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XFL gets benched

World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon was throwing Hail Mary passes as late as Thursday afternoon to salvage the XFL, pushing to work out a deal with UPN to pick up more of the costs of operating the league.

But McMahon finally gave up after being unable to work out "deal points" with UPN, scrapping his dream of an alternative to the National Football League. "We tried every way possible to make this work, but it wasn't until about six hours ago that we realized we couldn't make this work," McMahon said last Thursday evening.

NBC said weeks ago that it wouldn't give the XFL more prime time slots, but McMahon still thought he could patch together a package with UPN and a cable network. One proposal was to regionalize the games, so UPN affiliates were always carrying games featuring their nearest local team, and to shift the games out of prime time so stations weren't risking their highest-priced airtime. But, as UPN and WWFE each closed in on finalizing schedules for upfront advertising sales, a final decision had to be made, and no one saw a profitable way out, an industry executive said.

In a statement, UPN said that network executives wanted to bring the XFL back but needed there "to be a win-win situation for UPN, its affiliates and the league. Ultimately, we couldn't come to terms."

As for UPN's fellow Viacom division, TNN, the cable network's executives were perfectly happy with the XFL because even Sunday-afternoon XFL ratings were better than anything TNN ever generated in that slot.

WWFE and partner NBC's surrender comes three weeks after the end of the league's first season. McMahon and NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol blamed the collapse on the up-to-75% falloff in Nielsen ratings for XFL games on NBC, UPN and TNN—to a point well below the guarantee to advertisers.

Ebersol conceded that, by early March, the XFL wasn't going to work. He said NBC Sports considered shifting the games out of prime time into a weekend afternoon slot next year, but the network had too many commitments to other sports.

He said that the one thing needed to make it work was time. That would have let the teams strengthen their boring offensive games and allowed the broadcast crews to smooth out use of all the new camera angles and mike feeds thrown in to ignite the unexciting games.

"You could come up with a million little things, but time is probably it," Ebersol said. Each side should lose around $50 million before taxes.

Although McMahon has at times slammed media coverage of the league, he acknowledged that the quality of the games wasn't strong enough. He pointed with pride to the nine XFL players that have signed or are negotiating deals with NFL teams. Still, "We let NBC down."

McMahon said that WWFE will now look to the World Championship Wrestling operation acquired from Turner Broadcasting for growth. "That will double our television ratings."