The concept seems sustainable, a professional football league founded by the son of a television executive and former NFL general manager.
The idea seems sturdy, filling time for the fans between the end of the Super Bowl and NFL draft with reasonably watchable football.
The approach seems sensible, hiring former professional coaches to teach the game.
And, frankly, the Alliance of American Football has been a hit with consumers since its debut on CBS two weeks ago. It has drawn good television ratings and enthusiastic, albeit smallish crowds to its games.
There has even been talk about it someday morphing into exactly what the NFL needs, a minor league to develop players, coaches and officials during the offseason. They’ve tried it before with NFL Europe, which folded in 2007.
However, a big problem seems to have surfaced, the biggest problem the upstart league can face. There doesn’t seem to be enough money to pay the bills.
On Tuesday, The Athletic quoted multiple sources saying the league’s future was already in question because it was running low on money and that if something didn’t change it might have missed its last payroll on Friday.
“Without a new, nine-figure investor, nobody is sure what would have happened,” one source said. “You can always tell people their checks are going to be a little late, but how many are going to show up on the weekend for games when they don’t see anything hit their bank accounts on Friday?”
Well, a savior, at least for the short-term, has been found. Dallas billionaire Tom Dundon, the owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, has committed $250 million to the league and will be the AAF’s new chairman. Dundon will continue as owner of the Hurricanes.
“The hope and belief now is that years from now, (the AAF) can look back and consider these some scary growing pains, because this league clearly has a chance to become incredibly successful,” one source told The Athletic. “The opening weekend provided a lot of excitement and hope, even beyond the TV numbers. Obviously, though, the original plan did not include a financial crisis in Week 2.”
When The Athletic first released the news, Charlie Ebersol, the AAF’s co-founder with ex-NFL executive Bill Polian, dismissed its validity. Guess he’s not dismissing it any longer.
“As a lifelong sports fan and entrepreneur, I’ve always valued the opportunities generated in the ecosystem of sports and entertainment,” Dundon said in a statement released by the AAF. “I’m impressed with The Alliance’s stunning growth in-stadium and across TV, mobile and social media in just these first few weeks.”
The league has former NFL coaches Steve Spurrier, Mike Singletary and Mike Martz running teams. But as of now, its only player with a definitive NFL background is running back Trent Richarson, who was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Cleveland Browns.
The remainder of the players either have been cut from NFL camps or have strong regional collegiate connections to one of the eight franchises. The league is also somewhat innovative; it has outlawed the kickoff and an extra point and has a 30-second play clock.
The league, which is playing a 10-game season, also has a strong backbone of television partners, led by CBS, CBS Sports Network and TNT. AAF players are signed to three-year, $250,000 non-guaranteed contracts enhanced with bonuses.
Here were the announced crowds for Week 2 games: 17,319 in Birmingham, 11,980 in Memphis, 29,176 in San Antonio and 20,019 in San Diego. This is assuming the figures are accurate and not embellished. If they are correct, it’s not bad for the second week of a new enterprise.
In other words, it seems to be more substance than silliness, unlike some of its predecessors in the ersatz football business.
In a statement released by the AAF, Ebersol said the league is excited about working with Dundon.
“Tom, Bill Polian, and I will work with our great team at the Alliance to expand our football operations and technology business. Tom is a self-made American success story who brings a wealth of knowledge in the sports, entertainment and finance worlds and proven leadership to our organization.”
Dundon is new to the NHL. He took over the Hurricanes in January 2018, purchasing a majority stake from longtime owner Peter Karmanos Jr, who moved the franchise in 1997 to North Carolina from Hartford, Ct, where it was known as the Whalers.
The Hurricanes are not very good. Their average attendance is currently 28th (13,950 after 29 dates) in the 31-team league. They haven’t been the playoffs since 2009 and last year they let go of their popular broadcaster, Chuck Kaiton, to make way for television simulcasts on the radio.
If they are known for anything it’s the dopey center ice celebrations they do after winning home games. Think of NFL’s endzone celebrations of the new trend of posing for imaginary pictures after a big play. Don Cherry, perhaps the most well-known NHL analysts, just called Hurricanes players “jerks” as a result of their actions.
Obviously, Dundon is hoping his quarter-billion dollars with a have a more immediate impact on the AAF. And so does the AAF.