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X-rated? Not quite. But you can't blame the XFL for trying.

The Xtreme Football League, brainchild of World Wrestling Federation founder Vince McMahon, debuted to fanfare and promising ratings last weekend. The inaugural match-ups featured each of the league's eight teams, but the real story wasn't the feeble gridiron contests.

Sex sells. And violence doesn't hurt (ratings, at least). Neither fact was lost on NBC, whose NFL broadcasting rights flew south several years ago. The solution? Build the teams yourself and trump rival networks with an over-the-top approach to America's favorite pastime.

Enter McMahon, whose successful WWF Smackdown! put the fledgling UPN on the map. His style-sexed-up, rowdy, and testosterone-charged-seemed a perfect fit for NBC's sporting experiment.

McMahon's XFL borrows from its wrestling roots, featuring scripted pre-brawl players' rants and edgy, dramatized commentary. Official analyst Jesse Ventura, Minnesota's gubernatorial gaffe, adds his "insight" to XFL broadcasts. The contests also feature helmet mics for the players and an array of new camera angles, including showing much more of the action from a behind-the-offense perspective. The pigskin also got a dye-job-XFL balls are black and red.

Football fans will note the XFL's minor rule changes, which attempt to infuse more aggression into an already confrontational sport. Gone is the "fair catch" punt return, and a post-TD kick through the uprights won't garner an extra point. Teams have to run the ball or pass from the two-yard line to get the full seven.

But the XFL's real appeal isn't Mr. Ventura or extra end-zone time. What would football be without cheerleaders?

That may be for the players to decide. McMahon sparked controversy last year when he suggested XFL cheerleaders would be encouraged to score big with the players, on and off the field. There are no nuptials slated for the 50-yard line yet, but he'd better hope for some soon-the football isn't likely to keep anyone coming back.

In fact, both of this week's inaugural matchups showed little of the promise the pre-season advertising hype suggested. The camera angles may be a little different, the trash-talking more extensive, but the bottom line is, the XFL is still just football-and not particularly good football at that. Worse yet, all the scripted trash-talking-especially the excruciating player introductions-made the pace even slower than an NFL contest. If wrestling's head honchos are hoping to hold on to an audience, they'd better offer us more drama than a bunch of NFL rejects and CFL has-beens bumbling all over the field in a striking imitation of bad college football. So far, the XFL looks more like Duke football than extreme football.

And what of the players? Don't expect to see the likes of Ray Lewis or other NFL-caliber talent. Many are big-league rejects who had no starts or were released during training camp. Most of the rest were Euro players or "farm team" grunts in the CFL. The 10-week season doesn't pay well either. The average XFLer will take home around $45 K for his efforts, cheerleaders or not.

The XFL has taken its first step successfully-grabbing viewers' attention. The next challenge will be keeping it. While the big leaguers are hibernating, the upstarts have an opportunity. But catching a pass is only half a play. The important part is running with it.


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