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Media Views: You bet XFL will look a lot different on TV this time

Media Views: You bet XFL will look a lot different on TV this time

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Bill Bonnell - November 2, 2019

Bill Bonnell will be leading the ABC/ESPN productions of XFL telecasts, just as he did for NBC's prime-time coverage nearly two decades ago. (Scott Clarke, ESPN Images)

Are you ready for some more football?

Less than a week after the NFL season ended with the Super Bowl on Sunday, pro football continues to roll on as the second version of the XFL kicks off Saturday, 19 years after its first failed attempt.

The first rendition of the league, which was co-owned by pro wrestling magnate Vince McMahon and NBC, was a made-for-TV circuit that was heavy on sexual innuendo, showboating, taunting and flaunting — a football version of pro wrestling. On opening night, cheerleaders at a game in Las Vegas were shown strutting around the sidelines in skimpy costumes and viewers were introduced to the Las Vegas quarterback via a taped segment in which a cheerleader said, “Ryan Clement knows how to score.”

After the league made an early ratings splash, viewers quickly retreated. Ratings were so bad that they failed to meet the level guaranteed to advertisers, leading to NBC giving away free commercials to offset the shortfall. In this case sex didn’t sell.

XFL Part II is taking a much different route, with the emphasis on the field and especially new rules that are designed to spice up the game, including two forward passes allowed on a play (only one beyond the line of scrimmage), as well as no extra-point kicks. Teams instead will run a play from scrimmage, choosing to snap the ball from either the 2-yard line (for one point if successful), the 5-yard line (for 2 points if successful) or the 10-yard line (for 3 points if successful).

The league has partnered with two major sports-intensive television companies to televise its games. Disney will show games on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox will have contests on Fox, FS1 and FS2.

“The very first question everyone asks me is, ‘Is it going to be anything like the first one?’” Bill Bonnell, who is overseeing the ABC and ESPN telecasts, told the Post-Dispatch this week. “The answer really is, ‘No, it’s going to be nothing like it.’”

He should know. He was the coordinating producer and line producer of the NBC prime-time XFL telecasts 19 years ago, working closely with McMahon and NBC’s Dick Ebersol, a legendary executive in sports and entertainment programming. And he’s been working on the new round of XFL telecasts since last spring.

”I think Vince learned a lot and realizes he needed to put a football league together first and foremost,” Bonnell said. “I think the first time we went around we looked at it more as a television show ... and why wouldn’t you when you’ve got Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol involved? (But they) kind of forgot about the football part of of it.”

A football man, Oliver Luck, is the commissioner and front man of the league, not McMahon. Luck, a former NFL quarterback and father of recently retired Colts QB Andrew Luck, also has plenty of athletics administrative experience, as the AD at West Virginia and as an executive with the NCAA as well as running Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo when it won two titles.

The league owns all eight teams in the league, which kicks off its season with two games Saturday. Seattle is at DC at 1 p.m. on ABC (KDNL, Channel 30 locally) followed by Los Angeles at Houston at 4 o’clock on Fox (KTVI, Channel 2 locally). Well-known broadcasters will be doing XFL games. Steve Levy (“SportsCenter,” hockey college football) will be ESPN/ABC’s led announcer and Curt Menefee (“Fox NFL Sunday”) has the role for Fox. They call the Saturday games this week.

The XFL’s St. Louis entry, the BattleHawks, closes the opening weekend by playing at 4 p.m. Sunday in Dallas in a game shown on ESPN. That follows the Tampa Bay-New York contest, at 1 p.m. on Fox.

Unlike the previous version of the XFL, all contests will be televised nationally — generally two games on Saturdays and two on Sundays. Fox will carry a Thursday night contest the last two weeks of the regular season.

“It’s football first,” Bonnell said. “There’s no shenanigans, it’s going to be all football. That’s going to be our concentration. Quite frankly, that’s what we and Fox do all year anyway is cover football.”

