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Offline jmyrlefuller

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Sports of Note: Where the AAF Went Wrong (and Right)
« on: April 03, 2019, 09:27:19 AM »
It's an all-too-familiar pattern.

Every ten years or so, an upstart football league comes onto the scene, begins play, then, within a few years, either slowly fizzles out, spectacularly implodes, or some combination of the two, when the money invariably runs out. So when news broke April 2 of the latest effort, the Alliance of American Football, suddenly suspending operations before the end of its first season, on one level it came as no surprise, though the more specific cause—the midseason arrival of a new controlling owner who wanted to force an unworkable vision against the wishes of the league's founders and was willing to shut the whole operation down because of that—ranks among the more bizarre causes of death for the numerous leagues that have come and gone since the 1970s.

So, what went wrong? Almost always, these professional football leagues fail because of unrealistic, or at least unattainable, expectations of how they can make money on the sport. Let's face it: professional football is a very expensive enterprise. The NFL only thrives because it makes over half its revenue from very expensive television contracts that networks are loath to offer any competitor. The other expectation is that somehow, barring any ability to stand alone, they can somehow become an official minor league and get NFL endorsement—and subsidy. Certainly the latter was the case here.

So, let's review.

What they got right: the time of season. Sort of.
One thing the AAF did right was to set its season immediately after the Super Bowl. Since the NFL decided to move the Pro Bowl to before the Super Bowl, football has had a sudden and jarring end of a season that is already shorter than the other major league sports. The AAF's positioning, which had been pioneered by the original XFL back in 2001, provided an ideal denouement to the football season. Its main competition was hockey and basketball; the interest in those sports doesn't ramp up all that much until the playoff hunts and tournaments begin in March.

What they got wrong: the size of the league.
If starting the league in February was a smart move, the decision to make the league run through April was not. As I previously mentioned, professional football leagues are incredibly expensive. The most recent parallel to the AAF one can find is the United Football League. In 2010, the league had five teams, with attendance about the same as the AAF's: ranging from under 10,000 in the weakest markets to over 20,000 in the strongest. The UFL lost $30 to $50 million a year. The AAF tried to run a league almost twice that size over a ten-week season.

The decision to try and fit eight teams and stretch a season out to ten weeks also pushed the league's schedule well into April and into competition from March Madness, the more climactic ends to the NBA and NHL seasons, and the start of baseball season, a combined recipe for deflating interest. Here, the UFL model of a four-team, six-week season would have been ideal.

Having to find talent to populate eight professional football teams with up to 50 players also ran the risk of stretching the talent pool for professional football too thin... more on that later.

What they got right: television.
The AAF was smart to get some of its games on high-profile networks. One of the UFL's glaring failures was its willingness to settle for poor television coverage, buried on lesser-known networks such as what was then Versus, HDNet, and (at the end of its existence) the "CBS Sports Network" (not to be confused with the real CBS broadcast network, this little-watched cable network relies almost entirely on lower-end sports that don't have outlets elsewhere). The AAF insisted on getting its games onto channels that people actually watch, including CBS and TNT. Its decision to play in the NFL offseason also opened up NFL Network as a broadcast outlet. The ratings showed: throughout its existence, the AAF's ratings have been competitive, especially during those first few weeks of the season, with the first CBS and TNT games having over a million viewers each and the CBS game actually winning its time slot in the advertising demographics. The AAF was also smart enough to realize that they weren't going to get a cash bailout from the networks the way the NFL and other major league sports do, though with the success, the AAF pattern may have been able to get some rights fees had it survived a little longer.

What they got wrong: bad football and poor talent.
The AAF salary was $7,000 a game (about the same as an NHL hockey player makes), yet the kind of talent the AAF was able to draw was underwhelming. Its talent pool more closely resembled the ill-fated Fall Experimental Football League and its $1,000-a-game preseason castoff rosters than anything recognizable. The AAF had few recognizable names: until it landed Johnny Manziel for a couple of games midseason, its biggest star quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, was a backup who had played a few games as an NFL starter, and even he didn't start a game in the AAF until midseason. Trent Richardson was the highest-profile running back they had, famous for his flame-out in the NFL; his flaws as a running back were still obvious, though the weaker competition still allowed him to have some success. The overall sloppiness of the game was also obvious: quarterbacks regularly were getting hit (and hurt) with hard sacks, as attempts to restrict the defense and keep the quarterbacks safe were largely ineffective, since the offensive line talent simply wasn't there. The kickers and punters such as Nick Novak and Colton Schmidt, both seasoned NFL vets, were marginalized with the kickoffs and extra point kicks eliminated. Having eight teams to populate with talent likely contributed to this; a smaller league would have been able to concentrate more talent onto each team and improved the level of play.

