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By Joe Flint
Vince McMahon's reboot of the XFL has struck television deals with Fox Corp. and Walt Disney Co. and will make its debut one week after next year's Super Bowl, the companies said Monday.
Terms of the three-year deal weren't disclosed, but people familiar with the matter said no cash is changing hands. Disney and Fox will keep all the television advertising inventory for the games and cover production costs while the football league will sell sponsorships, the people said.
All of the league's 43 games will be televised either on broadcast or cable, the companies said. More than half will be split between Disney's ABC network and the Fox network, while Disney's ESPN and Fox's Fox Sports 1 will be the cable homes. The majority of games will be played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
The pacts with Disney and Fox are a validation for Mr. McMahon's big bet almost 20 years after the XFL's first iteration -- which lasted just one season marked by lackluster play and poor ratings.
The TV deals ensure that the XFL, which will feature eight teams in major markets, will be in a position to get strong sampling. The first game will air on Saturday, Feb. 8, on Fox, one week after the network covers the National Football League's Super Bowl LIV.
"This is probably the strongest TV schedule for a new sports property ever," said Alan Gold, a partner at Creative Artists Agency's advisory and investment arm Evolution Capital, in an interview. "To clear out 75 hours of network TV on Saturdays and Sundays is really important." Mr. Gold and CAA agent Nick Khan negotiated on behalf of the XFL.
Mr. MacMahon, the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., is putting about $500 million of his own money into the XFL to get it off the ground, people close to the league said. The XFL is owned by Mr. McMahon's Alpha Entertainment LLC, in which the WWE has a minority stake.
"We feel their business plan is solid," said Fox Sports National Networks President Mark Silverman. He said he expects the partnership to be profitable for Fox.
While the networks and the XFL are confident, success isn't a lock. The most recent effort at spring football -- the Alliance of American Football -- shut down earlier this year and filed for bankruptcy without even finishing its maiden season.
When the XFL first launched in 2001, Mr. McMahon, in a dig to the NFL, promised a tougher game with bigger hits. Players were allowed to put nicknames on the backs of their jerseys such as Rod Smart's "He Hate Me" and Jamal Duff's "Death Blow." The cheerleaders were scantily clad, even by cheerleader standards.
But the quality of play on the field was lackluster, and the ratings on NBC and the now-defunct UPN Network were tiny. The league folded soon after its first season wrapped, and its losses were in the $50 million range, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
This time around, the XFL is promising to focus more on the product on the field and not the hype off it. Unlike the first XFL, the league isn't promoting the idea that its game will be more violent, and it is trying to find ways to limit collisions, particularly on punts and kickoffs.
"We want to be a responsible member of the football ecosystem in this country," said XFL Commissioner and Chief Executive Oliver Luck. "This is entirely different," said Jeffrey Pollack, president and chief operating officer of the new league.
One goal the XFL has to differentiate itself from the NFL is shorter games. The league wants to keep games under three hours and will do that with a shorter play clock and what it hopes will be faster instant-replay reviews. The XFL's rules haven't been announced yet. Neither have the rosters for the league's eight teams.
Given that the XFL is mostly steering clear of prime time during its first season, there won't be pressure to deliver big ratings. The television audience has fragmented tremendously since the first XFL, meaning the bar is much lower for success. In addition, the league's 12-week schedule runs during a time when there is a lull in big sporting events.
"Their real competition is only March Madness," said Marc Ganis, a sports-media consultant. Mr. Ganis said the investment from Mr. McMahon and the hiring of Mr. Pollack gives the XFL "the best chance of success of any spring league initiative we have seen."
Mr. Ganis said he still believes the new XFL will face an uphill battle and warned that the costs to keep a football league afloat are huge and that "often gets lost in irrational exuberance."
Both Fox Sports and ESPN are convinced the second time will be the charm for the XFL.
"The effort Vince is throwing behind it with his own personal capital and the combination of Fox and Disney platforms give us the best chance to make spring football work," said ESPN programming chief Burke Magnus. He added that Mr. McMahon has made clear that there won't be "the gimmicks and hokey aspects of the first go around."
Write to Joe Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 06, 2019 08:59 ET (12:59 GMT)
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