It’s been a hell of a month for the upstart developmental league known as the Alliance of American Football (AAF.)
First, the league moved its planned championship game from Las Vegas, Nevada, to “The Star,” the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility in Frisco, Texas, which can hold a crowd of about 5,000 spectators and already hosts Conference USA’s basketball championship tournament. The league seemingly has the Jerry Jones endorsement, as the oil tycoon was seen wearing AAF-branded gear a couple weeks prior to the announcement.
Then, the news of Johnny Manziel signing a standard player agreement broke during game coverage in Week 6, with him eventually being signed to Memphis off of waivers after San Antonio refused right of first bid. Manziel debuted to (some) fanfare in Week 7, going three-of-five for 40 yards and 20 rushing yards in Memphis’ overtime comeback win against Birmingham, led by QB Brandon Silvers.
In the meantime, game packages have been shifting from a CBS Sports Network/NFL Network centric system to spreading them out over various broadcasters, including Bleacher Report Live, TNT and even CBS proper as the league has gained a steady following ratings-wise.
So, that all means good things, right? Well, to put it simply, no.
The AAF, for all its accomplishments, can’t seem to brush off purported money troubles, and that reared its head again on Wednesday afternoon, when Tom Dundon, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes and majority owner of the Alliance, told USA Today the league was in danger of folding unless it received a bit of help from the NFL Player Association in expanding the pool of available players, and that a pivotal decision could be reached within the “next two days” unless something significant happened.
This was certainly a surprising notion, considering about 18 hours prior, Charlie Ebersol, the co-founder and CEO of the AAF, was courting prominent rapper Eminem to potentially create an expansion team in the rapper’s hometown of Detroit.
Detroit is not a bad idea for a future franchise. Let me know if you want in on it.
— Charlie Ebersol (@CharlieEbersol) March 26, 2019
It reminded many football fans of a dubious Week 1 afterglow, when after a banner debut on CBS proper, reports came out that players weren’t paid on time and that the league was not financially solvent, a problem which found a solution (at least for now) in Dundon’s investment of $250 million. It’s a bad distinction, being in terrible finaincial danger not once, but twice, in less than a two-month period for any league, and especially a league trying to gain its bearing in the sports landscape.
The financial struggles have been evident in subtler ways throughout the season, including many teams’ lack of a second uniform set, the same mix of sponsors during commercial breaks (Navy Federal Credit Union and At Home Security Serives especially stick out) and at least one situation where the home team can’t place any team emblems on their home field (the Stallions cannot replace the University of Utah’s symbols on the field at Rice-Eccles stadium).
(As an aside, the commercial breaks are an especially interesting symptom, as the AAF emphasized fewer commercial breaks as an overall benefit of the league.)
The AAF, prior to launch and throughout the season, insists it is not a direct rival of the National Football League, but rather, a “developmental league” in its own right which could help the NFL find some future assets. That, ultimately, could be its downfall.
During the creation of the league, it was quite reasonable to assume the AAF would inevitably try to make the play to be “absorbed” or otherwise receive direct (or indirect) help from the NFL to continue functioning as it properly sees itself: a football equivalent to MLB’s minor-league system or the NBA’s Deveopment League (now called the G-League.) With this week’s news, the AAF merely confirmed what most suspected.
What the AAF has seemingly failed to take into account here is that, in the simplest terms, the NFL doesn’t care to have its own, league-sponsored minor league system. One only has to look at the history of the NFL Europe experiment to see how much care the league placed into having an 11-on-11 developmental league.
This is because it already has a minor-league system that it can pull developmental prospects from, free-of-charge, in the NCAA. Why invest millions of dollars in player, coach and staff salaries, stadium leases, uniform supplier and all the other accoutrements of hosting a developmental league, when you already have the amateur draft and CBA-endorsed practice squads?
The life and death of NFL Europe showed that the NFL isn’t willing to invest in anything that might lose the owners money, talent or those all important TV dollars, which are all things that up to this point, the AAF has struggled maintaining.
Now, with the AAF essentially drawing its trump card in Week 8 of a 10-week regular season, it shows its true character: a gambler who doesn’t have a keen sense of how to play the game. The NFL has all the leverage in this situation as the established, unilateral home for all things professional American football, and has no incentive to lend its talent to an upstart league which can’t guarantee players will be safe in its hands from an injury standpoint.
It is, ultimately, a great shame the AAF is in this situation.
While not perfect, the AAF has been a league where former NFL and NCAA talents have had a chance to showcase their skills to future employers, whether that is the NFL or other professional football leagues (like the AFL or IFL.)
The league has also maintained a fun persona that is willing to take certain risks from a broadcasting perspective, including a revolutionary approach to its audio production, allowing the viewer to listen in on referee discussions, booth reviews and even players on the field. The elimination of the extra-point kick has also added intrigue into the games, forcing teams to make decisions that most football teams up to this point, haven’t had to make before.
The cities involved, many of which don’t have a professional football presence, have seemed to really embrace the opportunity to host a sporting club of this caliber. Birmingham has especially had a tight bond between its fanbase and the team as the only professional sporting team to speak of in the state of Alabama, while San Antonio has been at near-capacity for all of the Commanders’ home games.
With all this doom-and-gloom surrouning the league, there’s still time to fix the problems the league has come across in its first season.
The mantra goes that many successful businesses lose money in the first two seasons, and the AAF giving up in year one would result in many “what ifs”, especially as its potential rival, the Vince McMahon-led XFL revival, is set to take stage in 2020 in markets directly relating to the AAF.
The AAF gambled on a chance, and it might lose in the short-term. But if they can find a new talent-scouting approach and/or find investors willing to believe in the product they bring to the field (such as sponsors, television providers or even franchisees,) the AAF could well find an opportunity to evolve and become a fully-fledged league of its own.
For now, however, we’ll just have to wait and see if the league decides to take a knee or strap the helmet back on.