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Grinding to a halt



The Orlando Rage playoff game versus the San Francisco Demons is set to kick off in half an hour, and it's hard to tell just what all the Rage is about. Nobody's here. Sure, it's the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, and a fair amount of Rage is probably being squelched in honor of divine resurrection. But for a dynamically marketed league, and especially one featuring a seasoned Orlando team (at 8-2, our record is the league's best), the peppering of miscreants on hand at the Citrus Bowl for the inaugural playoff contest is abysmal.

I've never seen it this slow," offers a veteran beer-peddling concessioneer with a beer-peddling salesman smile and wink, adding that, despite an unregulated two-drink limit per person, "the people don't come here drunk, but they sure do leave here drunk!"

It's easy to see why. Following a string of bad press, and worse television ratings, the struggling XFL is reaching its apathy nadir just as the competitive spirit ought to be kicking in. A berth in the "Million-Dollar Game" -- the fledgling league's answer to the Super Bowl -- is on the line, even as the XFL itself seems to be struggling just to break even. NBC, which is covering tonight's affair (Orlando was relegated to the lesser broadcast partners for most of the season), with televised color commentary from none other than politico-wrestler Jesse Ventura, is threatening to pull its 50 percent share out from under the XFL, leaving it basically for dead. This fact is not lost on league originator Vince McMahon, it seems, as his antagonistic mug kicks off the replay-screen preshow, berating little Bob Costas with a series of "we started this league without TV backing" attacks and almost tragic captain-with-his-ship-sinking assurances. We're apparently supposed to feel bad for him now. "A number of people have been put off," furthers Costas. "Who's put off?" threatens McMahon.

Tellingly, U2's anthem "Even Better Than the Real Thing" is blaring throughout the stadium. The fact is, it's not. It never was.

"Unsportsmanlike conduct!" beamed a referee after the first play of the first Rage game, versus the Chicago Enforcers, way back in February.

Almost immediately, the press box was in a sardonic frenzy of heavy-gutted sighs and rib-nudging giggles. "Unsportsman-like conduct? I'm going home!" offered a know-too-much sports stringer from behind his complimentary barbecue sandwich. That's the conduct we came for, right?

Last year, in the face of what was perceived as a lack of public interest in the NFL -- and with up-close, in-your-face arena football building a rabid, populist base -- wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon announced his grand scheme to kick the football industry squarely in its padded crotch. The Xtreme Football League was born, its viability enhanced by partner NBC's cachet, and Orlando was targeted as one of eight host cities.

They promised us the world -- OK, the cartoonish World Wrestling Federation -- set to the age-old strategic bravado of shoulder pads and pigskin. In lieu of fey imagery of Dolphins and Packers we'd get amped emotional overstatements like Rage and Maniax. "Not for pantywaists or sissies," they boasted, adjusting their groins for maximum blue-collar exploitation and enlisting broadcast outlets UPN and The Nashville Network in their beer-breath camaraderie.

With a splash of irony, it sounded like fun.

McMahon's philosophy was to take the pomp out of the player and put it into the event, rewarding team members with low-enough pay to make physical confrontation appropriate, and injury not so great a loss -- then spend heavily on pyrotechnics. Unlike the failed (and NFL-backed) World Football League, which birthed the forgotten Orlando Thunder 10 years earlier, this league wasn't promoted as a farm option, with players-in-waiting holding out for a shot at the majors. No, with a unique pay structure rewarding players for plays themselves, atop a bourgeois base salary, the XFL was to be football for the real football player -- those in it for the long haul. Anyone squeezed out by salary caps and celebrity free-agenting could find a new competitive home in the Xtremes.

Moreover, the league took aim at a different kind of fan: those interested not so much in rules or team rankings as in a good place to get wasted. Helmetcams and microphones both in the huddle and in the locker rooms made the play seem more urgent and immediate (although in reality, the amplified grunts of winded men are more discomforting than compelling). Seating was priced with a populist eye, placing executives next to bricklayers for one common goal.

"We like to think of ourselves as the Xtra Fun League," NBC's Dick Ebersol wrote hopefully in an open letter fronting the inaugural XFL guide. "Where the fair catch and the extra point kick are out and adrenaline-filled football action and a sense of humor are in."

If only the humor had lasted.

Through all of the initial institutional derision, there existed a huge drive to do just the opposite: to NOT dismiss it but to celebrate the foolishness of men caught in metaphor and sporting cyborg get-ups -- some of them well into their post-prominence 30s. And while first-week ratings for NBC's XFL broadcast whopped up past a 20 share, subsequent showings (reaching down to beneath 2 by the end of the season) proved the out-of-the-gate success to be the fluke naysayers mumbled it to be. It's easy to sell an event but not a three-month commitment. Following initial exposure to the awkward grandstanding of a new game that literally distilled a national institution and exploited its low-end reflexology, few wanted to stay around for its conclusion.

