Wednesday, March 29
NBC becomes partner in XFL
Associated Press

 NEW YORK -- Two years after losing the National Football League, NBC is getting back into football -- with a highly unusual partner.

The TV network said Wednesday it is joining with the World Wrestling Federation, the marketing machine that turned body-slams into hot TV fare, to launch a no-holds-barred "extreme" football league.

XFL rules
  • No fair catches on punts.
  • Only one foot required in bounds on pass receptions.
  • A 35-second play clock.
  • Halftime of 10 minutes. (In NFL it's 12 minutes.)
  • TV Cameras to be placed in locker rooms, sidelines and in helmets of selected players.
  • Players, coaches, locker rooms and huddles will be miked.
  • Players will be paid salaries but also will receive bonuses each week if their team wins.
  • The WWF announced plans for the eight-team XFL league last month, but investors shunned the idea, sending the company's stock plummeting.

    NBC's announcement that it plans to televise the XFL's games and make a major investment in the league gave the WWF's shares a boost Wednesday.

    The companies insist that the league will be a real sport, not entertainment programming like WWF wrestling, in which chair-smashing, outrageous antics and bizarre story lines are the preferred tools for luring viewers.

    The league's games are to begin next February, right after the NFL's Super Bowl.

    There will be several changes to traditional football to soup up the game, however, including eliminating the "fair catch" rule, shortening halftime to 10 minutes, and placing microphones in huddles, in locker rooms and on the sidelines.

    Whether it's real football will likely be a subject for debate. But NBC's motivations are clear in partnering with Vince McMahon, the chairman of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc., who turned wrestling into a smash success on TV, in live events, and even in book publishing.

    "In Vince McMahon, we're getting the best marketer in America," Dick Ebersol, head of NBC sports, said. "We're very interested in riding the success wave of the WWFE."

    NBC is taking a 50 percent stake in the venture and has agreed to broadcast games on Saturday nights. NBC is also paying $30 million to acquire a 3 percent stake in the World Wrestling Federation.

    The deal marks a break from traditional sports broadcasting deals, under which networks place bids for the rights to show games. Prices for those rights have escalated sharply in recent years, leading NBC to opt out of the $18 billion deal the NFL negotiated two years ago with the other networks.

    When McMahon announced formation of the XFL in early February, investors were put off by the estimated development costs of about $100 million. The company's stock fell 25 percent that day.

    This time, with a major media company in as a 50-50 partner, the reception to the XFL project was far more friendly. Merrill Lynch analyst Seth Weber, who downgraded WWF stock in February, called the NBC deal "good for both sides."

    WWF's stock went as high as $19.68¾ Wednesday and was trading up 6¼ at $17.37½ in the late afternoon on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Shares of NBC's parent company, General Electric, were up $7.50 to $163.50 on the New York Stock Exchange.

    oubts about the project remain. There have been numerous efforts in the past, all unsuccessful, to take on the NFL. NBC itself flirted with the idea in 1998 with Turner Broadcasting as a potential partner.

    CBS also looked into the idea after losing the NFL contract six years ago, but found the proposition too risky because of high costs, cold weather and difficulty in attracting top talent.

    Neal Pilson, who oversaw CBS sports operations at the time and now heads his own consulting firm, said he remains "skeptical" about the XFL plan.

    "I understand what NBC is trying to achieve. I appreciate the power of their promotional ability, and what you may have here is a test of whether promotion can create demand," Pilson said. "I guess we're going to find out."

    NBC and WWF officials say they expect to find enough talent from college players and amateurs to fill their ranks. They pointed to Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, who started as a grocery stocker, as an example of the kind of talent pool that could be available.

    "There are thousands and thousands of players in America who want to and can play professional football," Ebersol said. "We don't expect problems finding players."

    NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had no comment on the XFL.