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Best of Bob Owens

Bob Owens' Advice to the XFL: Go for the Gamblers

20 February 2001

I'll confess up front that I'd rather watch -- and wager on -- a mediocre football game than the NBA. In fact, I don't even watch pro basketball until the playoffs. Like many diehard football fans I sink into a post-season depression come February.

So, I welcomed the brash advent of the XFL. I wasn't worried about the pro wrestling connection; one game is all it would take to see if the deal was straight. There are show-time gimmicks on the sidelines, but on the field of play it's football.

The officials are not skewing the play calls to try to make games more exciting. Neither the quality of play nor most of the players are at NFL levels, but that's no surprise considering the team salaries are but a fraction of those of the senior league.

Those who expected wide-open, high-scoring affairs may be disappointed with the results so far. I wasn't. Defenses usually will dominate while skill players learn to co-ordinate with each other. And the low-scoring games are evidence that the league is on the level; piling up the scores would draw a larger audience. Cheerleader cleavage, goofy nicknames on uniforms and silly sideline interviews do not change the basic fact that it is football, and it is betable.

Most of the nation's sports media denounced and ridiculed the league even before the first kickoff. Some trotted out the predictable and tired jokes, others assumed their favorite postures of society's moral arbiters.

When NBC refused to show the footage in an opening-day game of a player having his leg broken, one writer for a California daily panned them for not living up to their pro wrestling image: "I would have expected [XFL founder] Vince [McMahon] to break out a super slo-mo and a doctor predicting possible amputation." Of course, if replays of the incident had been broadcast, the media would have screamed indignant protest.

Opening-day television ratings were much higher than predicted, which gave the naysayers some anguish. But you could almost hear the chortling in newspaper and local TV offices throughout the land when the ratings plunged in week two, and then dropped further after the third weekend of play. (The ratings fell under the 4.5 percent that the network had promised its advertisers, which means that NBC will have to give them free spots, called "make-goods.") Much of the establishment jock press was ecstatic.

Sports writers and editorialists are not really journalists, in the traditional sense. Political beat writers keep a proper distance from the people they cover, at least the best do, most of the time. And the relationship is often almost adversarial, as is also proper.

Not so with the great majority of those who cover football, basketball, horse racing. Here the relationship is usually symbiotic. Rarely, for instance, will you encounter a turf writer investigating the illegal administration of drugs to the animals. The racing beat is, after all, covered by a writer who owes his or her job to the very existence of a track in their area of circulation.

It's a don't-rock-the-boat sinecure, not so often found in reporters who cover the real world. (Because newsworthy politicians and bureaucrats will always be with us, but racetracks and sports teams can and have closed down.) In the not-so-remote past some turf writers for major dailies actually moonlighted in the publicity departments of the track that was the subject of their reportage.

No Surprise that the Establishment Jock Media Put the League Down

Those on the NFL beat don't actually work for the league, but it often seems as though they may as well. They would not be denied locker room access if they were more forthright in their reporting and criticisms, but they may well find their league contacts and sources drying up. That in turn could mean, horrors, they'd have to get a real job.

Of course, the NFL and NBA will tolerate a measure of harmless moralizing on the part of the press, especially over the criminal behavior of some of the players. They even expect such moralizing -- it's almost a ritual dance -- however ludicrous the concept of a politically-correct sports scribe.

During Super Bowl week the jock media -- in between sopping up the free booze at NFL parties -- had a lot of fun blasting the "lenient" attitude of the league in the Ray Lewis affair. Weightier issues, like the ballooning arrogance of the league bureaucracy, or the blackmailing of cities to build stadiums, are not often discussed. One doesn't bite the hand that feeds, or provides the liquid refreshments.

It wasn't a big shock that the nascent XFL was the subject of a massive press putdown. The idea was propagated that only freaks and morons would watch these games. One sports writer stated that the teams were so bad that The Gold Sheet wrote that the best XFL team would be a six point underdog to Florida State.

