XFL kicks off tomorrow on NBC

Friday, February 2, 2001 at 12:00am

No sooner had the NFL�s lavish Super Bowl XXXV television production lights dimmed than America gets a taste of another brand of professional football.

The XFL, a new made-for-television football league that NBC will debut at 7 p.m. Saturday.

After taking the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) into the realm of the financially lucrative � market value approximately $1 billion � 55-year-old promoter Vince McMahon�s inaugural Xtreme Football League season kicks off amidst skepticism and curiosity. The new springtime league utilizes liberal rule changes, known football personalities, national television, attractive dancing girls and the WWF�s mass popularity mixed with a dose of gridiron bravado.

The league debuts with eight teams, including the East Division Birmingham Thunderbolts, Chicago Enforcers, New York/New Jersey Hitmen and Orlando Rage. The West Division squads include the Memphis Maniax, Las Vegas Outlaws, Los Angeles Xtreme and San Francisco Demons.

Each team will play 10 regular-season games with playoff games taking place on April 14 and 15. The XFL championship game, called �The Big Game at the End,� is set for April 21.

McMahon�s World Wrestling Federation Entertainment and the NBC television network jointly own the XFL. The venture marks NBC�s first attempt to get back into professional football since losing its NFL television broadcast rights to CBS in 1998.

NBC will carry an XFL game in prime time every Saturday night, while the UPN network and cable network TNN will both carry games on Sundays. XFL television coverage will provide viewers with an �all-access� feel through the use of cameras and microphones placed everywhere from the players, huddles and referees to the coaches and the sideline action.

At 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4, the UPN network will carry a game. Then on Feb. 11, UPN will carry XFL games on Sunday nights with TNN � the former Nashville Network � airing the Sunday mid-afternoon games.

In the world of sports television advertising, huge rating numbers mean big dollars. The CBS network aired 60 pricey commercials during the Super Bowl this past Sunday. Conversely, in 1999, the WWF�s Monday night USA cable wrestling broadcasts drew higher ratings in the male 12-24 demographic than did ABC�s Monday Night Football.

The joint XFL venture, according to McMahon, is expected to lose close to $100 million over the first two seasons before breaking even in the third year.

The league is anything and everything you�d expect from McMahon. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue dismissed the much-heralded start of the XFL. �The XFL is a minor aspect of what we worry about,� Tagliabue said. �To us, it�s a non-issue.�

Founder McMahon isn�t concerned with how the XFL is perceived, just as long as the fans are entertained.

�I don�t care how they�re entertained,� McMahon said. �If fans are entertained by the quality of football, great. If they�re entertained from the cheerleaders, terrific. If they�re entertained from the reality show and get to see and hear coaches and what they say at halftime, where the NFL would never allow you to go, great.�

As an incentive, XFL players on the winning teams each week will share in a victory pool, getting paid more than the players on the game�s losing teams.

Rule-wise, the XFL differences include no fair catches on punts. Also, like college football, one foot in bounds is all that is needed for a completed pass reception or an interception. Halftime will last just 10 minutes. There will be no kicking of extra points after a touchdown. Teams will run a play from the 2-yard line and will receive only one point if the conversion is successful. There are no two-point conversions. Also, there is no in-the-grasp rule, as the play stops only when a runner�s forward progress is stopped.

Broadcast banter for the NBC�s Saturday prime-time games will include color commentary from former WWF wrestler and current Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. A former Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam, Ventura retired from wrestling in 1984. His previous broadcasting experience includes two years as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio analyst and one season with Minnesota Vikings radio.

�The XFL will be the best reality show on television, and nobody can add color commentary to our brand of football the way Jesse Ventura can,� said McMahon. �He�s naturally opinionated, charismatic and genuine. From day one, we�ve promised that the XFL will allow the true personality of the game to shine, and we believe that Jesse is the best person to make that happen.�

The UPN Sunday night broadcast booth team includes odd combinations as well. Brian Bosworth � the sometimes-actor and outspoken former Butkus Award-winning linebacker from Oklahoma and the Seattle Seahawks � is the play analyst.

�With personalities like Jesse Ventura and Brian Bosworth, we know our crews will bring great energy and excitement to XFL telecasts,� said XFL President Basil DeVito Jr. �We expect fans will truly enjoy their unique broadcasting styles.�

In an effort to reel in the football purists and hard-liners, McMahon hired former Chicago Bears defensive great Dick Butkus � namesake of the most prestigious award a linebacker in college football can receive � to be the XFL�s official director of competition.

Butkus was named to the NFL All-Pro team seven times and played in eight Pro Bowls before retiring from professional football in 1973. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility.

