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Saturday-night livening

If she's concerned that Wall Street will take her less seriously for rolling around in the ring, Linda McMahon doesn't show it. At a recent Warburg conference, she was more concerned with pitching the XFL, the football league that is promising to be, well, nastier than the NFL and begins on Feb. 3.

"We've sold about 25% of the ad inventory for 30% of the dollars," she says. "We've sold 35,000 season tickets, most of them in Chicago for Soldier Field." So much for those who said it would be too cold for people to attend.

When the XFL was unveiled last February, the McMahons had a concept but no television outlet, and skeptics rolled their eyes. Over at Rockefeller Center, NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol watched the press conference on closed circuit and got on the phone.

NBC exited the NFL two seasons ago after refusing to pay the rich rights fees. For a while, it had considered starting its own league with Turner Broadcasting, but that idea never went far.

"I called their office in Stamford and said please have them call me before they leave," he recalls. "I said, 'Please don't do anything until I get back to you.' Over the next three months, our business folks dealt with Linda and Augie [August Liguori, WWF CFO] for the equity deal."

For NBC, the only risk may be its reputation, although Ebersol downplays the idea the WWF will bring scandal to the network. Otherwise, Saturday night is a ratings dead zone; what's more, on Saturday night, XFL gives NBC a perfect platform to promote its NBA Sunday telecasts at a time when pro basketball is a tougher sell than in the Michael Jordan era. And on the West Coast, NBC is still toying with the idea of airing Saturday Night Live
in prime time after the game and then again at 11:30.

NBC eventually committed $100 million for half ownership in the football league and bought a 3% piece of the WWF. In Ebersol's estimation, 1997, when the McMahons lost money, was a blip.

"This time, there's something different," he says. "Story lines are family-driven. So much of what they do is a drama that overlays the McMahons, and they're never going to leave. They won't be disgruntled employees. They are the only people I know in television who are doing five hours of scripted drama without repeats."

WWF executives believe the XFL will generate about $80 million in its first year of operation, with a combination of TV ads in the games, ticket sales and merchandising. The ad sales in the games, which will air on NBC, UPN and TNN, are being sold in packages by WWF. The average unit rate for a 30-second spot is about $130,000. A little more than half the available inventory has been sold, according to a league spokesman. Advertisers that have signed on include Gatorade, M & M/Mars, Anheuser-Busch and Valvoline motor oil.

- D.D.McA. (Steve McClellan contributed to this story)