Sports Nut

The Player’s the Thing

Few things in life are more certain to crumple and die before their time than fledgling sports leagues. The attention-deprived swindlers who generally start new leagues just can’t stop themselves from writing blank checks to star players. What’s the fun of owning a football team if you can’t have the brand names? The last serious new football league, the late, unlamented USFL, signed Doug Flutie, Herschel Walker, and Steve Young, even though the league’s paltry TV deals didn’t come close to covering their salaries.

This is a mistake Vince McMahon and the new XFL will not repeat. There will be no Marshall Faulks or Drew Bledsoes in the XFL—or any players that will be familiar to anyone but waiver-wire fetishists. McMahon isn’t just being cheap—he’s touting cheapness as a virtue. What his XFL will lack in the way of expensive, talented athletes, he insists, it will make up for with authentic, lunch-pail brutes content to wreck their bodies for pennies.

In McMahon’s mind, the NFL has become a haven for overpaid sissies and poseurs, and so the impresario of bogus competition is casting his new league as the genuine article, football as the gods would have it. In one XFL ad, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a broadcaster for the league, inveighs against “multi-million-dollar athletes complaining about room service.”

According to McMahon’s plan, football talent can be treated like a commodity. He intends the teams to be the stars, the players an army of interchangeable parts. This is the exact opposite of what David Stern did with the NBA—Stern remade his league by exalting the personalities of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and later, Michael Jordan. These guys became the NBA, and for a good, long run, it worked beautifully. But two things gummed up Stern’s star-making apparatus. The costs skyrocketed because the players gained so much leverage and then when the marquee players faded, no one was able to fill the void. Stern got the costs back into the stratosphere by hammering the players union at the bargaining table two years ago, but the next generation of stars still hasn’t eclipsed its predecessors.

McMahon will never have to face problems like that, but his troubles will be more fundamental. For all entertainment executives, if you limit yourself to picking talent off the slag heaps, you run the risk of putting on an unwatchable show. Football is not professional wrestling. It’s an exceedingly competitive business, and good players are hard to find. Even the NFL suffered a deeply embarrassing quarterback drought this year. Overmatched scrubs like Miami QB Jay Fiedler actually led their teams to the playoffs, and you can be sure he’s 10 times as good as the wobbly armed nobodies who’ll be pitching the pigskins in the XFL. Maybe there’ll be one Kurt Warner in the bunch, but don’t count on it.

Vince McMahon is promising the real thing, but by opting for the cheapskate approach, he’ll probably end up giving us the exact opposite. When talent is scarce, defense dominates, and so what we’ll likely see when the XFL begins play Feb. 3 are a slew of low-scoring bloodbaths. Expect lots of broken plays, busted razzle-dazzles, and fumbles run back for touchdowns. And when nobody’s offense can put the ball in the end zone, the pressure to intervene will intensify. A couple of rule changes to loosen up the game first, and if that doesn’t work, then maybe a touch of that ol’ wrestling choreography will put some points on the board. It’ll be anything but real, but who knows, it could still be fun to watch.