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XFL's good (yes, it exists) and bad

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


Even if XFL rules don't allow it, league founder Vince McMahon might want to find a way to give Brandon Sanders a raise.

If the XFL succeeds, it will be because of players such as the Las Vegas Outlaws' Sanders, who on NBC's broadcast Saturday delivered an interview that could have been pulled straight from McMahon's TV wrestling shows. Snared by a sideline reporter after returning an interception 24 yards in the Outlaws' 19-0 victory, Sanders was cocky, engaging and animated.

The problem for McMahon -- and his partner NBC -- is few players are like Sanders.

McMahon can hire burly actors for his World Wrestling Federation, but for the XFL he has to bring in football players first, personalities second. Because when you strip away the ads, the fancy camera work, the cheerleaders' butt-waggling and the gimmicks, they still have to play meaningful football to make the league work.

The XFL can't have it both ways. It can't hire decent players (for the most part) then expect more than a handful to be comfortable with the showmanship required of a McMahon production.

But it does. Cameras and sideline reporters follow coaches and players everywhere, practically begging them to say something interesting. They mostly don't.

Analyst Jesse Ventura, taking weekend leaves from his job as Minnesota's governor to work for the XFL, promised that New York/New Jersey coach Rusty Tillman would "go ballistic" in the locker room after his team fell behind 19-0.

Minutes later, multiple cameras let us watch ... Tillman going over the game plan in an emphatic but even voice. Ho-hum.

Then there was Las Vegas running back Rod Smart, who had the interesting-but-not-quite-understandable phrase "He Hate Me" stitched on the back of his jersey instead of his last name. After Smart broke away for a long run in the first half, sideline reporter Fred Roggin trotted up for an interview. Smart looked into the camera, paused ... and then turned around and ran onto the field.

It did get better, sort of. Here's a look at the rest of the weekend:

BEST The football may have lacked quality, but the graphics were snazzy and the camera work fascinating. The traditional view-from-the-press-box shot is used less frequently, in favor of shots downfield from behind the quarterback. Camera operators roam the sideline to provide plenty of close-ups.

The miking of players and coaches is another good idea. Profanity inevitably will sneak in despite a 5-second delay, but the object -- as with the camera work -- is to bring the game closer to the fans, and it works.

Somehow (go figure) it felt more natural to watch the Sunday afternoon broadcast on UPN. Perhaps it was because the game was better, or maybe the XFL is a better fit there than NBC. Whatever the reason, it wasn't because of analyst Brian Bosworth, who might want to take his sunglasses off so he can see the field better.

WORST You wouldn't know U.S. Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, hired as a "roving reporter" by the XFL, has extensive broadcasting experience. Torres, who deserves better, was relegated to repeating the score and reading ad copy.

McMahon has promised there will be story lines to follow and has encouraged players to date cheerleaders. As a way of introducing Las Vegas quarterback Ryan Clement to viewers, the broadcast included a locker room scene with Clement, who huddled with a cheerleader as she cooed that he "knows how to score." Clement seemed embarrassed and the scene seemed forced, not funny.

If you're not used to their shtick on Raw is War, excitable announcers Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler will drive you crazy. Ross and Lawler, who called the Orlando-Chicago game, sounded just like they do on Monday nights, only this time not everything was scripted.

In the end it's ratings, not ticket sales, that will determine the league's fate. NBC reportedly has guaranteed advertisers a 4.5 average rating, meaning just more than 4.5-million households will tune in on any given Saturday. For the premiere NBC drew a 10.5 rating (10 locally), its best Saturday night since the Olympics. On Sunday, UPN outdrew the NHL All-Star Game on ABC (see Sideline, 1C).

Those numbers will drop considerably, but in an effort to keep his promises and stay profitable, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol promised, "We'll have a few more tricks in our pocket."

Some of them starring Brandon Sanders, no doubt.

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