Just one week after the Super Bowl, the Alliance of American Football - or the AAF - launches its inaugural season as yet another spring or developmental football league. While many others have come and gone, many people are very dismissive of the AAF and expect it to be a flop. After spending over a decade in pro football, I'm not so ready to write off the AAF. What makes it different?
Other startup football leagues have had "football people" running them. While the original XFL was panned as a failure, it too, had some good "football people" involved. But, over 15 years later, the AAF has a high caliber leadership team in place. Charlie Ebersol is the son of NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol, who is one of the most influential sports broadcast executives in the world. That connection should give some comfort as having the elder Ebersol's brains and Rolodex on tap for the younger Ebersol is an immense benefit. Neither Ebersol would want their name associated with a failure. Beyond family, Dick Ebersol is also listed on the AAF Board of Directors.
The football people are there too - and some big ones. Names like Polian, McKay, and Polamalu, are all in the front office. Football people all know who they are and they have all been involved in building NFL champions in some form. On the field, there are even more "football people" as the AAF was able to coax many top NFL coaches out of retirement or between jobs to give the AAF a shot. Proven names like Super Bowl winner Mike Martz, Mike Singletary, Dennis Erickson and the likes of Rick Neuheisel, Steve Spurrier, Mike Riley, Michael Vick, etc. all bring instant credibility to the sidelines and football operations.
This is usually the bigger issue than football knowledge. Being well capitalized fixes a lot of problems and helps you do things that would otherwise be "nice to haves." By appearances, the AAF looks like it has some deep pockets behind it. In addition to passing the hat around the networks of the Ebersol's and key executives, the AAF also has attracted venture funding and some big players. Peter Theil, co-founder of PayPal, is invested through his Founders Fund. The Chernin Group, owners of BarStool Sports, is also a big players. Other investors include former NFL All-Pro player Jared Allen and names such as Slow Ventures, Charles King's M Ventures, and Keith Rabois. Casino MGM Resorts has also invested into the AAF's Technology platform, seemingly to improve it's ability to be a player in the new sports-betting landscape.
None of those names are unknowns in the venture world. So, unlike other leagues that failed to launch or take off because of funding, that does not look like it will be an issue for the AAF. It looks to be well-capitalized and it should be able to survive past its first season. If it can make it successfully through Season #2, I don't think there will be many doubters going into Sean #3. The USFL met it's demise after Year 3, but the organizational structure and personalities of a couple of key owners had more to do with the USFL's death than the market or interest in the league. Just watch the 30 for 30 - or sit in on my class at Rutgers Law School - and you will get some of the insight into what happened.
The USFL was structured much like the NFL. Individual teams were owned by individual ownership groups. They each were trying to keep their own teams afloat. Some were better capitalized than others. Some struggled financially which hurt the product while others were frustrated by the leagues limitations. The AAF is structured much like Major League Soccer originally was where the teams are centrally owned in a version of a "single entity" structure. This lets the start up league office manage the overall enterprise and make sure that every team can be successful. They can deploy resources where needed. They can reallocate players. MLS has proven that the system works and can help start up leagues to manage their start up better. This gives a better likelihood for success. Remember, the MLS lost over $100 million in its first few years and was able to weather than storm before becoming the hottest sports league in terms of growth.
Everyone always focuses on the players first. Players are actually the easy part. A start up league realizes it is not competing for the Tom Brady's or Drew Brees's of the NFL, instead they are looking at the players on the outside of the NFL and looking in or those who might be looking to improve their positioning in free agency. The truth is that the bottom 25% of NFL rosters looks no different than the 25% of players on the outside looking in. Players miss out on the NFL most often not because of skill, but more so because of fit. A player has to choose to sign wisely, which many do not do. They wind up going through training camp in a spot where they might not have a great opportunity and they become a casualty as the NFL's 85 person training camp roster gets cut down to 53. Even landing on a practice squad is tough as there are rules that prevent teams from signing players to practice squad rosters. Even the Canadian Football League (CFL), has a very different system and limits the number of American players in the league - so many good players either do not fit the league or are locked out by the numbers. So, where do these players go?
There are almost 130 FBS schools and over 140 FCS schools in NCAA Division 1 football. There are roughly 800 graduating seniors every year that get evaluated for the NFL. That is a lot of bodies. So, the AAF has a huge pool of players to choose from. Add in that they will have a much more favorable pay structure than other alternatives and the AAF will be stocked with talent and names that people know. See NPrince8's analysis of the initial AAF roster's here.
In the modern sports industry, having "butts in the seats" is less important than ever. The "butts" help make the game look more exciting on TV. The amount of revenues that a league like the AAF would expect in Year 1 from is negligible. The people who show up at the stadium will be gravy on top and make the games more exciting. With opening day on CBS as well as their championship, it will give them smoe mass availability while the rest of their games will be streamed or on the CBS Sports Network. Unlike the USFL in 1983, broadcast TV is not a limiting factor. They will be able to show their product broadly from Day 1. The AAF also has been steadily growing a social media following too which will only continue to grow as they start to play games. If they can make it passed Year 1, you will also see more revenues and interest coming from gambling, fantasy, and other sources. So, the league will be profitable as long as there is enough patience to let it happen.
The AAF is actually promoting its technology almost as much as it is promoting its football product. A "let's see if this works" league would not be investing the amount of time and effort into the technology back end if it did not intend to be around for a while. It would also not be making those tech investments if it really did not have the money to do so. The fact that the AAF is trumpeting its technology products and framework leads you to believe they have a much bigger master plan. With the tech investors on board too, you know they see something that the average football fan is not looking at and it should make everyone more comfortable to jump on board early.
So, beginning on February 9th, you may want to pick your favorite AAF team - it might just be around for a while...
Andrew Bondarowicz, Esq. is a sports and entertainment attorney based in New Jersey. As a former He teaches Sports Law at Rutgers Law School in Newark and in the Rutgers Global Sports Business program in New Brunswick. He is also the founder of Fanteractive.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyBEsq.