Salvaging good ideas Featured

11:43am EDT July 22, 2002

I was one of the 15.7 million people who watched the February debut of the XFL.

I watched not because I pined for post-season football. I watched mostly because journalistic curiosity got the better of me, and because last June, I met with several high-level executives from the XFL to discuss Vince McMahon's goals, technological innovations and the league's eventual impact on the sports business.

Fast-forward eight months to Feb. 3, 2001. My wife and I are camped out in front of the television awaiting the kick-off.

Without question, McMahon's publicity machine was in high gear to promote the league. The XFL's commercials were racy and exciting but the partnership with NBC provided both legitimacy and the element necessary to launch a new product -- exposure to a mass market.

Backed by NBC's muscle, the XFL was primed for the worldwide stage. All it had to do was live up the hype.

Alas, as new product launches go, the XFL debuted with all the zeal of New Coke -- and had just about its staying power. After a whopping 15.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the Las Vegas Outlaws play the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa immediately declared the league a success.

He claimed the viewers, "validated our thoughts that there was an appetite for football after the Super Bowl."

Sassa may have been correct in his initial assessment, but he forgot one key detail -- that appetite he spoke of was for quality football, not just hyped up entertainment.

Within three weeks, viewership plummeted by 75 percent and NBC execs scrambled to salvage their investment in the $100 million joint venture. Subsequently, the Feb. 24th XFL broadcast was one of the lowest-rated prime-time network programs in history.

But, as with any new product, if there's a kernel of something good in it -- and if the business execs are worth their salaries -- it's still possible to find a way to get some return on the investment.

Within days, a group of television sports execs met to break down the XFL. The panel declared that many of McMahon's ideas -- including on-field cameras and in-the-huddle microphones -- could have a future in the world of professional sports.

"Being able to hear what the players are saying in the huddle will be a major plus for TV viewers who have no patience for inner sanctuaries on the field," explains David Hill, chairman and CEO of the Fox Sports Group and a member of the panel.

Whether the league survives beyond NBC's two-year commitment is somewhat immaterial. The assessment by top television sports professionals is proof enough that McMahon's good ideas are worth tinkering with.

And that is exactly what innovation and progress are all about. Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.