Gridiron Gladiators

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Guy Culture has developed as an understandable reaction to a vast industry of Oprah-fied women's media, based on gross sentimentalism, political correctness, and the dearth of a sense of humor.

Consumers' faith in the stuff they buy appears to be ebbing, say researchers, in these days of unchecked megamergers, electric company bailouts, and the virtual economy (which has proven to be literal). It's not that people have become totally inured to brand marketing; they just tend to recoil from having a target drawn in red on their foreheads.

Herein lies the conundrum of the Xtreme Football League, the nascent venture of NBC and World Wrestling Federation parent Titan Sports. As the league drives toward the close of its first season, sports media have gone into hyperdrive to assess this confounding hybrid of the most widely viewed of all American institutions and one of the most crass. This is a sports thing, yes, but it is also a show business thing, a realm of art, and, possibly, fakery. It has been deliberately pitched not to the mass audience that the NFL commands, but to an 18- to 35-year-old male consumer group that, increasingly, has gained a sort of post-Robert Bly identity and voice with which it can celebrate, openly, its own vulgarity — “Guy Culture.�

Guy Culture is evidently top priority on the XFL's shopping list, looking at the league's monster promotional campaign. NBC has used extensive on-air time to establish its new league on a twofold path: to ingrain it as “legitimate� football, not the mere product of WWF baron Vince McMahon's caricature machine; and to shrug off the “proper� constraints of the NFL and encourage its audience to embrace the violence and sex that football engenders. In one extended promo, the most no-nonsense and Guy-ish of all politicians and game analysts — Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura — runs down the XFL rules, which are intended to make it a more visceral, bone-crunching game. In another, roving “reporter� Carol Grow strips jersey and pads et al. down to nothing as she explains how the XFL will cover every nook of the game.

Guy Culture has developed as an understandable reaction to a vast industry of Oprah-fied women's media, based (as guys perceive it) on gross sentimentalism, political correctness, and the dearth of a sense of humor. Guy Culture is not necessarily sexist — though it often disguises itself as such to abrade certain sensibilities — but is rather a tongue-in-cheek declaration of independence on certain patches of social territory. Comedy Central's The Man Show, for example, an oft-hilarious clubhouse of unabashed Guy-ism, features “Household Hints of Adult Film Stars� and “Man-O-Vations� such as the alchoderm patch or the edible nacho car (perfect for tailgating). Such folly takes deliberate aim at breaching a milk-toast-flavored cultural hegemony, says Robert D. Deutsch, a cognitive anthropologist and communications consultant at DDB Needham, NY.

“A major aesthetic in our culture these days is fear of risk, making sure you don't offend the Other — the audience, the client — to keep everything on a straight, smooth line,� says Deutsch. “The problem is real life is a jagged zigzag, with texture, false starts, manic runs. By ignoring that, you come up with something prettied up, pumiced, and packaged. Guy Culture is grunting at that, but this grunt is not just a simple, nonverbal, animalistic communication, which would be the stereotypical analysis. It actually has in it all the dynamics extant in the culture today, but only coming to the surface in these instances [of rebellion].�

And the XFL would have us believe it is joining the chorus of grunts. It is, according to McMahon, football as the core fan would have it: cheaper seats; no namby-pamby rules about roughing the quarterback or fair catches; hot babes, not just cheering but roving the sidelines with microphones; and cameras everywhere, catching the drama on the sidelines — bleeping curses and all. Even before this, the NFL's TV partners had made cursory efforts to speak more to this Guy market. ABC put acerbic comedian Dennis Miller in the Monday Night Football broadcast booth this past season — after seeing its numbers, particularly among 18- to 34-year-olds, slip a seventh straight year. FOX's NFL pre-game show added Man Show host Jimmy Kimmel. But those are simply adjustments in the booth, any Guy might argue, and besides, the Honorable Ventura could kick both their asses. The XFL has made the whole package its point of difference, both in terms of attitude and on-field product.

“They're really positioning it as a sports version of Survivor,� says Terri Walker, senior VP at sports business market research firm Richard K. Miller & Associates in Norcross, Georgia. “So many people have been bored by people being politically correct all the time, and this is a league that is not trying to be politically correct, not just with [regard to the cheerleaders], but also with the rules of the NFL.�

Though not competing directly for viewers or advertisers with the NFL, the XFL is verbally and consistently challenging one of the most loyalty-commanding brands in the U.S. At the peak of its season, in late 2000, a whopping 70 percent of Americans expressed some level of positive interest in the NFL — 80 percent of men and a remarkable 60 percent of women, according to TNS Intersearch's ESPN Sports Poll. Among males, the league registered interest with 87.4 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds, compared with 68.9 percent for Major League Baseball, 75.5 percent for the NBA, and 48.5 percent for the NHL; and 83.2 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds, vs. 59.2 percent, 63.3 percent, and 51.8 percent, respectively. Interestingly, the NFL scored a marked, gradual increase in interest with the income curve, from 55.8 percent among those with incomes of $20,000 and under, up to 76 percent and up for those with incomes above $50,000. This would seem to play into McMahon's positioning of the XFL to relative have-nots, but that won't necessarily entice advertisers looking for an off-season outlet for the moneyed viewers of the NFL.

However, the XFL promotional campaign seemed to pique the curiosity of more people than expected. The inaugural NBC broadcast scored an impressive 9.5 rating — 10.3 among its target of males aged 12 to 34 — twice what the network had guaranteed advertisers. By comparison, the traditional crème de la NFL, ABC's Monday Night Football, averaged a 12.7 rating overall for the season just ended, slipping 7 percent from last season, though the network points out a 7 percent boost among 18- to 34-year-old men. Yet it surprised few, even NBC, when XFL ratings were cut in half the second week of the season. NBC had only forecast ratings of 4 to 4.5. That's not to say there won't or can't be a market for “smash-mouth� football, along with its surgically retrofitted cheerleaders. It certainly can be a tidy repository of Miller Genuine Draft's sexually charged new ads or a Castrol spot musing about a “she� who doesn't mind a little gas now and then. (“She� is a car, get it?)

But the XFL subsequently suffered from excessive fan and media analysis. “I love football, whoever's playing,� said one caller to New York's sports radio station WFAN, “but that means real football.� With the quality of its play similarly ravaged in almost every quarter, the constant on-air reiteration of the XFL's “edge� seems to be a lot of smoke blown up its own jock. Ventura has incessantly reminded viewers that this is no “pansy football,� while in one L.A. pre-game, WWF star The Rock ridiculed NFL “suits� and suggested they shove their briefcases up their “candy asses.� “The problem is, you can't force being ‘edgy,’� ESPN pundit Dan Patrick wrote on the sports network's Web site. “You either are or you're not. It's an observation someone else has to make about you or your product. It's not something you announce or declare about yourself.�

This, however, is the McMahon tradition, and the monkey the XFL has hoisted onto its back. It's one thing to pique people's interest with a hardcore pitch. It's another to riddle the product with it. But instead of picking fights like an abusive drunk, á la McMahon and The Rock, the XFL might want to take a cue from The Man Show and Guy Culture all-told and not take itself so damn seriously. Our figurative grunts, after all, mean more when we're breaking out of formulaic strictures, not riding them.

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