Wrestling fans have proved themselves to be a fairly loyal bunch, making the World Wrestling Federation's "Smackdown!" the top-rated show on UPN. But that loyalty doesn't necessarily extend to the WWF's maverick chairman, Vince McMahon.
WWF fans are not flocking to McMahon's Xtreme Football League. With the exception of its highly promoted debut game, the XFL has been a ratings disaster, prompting critics to question McMahon's decision to expand into legitimate sports and sending World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc.'s stock into a nose dive.
Launching the XFL "did take management's eye off the ball relative to their core product," said Legg Mason media analyst Breck Wheeler.
WWF officials insist they are committed to two full seasons of the XFL. They say the wrestling business will more than compensate for the projected bill for the XFL's first season: an estimated $27 million, double what WWF officials had expected.
"The bottom line is that the WWF knows how to create the story lines, knows how to develop the superstars and the talent to really drive the product," said Linda McMahon, WWF's chief executive and Vince's wife.
But the XFL season so far has revealed the limits of the McMahons' ability to carry their core audience to non-wrestling programs.
"Smackdown!" usually draws about a 4.6 rating among men age 18 to 34 to its weekly wrestling broadcast, but NBC's XFL game Saturday scored only a 2.1 rating with the same key demographic group. And among boys age 12 to 17, the football games on NBC have been averaging about 50% fewer viewers than the UPN wrestle-fest.
Overall ratings have been embarrassing as well. NBC, which co-owns the XFL with WWF, guaranteed advertisers an average overall 4.5 rating for its Saturday night football games, but it has delivered a skimpy 2.4 for two weeks running.
Amid the slump, Honda Motor Co. has pulled its advertisements, and the league is offering free spots to its other sponsors.
McMahon had hyped the new league as an edgy hybrid that would tantalize wrestling and football fans alike with unprecedented camera access in the locker rooms and smash-mouth play on the field.
Instead, viewers were greeted by low-scoring, erratic play. Locker room cameras captured low-key halftime meetings instead of the hoped-for screaming coaches.
The XFL "was neither football nor wrestling," said Jon Mandel, director of advertising firm Mediacom. "They managed to turn off both of their audiences."
Wrestling fans clearly remain devoted to McMahon's bone-rattling stage show. WWF's fifth album of wrestler rock anthems is in its second week on Billboard magazine's top 10 list. "If They Only Knew," the autobiography of wrestling star Chyna, is No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list.
But its core audience, analysts say, appears more interested in wrestling's scripted spectacle than the WWF's recalibrated version of the old-fashioned sport of football. Even Vince McMahon himself sounds as though he's not counting on additional support from his hard-core fans.
"The younger demographic is not the only juggernaut," he said. "We're trying to appeal to a broader male" demographic.
WWF officials point to some evidence that the XFL is catching on with young male viewers. The football spinoff drew more men age 18 to 34 than any televised sports event other than NASCAR racing in the last two weeks, they said. Indeed, ratings among that demographic group jumped 50% for the XFL game on NBC last week.
WWF researchers estimate that about 50% of XFL fans also watch wrestling. But the football league's top executives concede that infusing the WWF attitude into the game--with pyrotechnics, scantily clad cheerleaders and tough-talking announcers--hasn't worked.
"We have to grow and mature and develop the attitude," said XFL chief Basil DeVito Jr. "It has to come from the play on the field. It has to come from the players. It has to come from the fans. You don't just decide in a marketing room what the positioning is and [say], 'The fans are going to love it.' "
Nonetheless, the XFL has been retreating from some of the innovations that smacked of "Wrestlemania." Gone are the halftime segments showing coaches' locker-room speeches, as well as most of the sideline interviews with players during the game.
And following last weekend's much-hyped stunt of sending a camera into the cheerleaders' locker room (a skit involving Vince McMahon), Linda McMahon said, "I don't think you'll see as much of that, because what the fans really are looking for is football."
But although game play appears to be improving, the XFL's paltry ratings could drop even further this month as it starts to compete for eyeballs with the NCAA basketball tournament. Moreover, the overall slowdown in the advertising market is expected to hit the WWF as hard as anyone.
DeVito said he hopes to continue promoting the XFL to WWF fans during wrestling matches and broadcasts. Early in the season, wrestling stars made videotaped appearances during the football games, but DeVito said the stars should contribute more because the canned appearances "weren't that natural."
Cross-promotion, he said, "is absolutely worth doing. I do not believe we have done it effectively enough."
Times staff writer Larry Stewart contributed to this report.
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WWF's stock plunged when company Chairman Vince McMahon announced the creation of the XFL football league in February 2000. It is now well below the public offering price of $17.
WWF, weekly closes and latest on the New York Stock Exchange
Wednesday: $11.81, down 24 cents
Source: Bloomberg News