THE SHORT LIFE OF THE AAF
This article was originally published on April 10th, 2019.
The graveyard of failed football leagues has claimed a number of professional football endeavors over the years.
The World Football League, the United States Football League, the original XFL, the United Football League, the Fall Experimental Football League, the Continental Football League, the All-American Football League, the Stars Football League, to name just a few. Not to mention the slew of arena and flag football leagues, which have came and gone.
The Alliance of American Football (AAF) was the latest attempt and offered a unique twist to the story of the failed football leagues.
Most leagues fail having made fewer inroads and with terrible strategies for long-term success. Furthermore, they also often fold because they cannot find a moneyman to bankroll the league.
However, the AAF seems to be folding because they found one. Majority owner Tom Dundon (@TDCanes) made the strange decision to bury alive the still-breathing league before the first season had ended.
Hey, let’s start a football league
The AAF was the brainchild of Charlie Ebersol (@CharlieEbersol) and co-founder Bill Polian. Originally the league was envisioned as a developmental football league, positioning itself as a feeder league for the NFL. While promising a blend of serious sport and Silicon Valley savvy.
Unlike a lot of startup football leagues, which have the business model of “Hey, let’s start a football league,” the AAF seemed to have a lot of things figured out.
The AAF had a firm understanding of its place, unlike many of the other failed leagues, the AAF operated with the understanding that it would never beat the NFL in head-to-head competition. Therefore, it should look to complement the NFL.
The league would utilize players whose ultimate goal is to make the NFL, with the thought that there are enough could-bes and weren’t-quites out there to build watchable teams.
The AAF choose to focus their attention on warm-weather cities, six of which were without NFL franchises, including: San Antonio, San Diego, Memphis, Birmingham, Salt Lake City and Orlando. With the thought that these cities could provide decent fanbases.
Furthermore, the league managed to secure a broadcasting deal, with 19 live games on TNT, CBS Sports Network and the NFL Network.
To go along with the product on the field the AAF piloted a new mobile app.
The league spent 18 months building the technology behind its mobile app, which isn’t just meant to relay the typical mix of news, clips, and player profiles. Instead, the AAF app allowed fans to follow games with real-time visualization.
Co-founder Ebersol likened it to “‘Madden’ meets ‘Angry Birds,’” with animated football helmets representing each and every player whizzing over a virtual field.
The coming expansion of legal sports betting created an opening for a tech-smart business that will generate the kind of real-time app data that can be used for fantasy games and English Premier League-style in-match gambling.
From the start the AAF looked like a promising product. Kicking-off six days after the NFL concluded, with a 15-6 win for the San Antonio Commanders over the San Diego Fleet and a 40-6 thrashing of the Atlanta Legends by the Orlando Apollos. Receiving rave reviews and captivating the imaginations of football fans.
Helped by former Texas A&M outside linebacker Shaan Washington (@BigWash54) creating the league's first viral hit, with a sack on San Diego Fleet quarterback Michael Bercovici (@MikeBerco). The signature hit sent Bercovici's helmet flying as he also lost control of the ball.
The league’s debut CBS broadcast drew 2.9 million viewers, which exceeded the 2.5 million viewers of ABC’s competing primetime broadcast of the Houston Rockets hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Overall, the league saw 6 million viewers across all games during the first weekend.
The first weekend was considered a pleasant surprise. Co-founder Ebersol would bounce into the press room, after the San Antonio San Diego game, and declared his delight that the new league was trending on Twitter and its app was zooming off the virtual shelves of the Google and Apple stores.
“The intensity was outstanding,” said his fellow co-founder, Bill Polian, “Our hope was that this would look like real pro football and that’s exactly what it looked like.”
Despite the early success, the AAF hit some early stumbling blocks.
Only 10 days after its first game, the AAF would receive a $250 million investment, from Carolina Hurricanes owner/CEO Tom Dundon, although the money wasn't given all at once. In return, Dundon would take unilateral control of the AAF board. This meant any decision Dundon wanted to make, was his to make.
Dundon would start to finance the league on a week-by-week basis, ending up putting about $70 million into the league.
Ebersol said in a statement, "Tom, Bill Polian, and I will work with our great team at the Alliance to expand our football operations and technology business. Tom is a self-made American success story who brings a wealth of knowledge in the sports, entertainment, and finance worlds and proven leadership to our organization."
It was reported that Dundon's investment came as the AAF was "running short on cash, and quickly." With the AAF in danger of missing payroll ahead of Week 2 games. Although Ebersol disputed this, saying the payroll issue was a technical glitch, "We switched payroll companies late January/early February and there was a glitch with the transfer."
Part of Ebersol and Polian's vision was that they wanted to create a cooperative agreement with the NFL after two or three years. This would see the AAF take players on loan from NFL organizations. It was reported that "informal discussions" had taken place that would see the AAF acting as a minor league for NFL, to develop less experienced players in the offseason.
Although discussions had started with the NFL Players’ Association, discussions where slow. With a deal unlikely to be agreed upon in the near future.
Despite only beginning play in February, the league would suspend its football operations on April 2nd, two weeks before the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
The apparently unilateral decision to shutter the league came at as a surprise to the league's executives as well as players and coaches.
Many of the players found out during practice sessions.
Memphis Express players were apparently kicked out of their hotel rooms, with players returning to the hotel to find their belongings waiting for them in piles in the lobby. They were sent home by team management without cash to pay for their flights.
