“Death of a Football League”
The idea, the concept, was exceptional.
The execution of the debut of the league was flawed and then fatal.
And so the AAF-Alliance of American Football, has folded its operation, never getting to the finish line of its first ever season.
The AAF winds up in the cemetary alongside the XFL, the USFL, NFL Europe, the World Football League, all who launched as spring leagues, but just never gained long term traction.
The death, or suspension of the AAF, wasn’t the fault of Roger Goodell or the NFL, though they didn’t seem interested in taking steps to possibly configure how they could help.
Impulsive owner Tom Dundon, who stepped into fund the spring league, just two weeks into its debut, walked away after multiples of meetings with the NFL Union as to how to get an agreement for player acquisitions for the 2020 season. First came the Memo that the players were to leave all facilities at 5pm on Tuesday. Front office employees were told they would leave Wednesday at 5pm.
Estimates are the AAF lost 70M in 4-months of operation. The 3-week joint training camps in San Antonio, and the 8-weeks of football just completed.
All this happened because the original lead investor, Reggie Fowler, who once bid on the Minnesota Vikings ownership, put in only 28M of the 175M he promised and was gone by weekend one of the schedule. Paychecks for the 2nd week were late, and then football people found there were problems with health insurance coverage. Exit Fowler, enter Dundon.
It happened so quickly. San Antonio players were pulled off the field in mid practice. Orlando’s players were sent home before meetings. Memphis players were in a team meeting. The San Diego Fleet we’re headed into a team meeting, instead were told turn in your playbook.
Even a brilliant football leader like Bill Polian, could not work magic with his former employers, the NFL, to find a bridge to guarantee a better quality of players for next year, though Polian seemed shocked that Dundon made the decision ‘unilaterally’ without input from other board members, which included Polian..
The idea of a spring league to develop players carries great merit. We saw enormous quality growth in the style of play from from week 1-thru-week 8, in lots of the games.
But the glaring reality is this, there are over 2800 players under NFL contracts for the 2020 season…the established rosters and all those signed to futures contracts, who will be in OTA camps as soon as the draft is over.
That means when you saw San Diego Fleet QB-Mike Bercovici making plays, he was probably player #2801 on the planet, unsigned, and available to play here. Whether he, or injured starter Philip Nelson ever wind up in an NFL camp is debatable.
Some dedicated players are out in the street, not even getting the full 70,000-they were promised in year one of what was supposed to a 3-year deal to come play in the AAF.
But it’s more than Mike Martz, the Fleet head coach, or ex Chargers exec Billy DeVanney in Atlanta, or Steve Spurrier in Orlando out of jobs.
The accident report says 8-head coaches…75-assistant coaches, spree 20-key execs…50-trainers and equipment people….and over 175-team employees who worked in the front offices. And that doesn’t count the some 30-people that worked around the league front office.
A lot of people invested a lot with hopes this could be something special.
Why are funeral services being planned for the 8-franchises and the league?
Sources told me Charlie Ebersole, the founder, and Polian wanted to launch this year to try and beat the XFL start planned for the 2020 season. But in doing so, they were overwhelmed by the cost factor.
Stadium leases ran high in lots of cities. Player’s health insurance was overwhelming. Travel via charter was a tidal wave of expense. The joint training camp bills ran very high for the 400 or so players in camp.
Was there a solution that could have been reached? The NFL was not going to give players to the league to experiment with.
The Union had huge issues about pay structure, and health benefits. Pension benefits and service time towards free agency. Who would pay for long term rehab for injured players. And the risk of injury, always a part of the game. Complex things you don’t resolve in one or two meetings, because if you give something, your union wants something back.
The concept made great sense. Take a young 3rd string quarterback, give him good coaching under the likes of Dennis Erickson, Rick Neuhisel, Martz, Spurrier….put him in a football regimen for 10-weeks and watch him grow;
Tell me young QB’s named Josh Dobbs, Mason Rudolph, CJ Beathard, Sean Mannion, Bryce Petty and even Cardale Jones-Geno Smith, wouldn’t have benefited.
But the Union held firm they were going to make AAF-approval a ‘bargaining chip’ and if they were going to let young developmental kids go play in the spring, the quiet time leading up to the draft, they had to have something from the NFL owners, and it never happened.
Dundon comes away a bad guy for putting money into it, and then turning the light out. I thought his decision to do this now, was wrong. Finish the season, continue to talk to both sides in the spring into the summer, and see long term if you find a common ground.
Of course, it’s not my money, and going another 4-weeks, regular season and the two playoff weekends, would have cost another 30M or so, on top of the 70M already down the drain.
An NFL exec told me he expected the league to lose 100M-not very far off that figure. Another exec said there would be a rush of interest in week one, and then interest would drop off. It did. Here came the Cactus League-Grapefruit Circuit, March Madness, and the NFL combine.
The mistakes leadership made were significant, aside from the cost factor. The teams hardly marketed themselves in the community, as witnessed by the San Diego Fleet doing very little to establish buzz.
Attendance was dismal in half the cities, when you saw crowds of 5, 8, 11,000 on most weekends.
The NFL, burned badly by the long run-cost fatal NFL Europe, with losses of 800M over the years, did not see itself fit to take on enormous cost of a new spring league. Whatever investors that might have been, were chased away by empty seats, no name players, and the reality the AAF-was-MIA on sports fans radar in most cities.
Don’t expect the XFL to be any different if and when it launches.
The San Diego Fleet joins teams like the Scottish Claymores…Memphis Southmen…the Hawaiians…New Jersey Generals…and Memphis Maniax, all who drowned in red-ink in other spring leagues.
The AAF had a good idea, they just couldn’t execute it, and a busy American sports fan didn’t seem interested in seeing a Mike Bercovici type player in the spring time.
And that’s too bad, because the coaches and players worked so hard to put on a good show.