The AAF Failed Because All Minor League Football Does

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They’re running out of space in the Graveyard of Failed Football Leagues. There are already tombstones for the World Football League, the United States Football League, the original XFL, the United Football League, the Fall Experimental Football League, the Continental Football League, the All-American Football League, the Stars Football League, and a bevy of arena football leagues. Now, they are joined by the Alliance of American Football, whose majority owner has made the strange decision to bury the still-breathing league alive in the midst of its first season.

The AAF looked promising. Unlike a lot of startup football leagues, which have the business model of “Hey, let’s start a football league,” the AAF seemed to have a lot of things figured out. It had a TV deal, with games broadcast on TNT, CBS Sports Network, the NFL Network, and even actual over-the-air CBS. It had an innovative app; it had innovative rules. It got surprisingly decent ratings from the jump that held reasonably steady all season long. Perhaps most importantly, the AAF had a firm understanding of its place—unlike many other leagues, the AAF operated with the understanding that it would never beat the NFL in head-to-head competition and positioned itself as a developmental feeder league for the NFL. And for some reason, it had Steve Spurrier.

But the league, which began play in February, suspended its football operations Tuesday, canceling the final two weeks of the regular season and the playoffs. Players were practicing when the news broke and sent home without cash to pay for their flights. Spurrier proclaimed his 7-1 Orlando Apollos the league champions, and I can’t find any good reason to disagree with him.

The abrupt ending is the culmination of a weekslong feud between the founders, Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian, and majority owner Tom Dundon, a man ominously named after the noise played in between scenes on Law and Order. Short on cash, Ebersol and Polian signed the league over to Dundon just 10 days after play began. The cash infusion allowed the AAF to make payroll, and Dundon appeared to be the league’s savior. But now he’s turned out to be the league’s killer. Dundon made the apparently unilateral decision to shutter the league on Tuesday, surprising his own league executives as well as players and coaches. It’s really strange to watch a league owner explain why he’s closing shop while the league’s founders publicly yell that the owner is wrong.

Hypothetically, the league isn’t dead—just taking a hiatus while it figures out a more financially sound business model for future years. But it’s hard to imagine the league ever gaining enough confidence from investors, business partners, or fans to make a second season possible after proving it couldn’t get through Year 1.

The AAF offered a twist to the well-trodden story of the failed football league. Most leagues fold having made far fewer inroads, with far worse strategies for long-term success, and with far less money. Most leagues fold because they cannot find a man with money in the bank. The AAF seems to be folding because they found one.

For the most part, minor league sports are unprofitable. They generally struggle to attract enough interest from local and national fans to pay for the many expenses of sports, such as player and coach salaries, housing, travel, equipment, stadium operating fees, and insurance for players. The main reason some minor leagues are capable of long-term survival is because major leagues agree to subsidize their losses in the name of player development. In European soccer, teams in the lower ranks can be promoted to higher leagues or at the very least make money by selling their good players to bigger clubs. In America, where there is no upward mobility, the options are finding a benefactor or dying.

Minor league baseball teams are able to exist because the salaries of players and coaches are entirely paid for by MLB teams. Many minor league hockey teams are owned directly by NHL teams, and on the teams that aren’t, many player contracts are paid for by NHL teams. The NBA’s G League is a 21st-century success story, ballooning from eight teams at its founding in 2001 to 27 in the current season. But that has less to do with a blossoming passion for minor league basketball and more to do with almost every NBA team purchasing its own G League team. Here is a video I filmed at a 2017 game of the Long Island Nets, Brooklyn’s G League affiliate:

You might see this video and think the G League is doomed, but I think of it as a sign the league has a sound future. The Nets opted not to sell tickets for this game, which was played in the same arena the pro team would play in later that evening. The NBA franchise was willing to eat all the losses associated with this game so their executives and talent evaluators could watch the affiliate without having to travel. MLB and NHL teams have long been willing to sink millions into minor league player development; this video is evidence the NBA has seen the light.

So if the question you’re asking is “Was the AAF profitable?” the answer is no. No, not even close, and I suspect that given five years or a decade or two decades the answer still would have been no. There’s a more interesting question, though: How close was the AAF to convincing the NFL to buy in and offset the inevitable losses of a minor league football operation?

The one problem with starting a league with the express goal of serving as the NFL’s primary minor league is that the NFL does not necessarily want to have a minor league. At one point, the NFL financed its own developmental league, NFL Europe. That league served the awkward purpose of both trying to develop players and stoke interest in American football overseas, and with a few exceptions, it wasn’t particularly successful at either. Since shuttering the European league in 2007, the NFL hasn’t really expressed any interest in having a developmental property. The AAF was banging on the NFL’s window, offering to squeegee their car, even though the NFL would probably just go to a car wash if it wanted squeegeeing.

Ebersol and Polian said they foresaw a cooperative agreement with the NFL coming in two or three years. Their plan was to create a league that was able to sustain itself until that lifeline came through. It wasn’t a bad plan.