What remains to be seen is whether or not America�s sports-hungry population is ready for some football � in February. Already blasted with the spring/summer dosage of Arena football, Canadian football and NFL Europe, the XFL hopes that the marketing, hype and timing will prove to be huge boons for the venture.

The combination XFL ownership of McMahon�s WWF name and marketing power added with NBC�s broadcast prowess gives the XFL clout right out of the gate that the United States Football League and World Football League never had.

With the World Wrestling Federation listed as part owner of the upstart league, it is a fair question to ask if the football games are to be scripted. Because of that fact, DeVito spends much of his time setting the record straight.

�Since we announced the league a year ago, it has been one constant education process,� DeVito said. �Certainly, the success of the WWF casts a very long shadow. It has been our job to educate, and ultimately people can see and feel for themselves just what the XFL is. It�s hard to explain it with just mere words and phrases.

�The XFL is bringing the game back to the fan,� added DeVito. �Fans can sit on the 50-yard line at every XFL game for $25, and you can�t find a better value than that in professional sports.�

Ticket prices for the XFL may range from $15 to $40 dollars for all seats in Memphis to $12.50 through $100 for seats in Los Angeles.

The XFL team�s rosters include 38 active and seven inactive players. Each franchise is given certain territorial drafting rights to area collegiate players. The Memphis Maniax will rely heavily on Memphis University, the University of Tennessee and Mississippi State.

It is a homecoming, via a million travel miles, for Kippy Brown, the head coach of the Maniax. The 21-year coaching veteran was the Memphis State University quarterback from 1975 to 1977. When Brown graduated, he remained at the school as a graduate assistant. From 1982 to 1989 Brown coached at Louisville and then at Tennessee as the receivers coach. In 1990, he became the running backs� coach for the New York Jets for three seasons. He then returned to Tennessee before becoming the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 1996.

Last season, Brown became the running backs coach for the Green Bay Packers before landing his first-ever head coaching job with the Maniax back home in Memphis.

�We�re going to spend a heckuva lot of time with our special teams and try to be the best in this league because ultimately half of our games will be determined by special teams,� stated Brown.

End zone celebrations, like the famed �Ickey Shuffle� or the Rams� �Bob and Weave� which the NFL stopped, are welcome and encouraged in the XFL.

�Jermaine Copeland is really excited,� said the overdramatic ex-Tennessee Vol receiver of the XFL�s Los Angeles Xtreme.

�I ain�t lying. A chance to go out and have fun once I get in the end zone and not have to worry about a flag or a penalty � I think it�s going to be a good thing.�

The 23-year-old Copeland was a member of Tennessee�s 1998 national championship team and was Peyton Manning�s backup quarterback as a freshman and sophomore before moving to receiver. After a summer in the Tennessee Titans� camp in 1999, Copeland played for the Barcelona Dragons in 2000 where he was NFL Europe�s leading receiver this year with 74 catches, including one game with 19 receptions. He didn�t catch on, however, with an NFL team coming out of college and worked for a janitorial service before making the teams in Barcelona and Memphis.

Former Vol kicker Jeff Hall is on the Memphis Maniax squad, along with 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam. The most recognizable name on the Memphis receiving corps is Alvin Harper, whom Brown coached at Tennessee. Harper had spent eight seasons in the NFL, enjoying his best days as with the Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl teams of the early 1990s.

Ever since McMahon announced the formation of the XFL almost a year ago, the league had accepted applications from men and women with dreams of playing for the XFL. Through faxes and online forms, the league received well over 10,000 applications from potential players in the first four months.

�We had no more room,� said Billy Hicks, XFL vice president of administration. �The response we got back was overwhelming. We only had room for 250 players in our four training camps. The level of football player competing in the XFL will be elite, and those thousand invitees can keep their prime-time dreams alive.�

For instance, Nashville Kats� wide receiver Ron Carpenter signed with Las Vegas and will return for the Arena League when the XFL finishes in April.

With only a few months to rally a squad, make cuts and mold a team, many coaches are just getting ready for the national television season.

�We will do what we have to do to get the team ready,� said Gerry DiNardo, the former Vanderbilt and LSU coach, who is head coach of the Birmingham Thunderbolts franchise. �I�m not concerned about showing anybody anything.�

Some of DiNardo�s players don�t share his loose apathy.

�This is football, not Barbie�s Playhouse,� said Birmingham defensive back Fred White. �I�m fixin� to bench press somebody. This is a demolition derby. This is football.�

The Maniax will take on the Birmingham Thunderbolts at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4, at Birmingham�s Legion Field.

�You�re going to feel the passion of these players,� added McMahon. �And that�s what a fan has always wanted.�

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