TV Sports: Advertisers Wrestle With XFL

Some buyers wary of potential content issues for new league

Media buyers who represent several big traditional sports advertisers that have not yet made commitments to the new Xtreme Football League have a message for XFL president Basil Devito: Muzzle your boss, XFL chairman Vince McMahon, because some of McMahon’s promotional come-ons for the alternative pro league are holding clients back from putting down dollars.

Dan Rank, director of national buying for OMD, which handles Pepsi, Visa, General Electric and Frito-Lay, said McMahon’s comments “have scared us away. Our concern is content. They’ve got to put a muzzle on him-he’s hurting their efforts to sell.”

Rank, the only buyer who handles XFL advertiser holdouts that was willing to speak for attribution, said his agency’s discussions with the XFL are continuing, but he is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

One McMahon statement that Rank and other buyers are concerned about appeared last month in an ESPN the Magazine article; the quote subsequently ran in USA Today. “Yes, [the XFL] cheerleaders will date our players,” McMahon was quoted as saying. “Yes, they’ll be hot babes. We’re going to have three or four of them surround our announcers, who’ll be sitting in the stands. That’ll be a great shot. Then, when the quarterback fumbles, or the wideout drops a pass, and we know who he’s dating, I want our reporters right back in her face on the sidelines, demanding to know whether the two of them did the wild thing last night.”

Jeff Shapes, an XFL representative, said that McMahon made that comment in jest. “Sometimes Vince makes a joke, and the interviewer puts it in print, and it looks like a serious comment,” Shapes said. “We’re not going to encourage dating among cheerleaders and players, but if it happens, it happens. But the man [McMahon] was making a joke.”

McMahon has long been known to indulge in fits of hyperbole in his role as chief of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation, which is partnering with NBC to launch the XFL.

Rather than worry about McMahon’s statements, Shapes said media buyers should be concerned with whether the XFL telecasts attract the audience and demos they want, adding: “Our telecasts will deliver them.”

The XFL, which is scheduled to air its first games on NBC, UPN and cable’s TNN the weekend of Feb. 3-4, is about 50 percent sold on TV ad inventory for its 12-week season. Advertisers that have signed on include Anheuser-Busch, Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Burger King, Honda, M&M/Mars, Gatorade, Pennzoil, Quaker State, Walt Disney Co.’s Miramax Films and the U.S. Air Force.

The XFL is said to be hoping to attract an aggregate three-network average Nielsen rating of 11.0; the NBC telecasts are projected to account for 5.5 of the total. The league, which is handling all ad sales, is attempting to sell packages of three 30-second spots-one on each of the three TV outlets-for $150,000.

Some buyers say they are confused at this point about what viewer demo the XFL telecasts will target. When McMahon and NBC executives announced the league early this year, as well as throughout the summer, the target audience was 12-to-24-year-old males, roughly the same target demo as the WWF’s TV shows. But now that Anheuser-Busch has signed on to promote Budweiser in the XFL telecasts, other advertisers are wondering how 12-24 can still be the target demo. Some buyers say they have been told by XFL sales executives that the target audience is men 18-34.

A-B officials could not be reached for comment. But one network executive familiar with Anheuser’s strategy noted: “They are very protective of their brand and probably have several outs in their contract. If the [XFL viewership] under 21 is too high, or if the cheerleaders get too risqué, they can probably bail out.”

Right now, NBC’s affiliates appear to be upbeat about the league’s potential. Affiliates have been given 3 minutes per hour to sell locally, or a total of 18 commercial spots on each three-hour XFL game telecast. On UPN and TNN, the XFL has made time buys and will control all the commercial time.

Posted by on December 8, 2000