If The Gold Sheet actually made such a statement it must have been tongue-in-cheek. Or, the granddaddy of the tip sheets has become senile. Sure, there has been considerable raggedness on the XFL playing fields, but that's the norm with a new league and players not accustomed to each other. The product will improve with time. And either of the two teams that in April will play in the XFL championship game would eviscerate Florida State, or any other college team.

Some XFL players have competed in the NFL or CFL. At least one has a few Super Bowl rings. A number will again be in the older league, just as some of the maligned "replacement" players during the 1987 strike became NFL starters. A former NFL offensive coordinator stated that the Los Angeles Xtreme team had better receivers than do the San Diego Chargers, and he was probably correct.

Some of the XFL's innovations and experiments are excellent, or at least good. Others should be retired. The dash for the ball in place of a coin toss is senseless, and could (and did in one game) result in needless injury. The sideline interviews aren't working, mostly because most players have very little of interest to say.

But the abolition of the boring kicked point-after-touchdown adds to the action, as does the live ball rule on punts. And unlike the NFL marathons, most of the new league's games are over in three hours or less. (This, though, may be due in part to fewer commercials.)

One hopes that the progressive ratings drops will not prompt the league to goose their product with an injection of pro wrestling-style phoniness. The big ratings plunge occurred among the putative "key demographic group," those age 18 to 34. Even bigger drops were seen among those 12 to 24.

Apparently, those that are sticking around are older men, football fanatics. And I would guess that a high percentage of these are wagering on the games. Just like they do with the NFL, but in smaller numbers.

The NFL, like the NBA, hypocritically wails about the evils of gambling on its games, while knowing full well that the hundreds of thousands of sports bettors are among their most faithful viewers. For while a non-betting fan may turn off a game if it's a "blowout," the gamblers will stay glued to the tube to see if their team covers the number, or to root for their over or under total.

If for no other reason than to pinprick the hyper-inflated egos and public relations fakery of the NFL brass, I'd like to see this new league survive and prosper, but to do it without flaming the integrity of the on-field product. If they twist it to try to pull the same teenyboppers that groove on wrestling, they'll lose the true foot fans like myself. And they still won't satisfy the Clearisil crowd, who prefer their fakery up-close and in-the-flesh personal.

Instead, I would suggest that the XFL make a direct appeal to the demographic mainstay of the NFL, the bettors. If the league can hang in, it will get the attention of a sizable part of this group. Obviously, most people in this demographic have disposable income, which should be a lure to advertisers.

Vince McMahon has said that he welcomes gambling on XFL games. Indeed, when people have sufficient confidence in the integrity of a sport to invest their hard-earned income on the results, it gives the games a kind of imprimatur of legitimacy that even the slyest establishment media carper can't negate.

The XFL Should Hire a Serious Handicapper, and Publish Complete Stats

I advise the XFL to make a blatant pitch to this large and affluent group, by hiring a football handicapper to do a five- or six-minute analysis of each weekend's games. Then show the tape shortly before the kickoff. Las Vegas's Ken White, an articulate and respected NFL handicapper, would be perfect for the spot.

Let him go over the match-ups and the strategies, and then make a point spread or totals selection. White and other top football handicappers actually know more about the inner workings of the games than some of the inane talking heads on the NFL pre-game shows. (Just because you once played the game, you're not necessarily qualified to be an analyst.) Other related items, like getting current and complete team stats up on the XFL Web site, would also help.

Needless to state, this kind of courting of the bettors by the XFL and NBC would draw heavy wrath from all those moralists among the sports writing brethren. Verily, they will huff and puff at the "shameless pandering," and treat us to sad tales of homes broken and children hungry because of gambling-degenerate dads.

Well, so what? They can't get much more hostile than they already are. And some years ago Jimmy the Greek, a pre-game commentator for one of the networks, did make picks against the spread, and the republic did not perish. The Greek, though, was an incompetent handicapper, not really knowledgeable about the game. A sharp and entertaining professional handicapper would have a good chance of yanking in the NFL bettors now busy with basketball.

If the XFL wanted to team him with a celebrity sports gambler, who better than Pete Rose? And if they wanted to background the analysis with bumping and grinding cheerleaders, that's fine with me. Just keep the ball rolling.

Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.
Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.