The UFL, in comparison, was able to land star talent, perhaps a bit over the hill, but their running backs like Dominic Rhodes, Marcel Shipp, and Ahman Green, were all household names with extensive NFL experience; they also had players like Jeff Garcia, Daunte Culpepper, Dexter Jackson (Super Bowl MVP), Simeon Rice... all at a price per game about the same as the AAF.

The AAF also failed in a realm that its predecessor and inspiration, the original XFL, succeeded: lacking recognizable talent, the XFL made that talent recognizable. For all its faults, the incorporation of WWE-style stories helped make household names out of the likes of Rod "He Hate Me" Smart, and Jeff Brohm's famous "let's play football" speech from an XFL match still carries on now that he coaches college football. The AAF had none of that: it was mostly nameless faces nobody recognized, playing a game nobody cared much about.

On a semi-related note: minor league emphasis also hurt.
NFL preseason games are the least popular games in that league. There simply isn't an appetite to watch inferior football in America. The AAF's efforts to position itself as a "developmental" league from the get-go harmed its reputation more than anything. While it's unrealistic to expect any league to challenge the NFL's best, the fans have to have an expectation that it's worth watching. Could, theoretically, our best team beat the NFL's worst? Could an average team beat college football's best? In the AAF, I'm not sure that's the case. Americans don't care to watch the Not Ready for Prime Time Football Players, and what success the AAF had came in spite of its minor-league flaws.

What they got right: the rules.
Almost every innovation the AAF added was an improvement. The kickoff, now virtually guaranteed as a touchback in the NFL, was not missed when the AAF eliminated it, and the decision to make teams "go for 2" felt natural, ending the disruptive feeling of having to switch between scrimmage play and a kicking play. In its efforts to keep the game at 2.5 hours with more action and flow, they succeeded.

What they got wrong: overreliance on a single investor
Back in the 1980s, the United States Football League decided that they were going to compete with the National Football League for marquee talent. To do that, they needed incredibly deep pocketed owners, and thus they brought in real estate mogul (and future U.S. President) Donald Trump. Trump began to force his view upon the league, eventually leading to its demise.

At first, the AAF appeared to be avoiding that fate, as it had set up a diverse list of investors heading into its inaugural season. But soon, a few of those investors dropped out, and the league eagerly rushed in a new majority owner in Thomas Dundon, owner of the  NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. Dundon had a view for the league that didn't mesh with its founders... and since Dundon controlled the money, the rest is history.

What they got wrong: being obtuse.
The AAF was far too willing to sweep major problems under the rug, going so far as to lie in an effort to protect its image. When payroll came short immediately before the investment, AAF founder Charlie Ebersol came up with a canard claiming it was a technical glitch. When asked if investors had dropped out of the venture, he deflected. It wasn't fooling anyone.

So what next?
The AAF claims it wants to come back next season. It probably won't. Vince McMahon is coming back with a reimagined XFL, and although it looks a lot like the AAF albeit with a few different rule changes (I'm particularly intrigued about the proposal to let offensive linemen catch forward passes behind the line of scrimmage), McMahon also controls this league and is explicitly avoiding Dundon's folly in expecting the NFL to bail him out. Will it survive? Well, McMahon's 73 years old and it'll last as long as he wants to and has WWE stock to liquidate and fund the venture.

Could a spring football league that combined the small size and concentrated talent of the UFL with the winter season and rules innovations of the XFL and AAF succeed enough to be profitable? It's hard to say, but it's plausible, if the prospective league chose the right markets. The AAF did show that such a league could be enough of a television draw to be able to convince the networks to purchase rights.

Until someone has the money to try it, we'll never know.

Sports of Note is an offshoot of "Words of Note," a column by J. Myrle Fuller. Copyright 2019, all rights reserved.
« Last Edit: April 03, 2019, 09:39:28 AM by jmyrlefuller »

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