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Xperiment or Xcrement?

If the XFL is to outlast that last great attempt at a second football league, the USFL -- and it's got two years, three hundred sixty-three days and an entire antitrust lawsuit to go -- then it has an image problem to overcome. As in, it has no image.

Take this report from the San Francisco all-news radio station this past Saturday: "The San Francisco Demons will take on the L.A. Xtreme this weekend," said the announcer, a chuckle clearly audible in his voice. "And in real football, Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders will take on the NFC's best in the Pro Bowl."

When professional journalists consider the NFL's annual all-star game -- a contest with all the intensity of a flag-football showdown between the bald guys and the fat guys at the company picnic -- it's clear you've got a credibility gap. So as Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol attempt to dethrone the NFL and restore football to its former greatness (or at least make some cash and plug a hole in a weak Saturday night prime-time line-up) there's still a lot of work to do.

It's not easy to pronounce judgment on the XFL after one weekend, especially since it's clearly a work in progress. In a way, it's much better than expected -- which probably says more about our expectations than the league's actual performance. After all, the ground didn't open up and swallow the teams, cheerleaders, and announcers whole. In another way, it's still a loser: dull, minor-league football spiced up with some novelty camera angles. It's a mixed bag.

On the good side, since the XFL is essentially made for TV, the league got to try some innovations that Paul Tagliabue and his army of attorneys would never consider for the NFL, not even after triple shots of schnapps at the owners' meetings.

Take the on-field camerawork, which puts viewers inside the huddle before a play. Sure, it's only a matter of time before one of those cameramen finds himself on the wrong side of a forward pass -- one unlucky Teamster got clocked Saturday night, no doubt to the delight of Vince McMahon and his testosterone-loving flunkies -- but you can't deny that it brings you closer to the action.

Another cool novelty is the overhead "X-cam," a camera strung on wires that floats over the action, giving you a video-game-style perspective on the game. But it's not a new innovation: the NFL tried that same technology years ago, and there was probably a good reason they didn't stick with it. Setting aside technical challenges, the X-cam gives a weird perspective to the game that makes it hard to judge where the play is headed and where you are on the field at any given time. Imagine having the worst seats in the stadium and getting motion sickness as part of the bargain. Still, there's something intriguing about watching a football game as if you're an injured player having an out-of-body experience.

The XFL telecasts should truthfully be called "What Fox Hath Wrought." The broadcasts go even further than the ridiculous extremes that Fox's football programming goes to. Rupert Murdoch's most evil creation started us down this road years ago, with its endless additions of microphones, sound effects and dancing cartoon robots to sporting events. So the XFL has just wired almost everyone for sound and cranked up the volume.

The cartoon robots, presumably, will make their debut in a couple of weeks.

The result? Some interesting stuff -- coaches calling in plays, players making comments after a big hit -- but also a whole lot of over-modulated noise, yelling, and meaningless fragments of conversations. Just because you can hear indistinguishable mumblings and half-hearted cliches from players and coaches doesn't mean it's all that interesting.

Which brings us to one of the XFL's big liabilities: its announcers. Sure, it's fascinating to hear a head coach radio a play in to his quarterback. But those play names are complicated -- although "82-46-red-on-three" practically trips off the tongue -- and viewers need an analyst who can explain what to look for in the ensuing play. Instead, NBC viewers on Saturday night were treated to Jesse Ventura making comments about how hard players were hitting other players, or complaining that a quarterback didn't know what he was doing.

Ah, Jesse Ventura behind a mike. The most embarrassing performance by a sitting governor since Orval Faubus started hanging around schoolhouse doors.

And yet, Ventura and his partner, Matt Vasgersian -- the guy who sounds like a video game announcer, because he is a video-game announcer -- are actually the seasoned, smooth professionals of the XFL. Or maybe you didn't hear NBC's other announcing duo, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler. NBC had to switch over to Ross and Lawler in Orlando since the only thing extreme about the Las Vegas-New York/New Jersey contest that Vasgersian and Ventura were covering was how extremely boring and one-sided it was.

Ross and Lawler are Vince McMahon yokels who announce for the World Wrestling Federation. They are proof positive that what sounds perfectly reasonable when you're excitedly describing Rikishi taking a steel chair to the head of Stone Cold Steve Austin can seem downright silly when you hyperventilate over another incomplete pass from Jeff Brohm. While Vasgersian and Ventura could be caught following the XFL script on occasion -- screaming over a crushing quarterback hit, when, in fact, the quarterback had fallen down essentially untouched -- Ross and Lawler's first night was an embarrassing barrage of lewd comments about cheerleaders (and always the same lewd comments, not even a "hubba hubba" tossed in for variety) and nonsensical "analysis."

"What a play!" Ross would say.

"What a great debut for the XFL!" Lawler would enthuse.

Fellas, we get it. The XFL is oh so much tougher than the NFL. Message received. Now stop reading the company press releases and try formulating a sentence that doesn't sound like it was cleared by Tass.

Ross, incidentally, may have made broadcast history Saturday night by using the word "slobberknocker" three times in less than a minute. Without irony.

The XFL at its most clever is when it turns down the volume on the hype machine and actually makes you feel like you're at the game, surrounded by a bunch of crazy, screaming fans -- but with a conveniently-located, relatively well-maintained bathroom that you don't have to share with any of them. And there were moments, especially early on in NBC's Saturday broadcast, where it worked. But then NBC's in-the-stands announcer appeared, asking stupid questions of drunken Las Vegas Outlaws fans, and the spell was broken. Because, to be honest, drunken XFL fans don't really hold the most coherent conversations.

Still, the XFL is hardly the biggest embarrassment to debut on NBC this fall -- I'm looking in your direction, Steven Weber. A few modifications, and Vince McMahon's attempt to meld pro wrestling with football just may prove to be a watchable diversion during the long, lonely months (both of them) between the Super Bowl and the first pitch of the baseball season. Tone down the "wheat production up 3%" rhetoric. Send Jesse Ventura back to St. Paul to work on his day job. Keep working on the camera angles and innovations that will strike fear in Paul Tagliabue's black heart. And maybe only go to the money shots of the cheerleading squad... well, let's just say never.

Sadly, it's not going to wind up like this. Vince McMahon has promised skits and pro wrestling-like antics to save us from the doldrums of athletic competition. The cheerleaders will be given their own distinct personalities. Players will be encouraged to strut and preen in front of the camera. Like the wrestlers that are McMahon's bread and butter, the players will probably even get catchy nicknames to call their own.

We can only pray that no one winds up with the moniker "The SlobberKnocker." Jim Ross already has dibs on that one.

Additional contributions to this article by: Jason Snell, Philip Michaels.


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