Except in Orlando, where ticket sales continued respectably (roughly 25,000 per game), due mostly to extensive partnering -- including game broadcasts -- with Real Radio 104.1 FM's "Monsters of the Midday" team. The Rage machine thrived on the sort of big-bellied tailgate mentality that fires the pickup-truck philosophies of the Real Radio reactionaries, who sit through hourlong conversations about sending straight people into gay bars and vigilante fights with construction workers. "Orlando is one of the few cities that's been able to support a league like this," commented Real Radio's Melissa Fox. "In Atlanta, they've only been pulling around 3,000 people."

Effectively, Orlando makes the perfect market for the blind allegiance sought by a league such as the XFL. Never respected as a truly vital industrial metropolis, Orlando has plenty of time on its hands. We're accustomed to the fiberglass dress-up of weak distraction -- we work for, and even live vicariously through, a mouse. The absence of real topics in the Monsters' charade is almost comforting. How frightening would a real topic on Real Radio be?

In the case of Orlando Rage events, escapism ultimately prevails. The high-octane thrust of a closed-off, aggro sports environment offers a safe place to exploit undefined angst into soul-purging screams, and then sully it with $5 cups of beer. Appropriately, local games have become conventions for the heavy of liver and the hard of heart, and if you asked anybody what actually happened, they probably couldn't tell you.

It's like a tailgate party in the stands," said one early spectator, who also asked, approvingly, "Do they plant a titty dancer in one of every 10 seats?"

At tonight's game, there may even be a backlash to such hearty male posturing: hearty male posturing in drag. Mark, a finance major from the University of Central Florida, is engendering a protest all of his own. Sporting a tearing dress and sloppy makeup, he insists that he is here to "piss off the rednecks," although it looks more like a fraternity hazing scenario. He's not even watching the game. With an anarchy symbol tattooed on his financially educated neck, he's a study in mixed metaphor -- not unlike the XFL itself, saying much and signifying nothing.

In fact, one of the main selling points of the league was that fans would come to know the players -- whether by in-your-face interviews blown up on the big screen or, secondarily, by their playing ability -- revering them in the way one might a Survivor hopeful. But nobody does. Even in the stands, it doesn't seem like the contest matters. Asked to name his favorite Rage player, a salt-n-peppered father of four responds sheepishly, "I know Coach Cox. He got us our tickets."

The 10 or so Rage-heads we ask also tell us they didn't pay for their tickets. (We, however, paid $25 apiece. How stupid of us.) And with an announced attendance of only 14,000 -- an ambitious estimate by all appearances -- the party seems more like a low-end family gathering than a football playoff. The beach balls bouncing through the stands more often than not land on empty seats, when not knocking beers out of hands.

The pregame locker-room interviews continue on the big screen, while miserablist anthems from Radiohead ("Idiotheque") and The The ("Love Is Stronger than Death") wash aural irony over heads capped by rebel-flag hats and faces painted in the blue and red colors of the grimacing team logo. How are you going to spend the money if you reach and win the "Million-Dollar Game"? "I'm going to buy a helicopter," promises one player, all too seriously.

"It's football for the working class," piped one 20-something when asked to explain his Rage affection. The working class buys helicopters?

On the field, the Orlando Rage Cheerleaders are working it for all it's worth. That's because they're as big a part of the package as the players. "We have a smaller cheerleading crew than the NFL. You'll get to know who they are," Rage general manager Tom Veit had promised. "They'll be part of what people talk about after the games." Ragebabes Bev, Dana, Deliana, Jay, Jen, Mechelle, Missy, Nina, TK and Sam guarantee it by emphasizing gyrations over gymnastics. Wearing crepe paper shards over thong excuses, the girls choreograph wobbly sexual antics whenever the fireworks shoot off, making sure to preen into the replay screens with as much wild-eyed abandon as a streak-haired Magic cast-off can. Tonight they look like they're working for tips.

Ebersol and McMahon previously made strangely enabling bedfellows as co-conspirators on the mid-'80s "Saturday Night's Main Event" wrestling show that ran on NBC for six seasons. Their collaboration here might make more sense if the NFL needed smelling salts. Instead, the threat was always that the show would suffocate the game itself. At tonight's introduction of the opposing team, the crowd launches into a drunken fit of booing. Sportsmanship has taken a fall.

As have the Rage. If their fate in Orlando seemed uncertain before, it's even more doomed now, following an unexpected playoff loss (by one point!) after a fourth-quarter rally by San Francisco. And as the Rage rescinds, the whole strange hope of the league's survival -- at least in Orlando (although, what good is a one-team league?) -- follows suit, ringing in the air like a drunken wager slapped down in a head-cracking Budweiser hangover.

On the way out, my sober partner takes a turnstile tumble, cracking her pinkie finger into a grotesque, backward point.

"You shouldn't drink so much," ninnies a waitress walking by her asphalt-bound body.

Shouldn't we?


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