The problem, of course, was an immediate lack of money. The league failed to deliver its first set of paychecks, blaming it on a computer glitch. (I’m betting it was the same bug that prevented me from filing various homework assignments I absolutely did throughout my high school and college career.) The league also failed to secure insurance for all of its players—kind of an enormous deal for a contact sport—forcing the Orlando franchise to hold practices in Georgia due to Florida’s lack of worker compensation laws for professional athletes. So 10 days after the league’s founding, Dundon bought in. He invested $70 million and committed to investing $180 million more in coming years. It seemed like he’d be willing to float the league the cash it needed to survive in the short term until the NFL pitched in. However, Dundon very quickly shifted his tone from being excited about his shiny new league to proclaiming its oncoming doom. Last week, Dundon announced that if the league couldn’t secure participation from end-of-roster NFL players, he would be forced to shutter the league.

The idea that the AAF needed help from the NFL was absolutely right, but everything about Dundon’s statement was strange. For starters, it was phrased like an ultimatum, preemptively blaming the NFLPA’s refusal to share players for the AAF’s demise. In the squeegee scenario, Dundon was now shouting “IF YOU DON’T GIVE ME SOAP, I WON’T SQUEEGEE YOUR CAR” to a driver who never asked for their car to be squeegeed in the first place. Secondly, while the AAF would eventually need the NFL’s help, Dundon seemed oddly fixated on one specific form of help—literally sharing players with the NFL. That wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement for a developmental league. But most importantly, Dundon made the matter of getting NFL players seem urgent, while it clearly wasn’t. The AAF obviously could have finished its season without the 88th player on the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster signing up—and without completing its first season, it seems unlikely the AAF will ever convince the NFL or the NFLPA that it is worth partnering with.

Nobody is still 100 percent sure why Dundon immediately began fixing to kill the league he just invested $70 million in. The best explanation offered thus far stems from a report by Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, who posits that Dundon actually bought the league not for, you know, the league, but for the proprietary technology the league had worked on, such as its app and gambling tech. Early on, Ebersol billed the league as “a tech company that owns a football league”; Dundon apparently took that literally. This is possibly illegal, and who knows whether the technology is worth $70 million, and it seems likely he doesn’t have the rights anyway. But, like, why else would Dundon so quickly give up? This doesn’t make much sense but explains why Dundon was so eager to cut the league’s losses—millions per week, according to USA Today—as soon as possible.

The AAF was caught between two separate and flawed plans. Ebersol and Polian might have had the best plan of any minor football league ever because they were pragmatic enough to realize that eventually they’d need the NFL’s help. That said, “the best plan of any minor football league ever” was still not a particularly good plan. They knew they needed to launch a league and survive for a few years in order to bait the NFL, but they didn’t have the money to pull that off, so they decided to launch a league and survive for a few weeks in order to bait another buyer. The phrase “Let’s just do it and be legends, man” comes to mind. (Or maybe “Let’s just do it and be Atlanta Legends, man.”) They probably shouldn’t have launched the league until they had secured enough financial backing to last at least a season. Instead, they had to rush a sale just to secure week-to-week expenses, and they ended up selling to somebody with massively different plans for the company.

As for Dundon, his public explanation for closing the league asks us to believe that he spent $70 million on a wildly unprofitable league in February and realized in April that his league was wildly unprofitable. The seven weeks between his purchase of the league and its closure seem both too long—how did he buy the league in February and take until April to realize how much money it lost every week?—and too short—how did he buy the league in February and expect everything to be fixed by April? It’s disheartening that he seemingly had no interest in keeping the league alive long enough to follow through on the promise of becoming a true developmental league. I half-heartedly buy the conclusion that he bought the league primarily for its technology, which makes him seem like a bad person (for shuttering a league with hundreds of employees for his attempted personal gain) and a worse businessman (for spending $70 million on a football league so he could close it within two months).

The AAF had different plans from every other league but met the same end. It will not be the last of its type. Next year will see the planned launch of a second XFL (again owned by the WWE’s Vince McMahon) as well as a league called the Freedom Football League founded by former NFL players Ricky Williams and Terrell Owens. I suspect the new XFL will fail for the same reason the first one did—McMahon has no interest in partnering with the NFL because he seems to genuinely believe he can build a football league that will serve as the NFL’s equal. But time and time again, that has proved to be an unrealistic goal for all the NFL’s would-be competitors. The FFL also doesn’t seem to have any interest in partnering with the NFL—the league’s main premise is rebelling against the NFL’s big-money ownership as one of its primary goals. Both seem to think of the NFL as a rival rather than a lifeline.

The world doesn’t need another football league. I, personally, like watching football, but the last dozen or so attempts to start leagues have failed. It seems pretty convincing that there isn’t enough interest in a second-tier football organization to provide the cash for the many expenses of football. The only thing that will lead to another football league’s success is the NFL deciding that its own football product could be improved by the presence of another football league. The AAF seemed to realize that, but was felled by the short-sightedness and pettiness of its owners.

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