Not Your Father's Football League

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - When Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis went on trial for murder this year (the charge was dropped), let's just say the news wasn't a big headline on NFL.com. More recently, when Carolina Panther Fred Lane was shot to death, his name was simply removed from the roster. The official site of the National Football League isn't in the business of dissing the sport. Its executives are relieved the season is finally kicking off this weekend and will divert attention from the players' off-season travails.

NFL.com is nevertheless adding bells and whistles that are geared to bring fans closer to players' off-field activities, albeit the cheerful ones. Why? That's what teens and young adults want, according to focus groups. Football may claim the largest broadcast audience in sports, but it still needs to attract more young people. And the NFL has had greater success getting players to reveal their personal side than have many reporters - because, well, the players hate them.

Next week the league will launch Under the Helmet, a Web site produced with Snowball.com, the San Francisco-based online network aimed at 13- to 30-year-olds. The new site is named after an NFL-produced TV show on Fox, which blends entertainment with football. ("Ice Cube performs 'You Can Do It' in the studio, cut to the best action of the divisional playoffs," according to promotional material.) Says Chris Russo, senior VP of new media: "We want more personality, image, look and feel."

But one can't help wondering if this stems from the specter of the XFL, the rival league the World Wrestling Federation kicks off next year on the idea that the NFL is boring and stodgy. The XFL will put microphones on players and pursue the in-your-face, personality-driven style that has made the WWF a hit with kids.

Though NFL executives decline to comment on the XFL, they are adding more behind-the-scenes features, player diaries and also plan to put microphones on athletes. The league, which has always rigidly controlled TV broadcasts, is relaxing its rules. With comedian Dennis Miller in the broadcast booth to try to attract young fans to ABC's Monday Night Football, the camera will go into the locker room, an "umpcam" will be installed on referee caps, players will be interviewed at halftime and some athletes will be miked during warm-ups.

In September, NFL.com will launch an auction site with EBay Inc. that will offer a chance to meet your favorite player or hitch a ride on the team plane.

A fantasy league has been added, and the site will stream radio Webcasts for all but 20 of its 248 games. Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting is refusing to supply its games for free, but only the 20 games in which both teams are covered by Infinity stations will be blacked out. The league also has aggregated all 31 individual-team Web sites into a network and will divide advertising and merchandising revenues equally among the teams, continuing the egalitarianism introduced by commissioner Pete Rozelle in the 1960s.

Indeed, the ghost of Rozelle haunts the makeover. The NFL is in the final year of a three-year contract with ESPN.com, which produces the site and pays a reported US$3 million a year for the privilege. After the season, the league hopes to use the newly buffed NFL.com to stir a bidding war among the likes of CBS Corp., Fox, Microsoft Corp., America Online Inc., Lycos Inc., Yahoo Inc. and CMGI that will move its revenues into eight figures annually. That's chump change compared with the $2.2 billion TV people fork over every year. But Rozelle's first TV deal, for $4.6 million in 1962, started out small, too.

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