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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

XFL - A TV Show About Sports

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

I am not a sports reporter; nor am I a sports columnist. In fact, I'm probably not even a big sports fan - although I do watch some games on TV. But since the new XFL football league is more about television, sex, and violence than it is about sport, I figure I'm qualified to discuss it.

For those of you blissfully oblivious to this phenomenon, the XFL is a new football league, created by legendary wrestling promoter Vince McMahon. In a deal between NBC (the only major broadcasting network without rights to show National Football League games) and the World Wrestling Federation, this new league has promised "in your face," old-time football - with both rule changes and TV coverage to heighten testosterone levels.

The teams have names like Los Angeles Xtreme, Las Vegas Outlaws, Memphis Maniax, and Chicago Enforcers. To insure a truly hard-hitting, win-at-all-costs contest, players get a base salary ($45,000, with quarterbacks earning more and kickers earning less) and then a $2600 bonus for each game their team wins. Winning the championship at the end of the season nets each player an extra $26,000.

There are cameramen, interviewers, and live mikes all over the field and on the players. TV viewers are "invited" into the huddle, can hear the actual conversations on the line of scrimmage, and are treated to interviews with players who may have just made (or blown) a big play (although what we often get is an out-of-breath "Yeah, baby!" or an icy stare). An overhead camera on pulleys gives a TV viewer shots which are not unlike those provided by football video games.

And then there are the cheerleaders. Clad in costumes that make the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders look like nuns, the XFL cheerleaders are encouraged to "interact" with both the audience and players. They cavort in the stands, dancing with (if not yet upon) the fans, and generally acting like poster girls for plastic surgeons or the silicone industry of America.

The fans likewise are a step or two below your normal, well-behaved football aficionados. Female fans regularly flash the crowd, and young men are frequently seen (bare-chested and often imaginatively painted) with a beer in each hand. Last week during the contest between the Orlando Rage and the San Francisco Demons, six fans were arrested and 50 more were thrown out for unruly behavior.

At the season-opener between the Los Angeles Xtreme and the Chicago Enforcers, a 46-year-old paraplegic was hospitalized with a head cut and multiple bruises after a nearby fight (you should excuse the expression) "spilled over" onto him. Paramedics who tried to get to the injured man had to use shields to protect themselves from the crowd.

Did I mention that Jesse "The Body" Ventura is doing play-by-play?

Oddly enough, TV ratings for the new league have plummeted in the three weeks since its inception. In week two, the XFL lost 50% of their week one audience, and in week three, they lost an additional 25%. Already viewership figures have fallen below what advertisers had been promised when they bought commercial time.

This mixture of sex, violence, sport, and high-tech TV coverage just isn't working, it seems.

Major sports started out as live events - you only listened on the radio or watched on TV when you couldn't attend the game in person. Slowly, though, the games themselves turned into TV shows - TV shows with huge live audiences to be sure, but TV shows nonetheless.

But there was always the sense (until now), that you were watching a live event, a camera pointed at a game rather than at a TV show masquerading as sport.

That's what Vince McMahon and the XFL have tried to change. The crowd at their games is secondary - just an extension of the viewing audience (they even get the play-by-play call from the TV announcers over the stadium PA speakers). The XFL is a TV show about football, not football carried on TV. There's a big difference. And the fans aren't buying it.

Which, I guess, actually says something good about sport fans. You can't fool them. Nearly everybody says that this is second-rate football, minor-league talent at best. And despite the cheerleaders, live quarterback mikes, on-field cameramen, and former pro wrestlers as sportscasters, it's still bad football. Glitzy and violent and even sexy second-rate football, but still a far cry from the real sport.

Sports and media are so often interdependent these days that it's hard sometimes to tell one from the other - where athletic competition stops and artificial spectacle begins. How much is sport and how much is business.

The XFL stands at the far end of the spectrum - an unabashedly artificial construction of a sporting event made for the media rather than athletic competition carried by the media.

Sports fans should be congratulated for rejecting it.