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Five Takeaways From the Collapse of the AAF

The upstart football league will suspend football operations fewer than two months after it kicked off, but there are lessons to learn from the wreckage

Da’Sean Downey tackles Christian Hackenberg Getty Images

RIP, AAF. Fewer than eight weeks after the Alliance of American Football launched, the league is dead, according to multiple reports. The upstart league will suspend all football operations Tuesday with just two weeks left in the regular season and just four days before a game between Memphis and San Antonio was set to be the lead-in to two Final Four broadcasts Saturday. While the league lasted less time than a Kardashian-Humphries marriage, there are still a few takeaways from its brief existence. But first, please stand for a moment of silence.

Thank you. Here are five enduring lessons from the AAF.

1. Steve Spurrier can still coach.

The former Florida and South Carolina coach was the biggest name of all the big names the AAF was able to snag, and he showed he’s still got it. His Orlando Apollos were in first place at 7-1 and scored 100 more points than they allowed. Spurrier has 228 NCAA wins, the 14th most in the history of Division-I college football and just nine fewer than Nick Saban. He also has seven wins in the AAF, which makes him the most winning coach in the league’s history. But that was apparently not enough for him—he also wants the Apollos to be champions.

2. Christian Hackenberg still can’t play.

Former Penn State star and Jets washout Christian Hackenberg was billed as one of the AAF’s marquee players as the quarterback for the Memphis Express. Unfortunately, he did not stay the quarterback for long. Hackenberg was benched for former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, and even though Mettenberger got hurt, Hackenburg remained the backup as former Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers was named the starter. He lost the gig for forgetting some of the basics of quarterbacking: From JV to the NFL and apparently everything in between, this is how you lose your job.

The Jets drafted Hackenberg in the second round in 2016, but he never played a snap for them. Last year he was overhauling his throwing motion (never a good sign for a QB!) before getting traded to Oakland for a conditional seventh-round pick (never a good sign for any football player!). Then the Raiders cut him, and he washed out of the league without ever taking an NFL snap, a nearly unheard of feat for a QB drafted so high. He might go down as the worst second-round pick of all time.

3. The AAF had some good ideas.

The AAF lasted fewer than two months, but long enough for the NFL to try stealing its ideas. The Denver Broncos formally proposed an AAF-knockoff idea to eliminate onside kicks and allow teams to attempt a long fourth down to keep possession of the ball. That proposal failed, but similar ones should float around as serious possibilities for years as the NFL’s apparent push to eventually eliminate kickoffs for safety reasons is complicated by the lack of viable alternatives for the onside kick.

The AAF also introduced a “sky judge” that could correct egregious officiating mistakes immediately from an upstairs booth rather than going to a replay. The competition committee studied adding sky judges, and while they did not endorse the idea, it was quite popular with NFL coaches, according to NBC’s Peter King. Just like the NFL implemented the two-point conversion, instant replay, and salary cap only after the USFL used them, the rules of football (and most sports) change far quicker when a competitor tries them first. AAF innovations like the sky judge could find their way to the NFL in the not-so-distant future—and so too could part of the AAF’s soul.

4. Starting a new league is hard.

It turns out that is it hard to coexist with a $14 billion-a-year de facto monopoly that is interwoven in the fabric of U.S. society. The AAF wisely pitched itself as a complement to the NFL, not a competitor, billing itself as those little fish that swim alongside sharks and eat the meat from between the shark’s teeth in exchange for the privilege of not being eaten. The NFL, like sharks, was surprisingly open to the idea. The league put AAF games on NFL Network, where their TV numbers were surprisingly good, but even the NFL’s endorsement wasn’t enough.

Just two weeks after the AAF launched, it needed outside help to save it from running out of cash. Dallas billionaire and NHL Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon made an investment that could’ve gone as high as $250 million to keep the league afloat. (Dundon lost $70 million, according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, and he may have been after only the rights to gambling-related technologies and data, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer.) This week was filled with reports that the AAF needed (i.e., Dundon wanted) endorsement from the NFL Players Association to let NFL talent participate in the AAF, essentially making it a minor league of sorts, which would have been deeply complicated for players under contract with an NFL team.

It must be immeasurably complex to get local players with well-known coaches to play actual football games and sell tickets in real stadiums and then put those games on prominent television channels. But the AAF did all of those things and still struggled to stay afloat for two months.

5. The XFL is coming.

It’s easy to forget now, but Vince McMahon announced the renewed XFL long before anyone had heard of the AAF. McMahon, the chairman, CEO, and demigod of the WWE, was extremely light on details when he announced the move in January 2018, but in retrospect that seems wise. McMahon just watched the AAF flail, and now he can study where the league went right and where it went wrong. McMahon also looks prepared to spend to make the XFL viable. The WWE, a publicly traded company, doubled its stock price in 2018, and that figure is still climbing in 2019. Last week, McMahon sold roughly $261 million of WWE stock—more money than Dundon promised the AAF—to fund the XFL’s parent company, Alpha Entertainment.

The AAF was not profitable, but the numbers suggest that there is demand for more football. The AAF debut beat a Rockets-Thunder NBA game on ABC in prime time, and even as viewership tailed off later, it still outdid some NHL games and golf tournaments on weekends. Whether that demand can be turned into profit remains a mystery (a major theme of modern business). While the AAF pitched itself as the minnow to the NFL’s great white, McMahon is more likely to position the XFL as a shark killer.