Players who had received injuries during games, where no longer able to receive medical care. Salt Lake Stallions linebacker Gionni Paul (@GionniPaul) broke his arm, ending his season “They basically said we on our own.” To add insult to injury Paul was kicked out of the apartment the Stallions set him up in, leaving him scrambling for a place to live.
The dissolution of the league meant that AAF players where now able to look for new opportunities with NFL teams.
The premature ending of the season would lead to the 7-1 Orlando Apollos to proclaim themselves as the league champions.
The abrupt ending comes after weeks of fighting between Dundon and league's founders, Ebersol and Polian.
“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” said Bill Polian. “When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all.”
He continued "The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well-positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity … I sincerely regret that many that believed in this project will see their hopes and efforts unrewarded. They gave their best for which I am deeply grateful. Unfortunately, Mr. Dundon has elected this course of action.”
Ebersol and Polian’s plan was to develop the league for three years on its own before becoming a feeder system to the NFL. However, Dundon wanted to create that minor league relationship immediately and sought to use the leverage of folding the AAF to get a deal with the NFL Players Association to better ensure flow between leagues.
As it stood, the NFL collective bargaining agreement would not allow several of Dundon’s asks, including a flexible system between AAF players and NFL practice squads.
"If the players union is not going to give us young players, we can't be a development league," Dundon told USA Today Sports. "We are looking at our options, one of which is discontinuing the league."
The idea that the AAF would eventually need help from the NFL was absolutely right, but everything about Dundon’s statement was strange. For starters, it was phrased like an ultimatum, preemptively blaming the NFLPA’s refusal to share players for the AAF’s demise.
Dundon made the matter of getting NFL players to seem urgent, while it clearly wasn’t. The AAF obviously could have finished its season without the 88th player on the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster signing up. Without completing its first season, it seems unlikely the AAF will ever convince the NFL or the NFLPA that it is worth partnering with.
The AAF was reportedly seeking permission to use players on practice squads, such as third-string quarterbacks and young linemen, in a bid to become a feeder system for the NFL. Union officials balked at a potential deal, citing concerns that it would violate restrictions on offseason workouts within the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. The risk of serious injuries that could force prospects to miss NFL games, and hurt their long-term income potential.
For the most part, minor league sports are unprofitable. They generally struggle to attract enough interest from local and national fans to pay for the many expenses of sports, such as player and coach salaries, housing, travel, equipment, stadium operating fees, and insurance for players. The main reason some minor leagues are capable of long-term survival is because the major leagues agree to subsidize their losses in the name of player development.
In European soccer, teams in the lower ranks can be promoted to higher leagues or at the very least make money by selling their good players to bigger clubs. In America, where there is no upward mobility, the options are finding a benefactor or dying.
Minor league baseball teams are able to exist because the salaries of players and coaches are entirely paid for by MLB teams. Many minor league hockey teams are owned directly by NHL teams, and on the teams that aren’t, many player contracts are paid for by NHL teams. The NBA’s G League is a 21st-century success story, ballooning from eight teams at its founding in 2001 to 27 in the current season. But that has less to do with a blossoming passion for minor league basketball and more to do with almost every NBA team purchasing its own G League team.
The one problem with starting a league with the express goal of serving as the NFL’s primary minor league is that the NFL does not necessarily want to have a minor league. At one point, the NFL financed its own developmental league, NFL Europe. That league served the awkward purpose of both trying to develop players and stoke interest in American football overseas, and with a few exceptions, it wasn’t particularly successful at either. Since shuttering the European league in 2007, the NFL hasn’t really expressed any interest in having a developmental property.
Although it is not clear as to why Dundon immediately began fixing to kill the league he just invested $70 million in. The explanation offered so far appears to be that Dundon actually bought the league not for, you know, the league, but for the proprietary technology the league had worked on, such as its app and gambling tech.
If this is true and Dundon’s intent was to unilaterally take control, then shut down the league and seize the AAF’s technology and assets for himself, would be illegal.
However, if reports are true the league does not own the rights to the technology.
The AAF was caught between two separate and flawed plans. Ebersol and Polian might have had the best plan of any minor football league ever because they were pragmatic enough to realize that eventually they’d need the NFL’s help. That said, “the best plan of any minor football league ever” was still not a particularly good plan. They knew they needed to launch a league and survive for a few years in order to bait the NFL, but they didn’t have the money to pull that off, so they decided to launch a league and survive for a few weeks in order to bait another buyer.
They probably shouldn’t have launched the league until they had secured enough financial backing to last at least a season. Instead, they had to rush a sale just to secure week-to-week expenses, and they ended up selling to somebody with massively different plans for the company.
Hypothetically, the league is not dead, but just taking a hiatus while it figures out a more financially sound business model for future years.
However, it would be hard to imagine the league ever gaining enough confidence from investors, business partners, or fans to make a second season possible, after proving it couldn’t get through its first season.
It seems pretty convincing that there isn’t enough interest in a second-tier football organization to provide the cash for the many expenses of football. The only thing that will lead to another football league’s success is the NFL deciding that its own football product could be improved by the presence of another football league. The AAF seemed to realize that but was felled by the short-sightedness and pettiness of its owners.
Despite this the AAF will not be the last of its type, as 2020 will see the planned launch of a second XFL, as well as the Freedom Football League, founded by former NFL players Ricky Williams (@Rickthelaureate) and Terrell Owens (@terrellowens).