It won’t take long for viewers to notice that the XFL is different from traditional football. They’ll see it on the opening kickoff of the first game. The teams line up 5 yards apart and the men on the line can’t move until the ball is caught by the returner, or until 3 seconds after it hits the ground.

“Just fair warning ... when people turn on the TV and they see the opening kickoff, they’ll go, ‘Wait a minute, where is everybody?’” said Tom Hart, who will do ESPN’s play-by-play of the BattleHawks-Dallas game with commentator Joey Galloway and field analyst Pat McAfee. “But they’ve done so much research, not just on paper but by having junior colleges play scrimmages to these rules. They’ve seen how it looks on the field.”

Spreading it out

You bet there will be differences, though, from conventional football telecasts. Players and coaches can be interviewed in-game, and wireless conversations from the sidelines to the quarterback will be heard on the air.

”We’re going to have a little more more access. We’re going to have more sound we’re going to be able to listen in to,” Bonnell said.

Explanations from the replay booth also are planned in the telecasts.

”Now questions will be answered,” Menefee said.

There also will be free discussion of betting on the XFL, a nod to the burgeoning business of sports gambling in the U.S. since the Supreme Court stuck down laws prohibiting it, allowing states to make their own choice. Disney and Fox are increasingly investing in the sports gambling trade.

”If you’re a gambler, we’re going to talk about gambling,” Bonnell said. “We’re not going to hide the fact there’s a point spread (on the game) or odds on who’s going to win the championship.”

Plans include having the point spread as well as the over/under betting line (total number of points scored) being featured in the graphic with the score of the game.

Joel Klatt, Fox’s lead game analyst, said talk about the betting lines certainly could be brought up during a late-game drive that could impact that outcome.

It’s the wave of the future. Eventually gambling information is likely to be included on most sports telecasts, and interactive wagering on games being shown seems inevitable.

Getting started

ABC has the first game, but Bonnell said there will be no pregame show to introduce the league and its unconventional rules. The only such accommodation will be that the first game will kick off at 1:06 p.m. Saturday (Seattle-DC at 1 p.m. on Channel 30), with all other games set to begin four minutes after the listed starting time. 

"We'll get a couple extra minutes to explain the league, but we really want to get the ball in the air," he said. "We'll fold all the explanations and rules into the game. It will be a 'straight rip,'" meaning there will be no commercials from sign-on time though the opening kick.

Hart, who grew up in Columbia and went to the University of Missouri, said it will be a work in progress in figuring out when to explain the rules while he calls the BattleHawks' contest.

"There's going to be a lot of teaching, a lot of explaining," he said. "We have to find a way on our crew to teach that, to explain that, without getting bogged down in minutiae.

"We'll see what the perfect balance will be. I know if I was sitting at home on the couch, and instead of a team coming out for an extra point they lined up at the 10-yard line and had a chance to get (three more) points, I'd be really curious and want it explained to me."

Can it last?

Multiple football leagues have tried to make it in the spring over the years, all unsuccessfully, including the XFL nearly two decades ago and Alliance of American Football last year. Nonetheless, investors keep trying.

“To me football is a religion in America, people are going to watch the pigskin no matter,” Bonnell said. “I think somebody is going to get spring football right, and I think the XFL has a real great chance of getting it right.”

Hart, the announcer, concurs.

”It’s important to our company, it’s a priority,” he said. “Therefore it’s an honor to have this opportunity. I take it very seriously. There’s a lot invested in this program from Vince McMahon and the other people at XFL to our company to the folks at Fox. There a are lot of people doing their best to make this succeed. I think it has a great opportunity.

“We have the broad-reach networks, we have a league starting right after the Super Bowl and most important from a broadcast standpoint they have proved to be the league of ‘yes.’ Everything we’ve asked for in our meetings with the people from the XFL,” they’ve supported. “We want to interview the defensive back right after he got burned for a touchdown — ‘Yeah, sure,’ they say. “We want to grab (Dallas coach) Bob Stoops right after a play call. ‘Yeah, sure.’

“It will be a lot of fun.”

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