xtreme, rates the difference in players after the game. He would seem to know, having coached the 1999 NFL Most Valuable Player, Kurt Warner, in Europe. Luginbill is a serious football guy. So is Ron Meyer, the Chicago coach.

What will perplex them and the rest of the league -- what perplexes every endeavor in commercial entertainment -- is what happens when the ratings head south. Which, predictably, they do this weekend, coming in at half what they were for the first network telecast. NBC dives from first to last this Saturday night, behind ABC, CBS and Fox.

Now what? At what point will Vince clear his throat and offer up a few notions about feuds, injuries, bounties and the rest of his bag of contrivances that Ebersol and the playing and coaching personnel have told him represent a line they won't cross?

So far, they've played it smart -- they've played the football straight. It's been real. As advertised.

They said they'd show us babes. They've showed us babes.

XFL cameras
The XFL cameras captured John Avery's disappointment, but they backed off a little when teammate Octavius Bishop broke his leg.
They said they'd take us into the locker rooms and into the huddles and show us "inside football." They've showed us "inside football."

Actually, though, sometimes they renege a little on that promise. Midway through the third quarter, the whistle blows after a play and one of Chicago's players is left lying on the field. The steadicam operators, who have to be the fittest cameramen of all time, charge over the turf, thrusting themselves among the tangled bodies, the sacked QBs.

Then, they run over to this prone figure. Number 75. His name is Octavius Bishop. An offensive lineman for the Enforcers. A big kid from Spring, Texas, who played for the Longhorns, and was signed by the NFL Falcons in 1999 and never got out of training camp before he was cut. Meyer is giving him a shot with the XFL, presumably for the bountiful regulation salary of $45,000. And who knows, whoever the schmuck was who said he couldn't make it in the NFL, maybe someday he'll eat his words.

So here's Octavius, in the mud on the floor of the Coliseum. Guys with steadicams for Vince McMahon's and Dick Ebersol's new NBC "reality football" are swarming in for close-ups of just the sort of agony we've been led to believe this new brand of the game is all about. Mangled bodies and bloody faces, right? Bishop has a sure-fire ratings booster -- a compound fracture of the lower left leg.

But before the cameramen can get close-ups of the writhing, a player from the Xtreme, No. 51, linebacker Mack Rico, blocks the way.

"You don't want to show it," he says. "Just don't show it."

He sticks his paw up across the lens. The cameras maintain what you have to call a "respectful" distance, then pull back. NBC goes to commercial.

The people packaging this extreme form of reality football leave the Coliseum in their limos and private planes.

Octavius Bishop, the man who is actually playing it, leaves in an ambulance.

Roger Director, author of A Place to Fall, recently finished his second novel, The Crackerjack.

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