Mixed feelings about XFL debut

Posted: Monday, February 05, 2001

LAS VEGAS -- David Diaz-Infante pulled the black jersey over his shoulder pads and looked in the mirror. He chuckled at the blinking red lights on the wireless microphone under his Las Vegas Outlaws uniform.

''Wow. That's different,'' the offensive lineman said before his game. ''But it's pretty cool. Only in the XFL, I guess.''

With fireworks blazing and red-and-black footballs flying, the XFL's first weekend of made-for-television games attracted enthusiastic sellout crowds from Orlando to San Francisco. At home, millions of curious viewers tuned in to this hybrid of sports competition and reality-based programming.

In the coming weeks, the fledgling league owned by the World Wrestling Federation and NBC must prove it can sustain that momentum with intriguing competition and more innovation. It's a challenge XFL founder and wrestling impresario Vince McMahon can't wait to tackle.

''I think we can do even better than this. Tonight was a fantastic experience, but we've still got changes to make,'' McMahon said moments after the Las Vegas Outlaws beat the New York/New Jersey Hitmen 19-0 Saturday.

Mike Panasuk kicked a 33-yard field goal with no time left to give the San Francisco Demons a 15-13 victory over the Los Angeles Xtreme as the XFL made its Bay Area debut in front of a sellout crowd on Sunday.

Mike Pawlawski was 31-of-47 for 289 yards and threw two touchdowns passes for the Demons in the first professional football game at Pac Bell Park.

There was football for the sports fan and scantily clad cheerleaders for the workaday guy as the Memphis Maniax beat the Birmingham Bolts 22-20 in the opening game for both teams.

The XFL scored a ratings victory on opening night. NBC's broadcast drew a preliminary overnight rating of 10.3, meaning an average of 10.3 percent of U.S. TV homes were tuned in at any given moment. That's more than double what NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol told advertisers to expect.

While viewers at home were happy, the thousands of fans in the stands seemed to enjoy themselves, too, with a lot of beer, colorfully painted faces and hair, and raucous ovations for barely dressed cheerleaders.

''I don't think anyone came expecting it to be the NFL,'' said Chris Pippen at the game between the Chicago Enforcers and Orlando Rage. ''It's going to take a while for the players to catch on with the fans, just like anything else that's new.''

McMahon's creation arrived with all the technology, flash and questionable taste he promised.

Cameras, at times showing dizzying, in-your-face angles, were on the field during play and in the locker room at halftime. Replays were shown to the crowds on 1,000-square-foot video boards the XFL installed at all of its stadiums.

Then there were the cheerleaders in shiny hot pants and push-up bustiers. Cameras rarely missed a chance to show them, and at one point a Las Vegas cheerleader gushed to the TV audience, ''Quarterback Ryan Clement knows how to score.''

''I don't think there's ever enough sex,'' McMahon said. ''I thought that there was the right complement of sexuality and the right complement of confrontation and the right complement of real good, hard-hitting football.''

Several players wore microphones, which Ebersol said will ''allow fans to follow the game through the players' totally unique perspective. That's what we've really got here: a totally different way of watching football.''

But most observers think the league won't survive unless the quality of play is high enough to keep NFL fans interested.

McMahon has boldly predicted the league could turn a profit within three years, but history doesn't support that view. Over the past 25 years, rival leagues such as the USFL and the WFL have failed.

Although XFL players and coaches said it's too early to judge their work, the games looked better than most NFL alternatives but still below major college football.

''I think the play was pretty good,'' Orlando coach Galen Hall said. ''There are good players in this league. There are going to be some entertaining games.''

Most of the players still hope to play in the NFL, and the new league gives them a stage on which to show their abilities. The players also seemed to enjoy the freedom of expression encouraged by McMahon.

Many of them trash-talked in Las Vegas, although the Outlaws unveiled just one of the elaborate touchdown celebrations banned in the NFL but demanded in the XFL. One player tossed the ball in the air, and when it landed four others in a circle collapsed as if they'd been hit by a bomb.

''Just talk to anybody in this stadium and ask them if that wasn't the most fun they've ever had at a football game,'' said Diaz-Infante, who helped the Denver Broncos win two Super Bowls. ''There's never been anything like this.''

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