The Alliance of American Football was always going to struggle, despite a reasonable product on the field. But its legacy may live on in live betting
It ended with a bang and a whimper. The bang was the head injury suffered last Saturday by the Alliance of American Footballs star name, Johnny Manziel, which forced the quarterback out of the game and to the sideline, where he sat on a folding chair eating chicken wings. The whimper was the mealy-mouthed announcement via an email to employees on Tuesday that the AAF is suspending operations (it has not technically folded) two months after its opening game, becoming the latest league to prove that despite footballs immense popularity, the NFL is the only professional game that matters.
Its pretenders always debut with hype and hope and end in tragicomedy and farce, unhinged by the reality that the NFL season lasts for only five months yet the planets richest league still manages to be all-consuming. A hundred million Super Bowl viewers in the winter does not mean there is a gap in the market in the spring.
The AAF folded faster than the World Football League, which was not exactly global, since it stretched from Philadelphia to Honolulu, whose best team operated out of a trailer when tax authorities came calling, and saw a player abruptly exit the field when he was served with a restraining order during a game. It sank sooner than the United States Football League, which was doomed by the obtuse overconfidence of the real-estate tycoon who became the 45th President of the United States. And it submitted even quicker than the United Football League, which was mired in financial and legal woes, and the XFL, the tawdry shambles birthed by the wrestling impresario, Vince McMahon.
The AAFs demise barring the emergence of a deep-pocketed saviour is bizarrely timed, coming with two weeks left in the regular season and only six weeks after Tom Dundon, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes NHL franchise, took charge after announcing he would invest $250m. Warning signs included moving the final from Las Vegas to an arena at the Dallas Cowboys training ground that holds only 12,000. The last hours were predictably messy, with now-jobless players reportedly told to pay their own way home and one coach, Steve Spurrier, telling the Orlando Sentinel, were definitely good to finish out this year shortly before it transpired that they were definitely not.
Perhaps Spurrier might have divined that his first-place Orlando Apollos had some problems at mission control when it emerged that they were staying at a hotel in Jacksonville, a two-hour drive north of Orlando, and training at a high school another 30 miles away, just across the state line, because it was easier to find insurance in Georgia than in Florida.
Still, the quality of play was reasonable. There was a celebrity fan: ALLOWING THE PLAYERS TO ACTUALLY FIGHT WOULD BE KEY TO LEAGUES SUCCESS, Eminem tweeted.
Though teams in Salt Lake City and Phoenix struggled to attract more than 10,000 fans to games, the league was averaging around 15,000 and San Antonio had an announced crowd of 30,345 in week seven. TV ratings were solid and better than Major League Soccer, while wages were tightly controlled: all the players were on contracts offering a total of $250,000 over three years.
But the eight teams had 52-man rosters and only five regular-season home games. Add the costs of venue hire, travel and insurance in a sport with frequent injuries, and its obvious that the economics are daunting for any football league without substantial sponsorship and broadcast deals.
The co-founders, Bill Polian, a respected veteran NFL executive, and Charlie Ebersol, a peppy 36-year-old TV producer, knew that. They saw the AAF as a complement to the NFL rather than competitor: a spring league that started the week after the Super Bowl and even had a deal to broadcast some games on the NFL Network. They hoped the relationship would deepen over years and that the AAF would emerge as a gateway to the NFL.
However, Dundon told USA Today that unless a loan system to allow the AAF to use young players already signed to NFL teams could be promptly installed, in effect turning it into a baseball-style minor league or a domestic version of the defunct NFL Europe, he did not see a future.
Yet the play itself was only half the story. Conceptually, the AAF was part little brother to the NFL, part Silicon Valley start-up. And like many new tech companies, it was positioning itself as valuable not for any short-term profit potential but through growth and innovation that would lead to a dominant market share when the time was right for its product to become ubiquitous.
From its San Francisco office, the AAF developed hardware and software to track, visualise and analyse games in real time, aiming to immerse fans in the action even if they were only following via a mobile app. That has obvious appeal for fantasy gaming. And since a 2018 US Supreme Court ruling essentially legalised Vegas-style sports wagering across the country, live betting is likely to proliferate in the coming years, making the AAFs instant technology potentially lucrative, especially if licensed to others.
Its hardly surprising that the AAF had a partnership with the casino operator MGM Resorts International and that investors included Peter Thiels Founders Fund, a San Francisco-based technology venture capital firm. The likes of the Birmingham Iron, Atlanta Legends and Memphis Express might have scored their last touchdowns, but the AAFs digital platform could live on.
McMahon, meanwhile, is planning an XFL reboot for 2020 and seven of the eight teams will be in cities that currently have NFL franchises. The apparent collapse of the AAF removes a rival, but it hardly seems like a good omen.