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Sunday, May 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Extreme football league is ready to rumble

The Washington Post

X marks the spot Saturday, Feb. 3, 2001, on calendars all around the Stamford, Conn., headquarters of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and the midtown Manhattan offices of NBC Sports. On that day, only nine months away, those two disparate organizations will join forces to bring another professional football league - the XFL - to eight cities and an American public they believe will stay tuned to their version of what they say will be real football.

Over the past 25 years, two other leagues began playing spring games in hopes of taking advantage of the country's NFL love affair. Both the World Football League of the mid-1970s and the U.S. Football League of the mid-1980s failed. Strangled by overly ambitious owners, they left unpaid bills, shattered dreams and a slew of lawsuits in their wake.

But the primary minds behind the XFL - pro wrestling entrepreneur Vince McMahon and the savvy promotional and marketing people in his billion-dollar empire - believe they have the right product, a perfect TV partner, the proper time of year, the expertise and the moxie to make this league soar.

Never mind that they haven't acquired a single player, coach or general manager. Never mind that not one stadium lease has been signed in any of the cities XFL officials have targeted for their rollout next winter, six days after Super Bowl XXXV. (The cities identified as possible franchise sites are New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Miami, San Antonio, Orlando, and Birmingham, Ala.)

What XFL officials do have is a splashy $30 million partnership with NBC Sports to televise games for 12 consecutive weeks (10 regular season, two playoffs) on Saturday night, live in prime time. Still to come will be a national basic cable contract for Sunday games that likely will be announced in the next two months.

"Six days after the Super Bowl is over, and when the interest in the game is still huge, we'll be there to help fill the void," said Basil DeVito, president of the XFL and a longtime WWF executive who served as an intern in the NFL league office in the 1970s. "This is not a spring league. This is a lot different than starting up three months after the NFL stops. In fact, our season will be over on April 21, the date of our championship game."

All eight franchises - with expansion planned after the first year - will be owned by the WWF, eliminating the possibility of a greedy team owner trying to sign players and buy championships. That's the role Donald Trump, among several others, played with the USFL's New York Generals, hastening that league's demise in 1987.

The XFL's playing rules will similar to the NFL's but with some significant differences. There will be no fair catches on punts. A receiver will need to have only one foot in bounds to make a legal reception. The XFL will use a 35-second play clock, instead of the NFL's 45-second clock, to add more plays. Halftime will be only 10 minutes, the better to get back to the action quickly.

Players can celebrate any way they want. Socks will be allowed to droop, and jerseys won't have to be tucked in, both NFL fashion police no-nos. Trash talk will be encouraged on and off the field, the better to grab headlines, build rivalries and, eventually, swell the television ratings.

NBC Sports will have microphones everywhere. In the huddle. On coaches. On helmets and referees' caps and lapels. Cameras and announcers will be in the locker room for the pregame talk, halftime adjustments and the postgame scene. In-game interviews will be allowed from the bench area.

"We're not talking about creating a different game," DeVito said. "We're talking about bringing the best of football at the highest level and massaging it."

At the moment, DeVito said there are seven full-time XFL employees. Within the next two weeks, the league plans to begin signing players - none of them currently under contract to NFL teams, he emphasized - with salaries averaging about $50,000 a year. The league also plans to pay coaches and players bonuses for winning games, meaning some could double their pay with the proper playoff team.

Where will all these 400 or so players and eight head coaches and general managers come from?

DeVito said the league has had inquiries from more than 2,000 players, many from college programs, who may have been a step slow, a few pounds or inches off the NFL scouting charts. The league office will identify and sign potential players, with several open tryout camps also planned around the country. A draft will be held in October, when scores of former NFL players are on the sideline after being cut by their former teams.

"All the best players in the world not playing in the NFL will be playing in the XFL," said Mike Keller, the league's vice president of football operations. A former assistant general manager for the Seattle Seahawks, Keller has run franchises in the USFL and NFL Europe.

DeVito said: "Our poster boy is Kurt Warner," the St. Louis Rams quarterback. He went from stocking shelves at an Iowa supermarket to arena football, then the Rams, for whom he was an unknown backup in training camp before earning an MVP award for the 1999 season and a Super Bowl championship in January.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic.

"The American public is not just going to turn on that TV unless there's some identification," said former Redskin GM Charley Casserly, now in the same job with the NFL's expansion franchise in Houston that will begin play in 2002. "They're not going to turn it on just to watch football. The USFL got into business because people wanted to watch Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker. They wanted to see some stars."

"Stars are made through production on the field," Keller countered. "When guys put up numbers and develop personalities, we'll have our own stars. This will be a league of quality athletes and quality coaches. We'll have guys who can run it, throw it, catch it and tackle people. And we're going to let their personalities come out. They'll be allowed to flourish."

The first priority, Keller said, is hiring a general manager and coach for every team, a process he said is well under way. Keller said he has had scores of inquiries from potential candidates, including NFL assistants interested in head coaching jobs, and out-of-work former college head coaches.

Every XFL team will conduct a series of minicamps following the draft. Formal training camps will convene a month before the regular season begins. They'll train near each other at a warm-weather site to be determined, with scrimmages and several preseason games planned.

DeVito and Keller insisted their league does not consider itself an NFL rival. Still, they occasionally lob verbal grenades at the NFL, emphasizing in their inaugural news conference in February, for example, that no convicted felons would be allowed to play.

Asked about the XFL at the NFL's winter meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., in March, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he hadn't paid much attention. At the NFL college draft in New York in mid-April, a group of sports editors from around the country queried him again.

"Is it football or is it scripted?" Tagliabue began, a not-so-subtle reference to the WWF, in which even McMahon and his family members are involved in the on-air soap opera-ish plots during nationally televised shows.

"Fans' interest in sports is cyclical, like hot weather in the summer and the leaves in the fall," Tagliabue went on. "All-year sports? I don't know if it happens anywhere. When you come in playing outdoor football games in February, you're not dealing with great weather. Basketball is building at the college and the NBA level. Baseball is kicking off. It's a very competitive landscape. If you have a good product, maybe you'll get a piece of it."

The XFL people have no doubt they will have a good product and get decent ratings. Sources in the broadcast industry also say it's not hard to understand why NBC is partnered with the WWF. NBC had explored starting a league with Turner Sports when both were left without NFL game broadcasts two years ago. But the cost was prohibitive, and there were far too many complications in a start-up operation.

Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, and McMahon once were in business together and have remained close friends. Saturday night in prime time has not been very good for the network's entertainment division, and the chance to put on a sport that has the potential to draw a huge, young, male audience made the XFL more than a viable idea.

Football, even at $30 million, also is far cheaper than developing new shows and series. And industry sources say if the league can generate a rating in the range of a 4.0, they believe NBC will be well ahead of the game.

"Anything above a 4.5 is gravy," said one NBC executive.

NBC and the XFL know there will be competition with college basketball's NCAA tournament on CBS. But the new league will be done playing by the time the NBA playoffs begin. The NHL playoffs will be only into the first round, and the bulk of the XFL schedule will be completed before baseball's Opening Day.

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Getting into the Ring

The World Wrestling Federation and NBC Sports have formed a partnership to create a new professional football league, the XFL - an "extreme" football league that will begin play in February 2001.

WHERE THEY'LL PLAY

Washington (RFK Stadium)

New York (Still negotiating)

Los Angeles (L.A. Coliseum)

Miami (Orange Bowl)

Orlando, Fla. (Citrus Bowl)

San Francisco (3Com Park)

Two other cities to be announced

XFL HIGHLIGHTS

Ten regular season games in the XFL's first season (February through April).

Eight teams in two divisions will compete for four playoff spots.

League championship will be held at a neutral site.

Rules differences between XFL and the NFL will be meant to enhance speed and action.

Rosters will be limited to 40 players and will include free agents, players cut from other teams and players from other leagues and colleges.

Contracts for the players will include a base salary and incentive bonuses based on performance.

Ticket prices will average $22 to $25.

SOURCE: WWF Entertainment Inc. and Associated Press

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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