It was a wonderful idea. These things always are at the start. Bright eyes, big ambitions. But in the end, after a very short stay on the North American playing field, the Alliance of American Football fell victim to too much dreaming and not enough cash.
Two weeks short of the completion of its first regular season, Tom Dundon, the owner of the AAF, pulled the plug by suspending operations.
“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” league co-founder Bill Polian said in a statement Tuesday. “When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all.
The eight-team league, which was scheduled to play a 10-week season, was billed as a potential feeder system for the NFL. It hired many former NFL coaches, like Steve Spurrier, Mike Martz and Mike Singletary, and built rosters with an accent on finding players familiar to a team’s region.
The AAF also introduced a number of rule changes. There were no kickoffs, extra points or onside kicks. The onside kick was replaced with a fourth-and-12 situation. If the kicking team converted the play it was allowed to keep the ball.
While the quality of play was generally lauded, and its television ratings checked in surprisingly high at its start, the league simply could not meet its financial obligations, even after Dundon poured $250 million in after its first week.
A few weeks ago, there were reports the league was close to folding, and that Dundon’s money had been necessary to its survival. But the league quickly dismissed the contention, blaming it on the breakdown of its payroll system.
“The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success,” said Polian. “Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity. I sincerely regret that many that believed in this project will see their hopes and efforts unrewarded. They gave their best for which I am deeply grateful. Unfortunately, Mr. Dundon has elected this course of action.”
Polian, a former NFL general manager, and Charlie Ebersol, the son of Dick Ebersol, the former president of sports at NBC, created the league in hopes it might soon work in collaboration with the NFL to train young players, coaches and executives.
It was timed to end the weekend before the NFL Draft later this month. And the hope was that many of the top players would be invited to NFL training camps.
The league did not attract many high-level former NFL players, aside from running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Johnny Manziel, both No. 1 draft picks of the Cleveland Browns. Richardson was in the league from the start while Manziel joined Memphis two weeks ago after his release from the CFL.
“If you’re an AAF player and the league does dissolve. The last check you got will be the last one that you get,” Manziel tweeted. “No lawsuit or anything else will get you your bread. Save your money and keep your head up. It’s the only choice at this point unless something drastic happens. Just the reality of this unfortunate situation.. great concept, good football on the field and fun for fans to watch. Just not enough money to go around which has been the main problem with “other” leagues for a long time.”
League employees received a letter Tuesday from the AAF board informing them of its decision to suspend operations. Both the Associated Press and NFL Network gained access to it.
“Over the last year, we have been able to realize some amazing accomplishments,” the email read. “We launched a football league, a groundbreaking sports technology and APP, and established production and broadcast arrangements to air our content on major networks. Together we created some incredible moments for football and our fans. We are very proud of what we accomplished and appreciate the contributions each of you made during that process.
“Unfortunately, after careful consideration, the board has decided to suspend operations of the Alliance of American Football, effective immediately. As part of this process, we expect to keep a small staff on hand to seek new investment capital and restructure our business. Should those efforts prove successful, we look forward to working with many of you on season two. As a follow up to this communication, we will reach out to the personnel who will be involved in that continuation effort.”
Multiple reports claimed players would not receive reimbursement for travel back to their homes. They were originally signed to three-year, non-guaranteed deals with $70,00 in the first year growing to $100,000 through 2022.
The league’s problems showed themselves in many ways. Orlando, coached by Spurrier and leading the league at 7-1, had to move practice from Florida to Georgia because of insurance issues.”My thanks go out to all who made our football product so competitive and professional,” Polian said. “I am certain there are many among them destined for future success in the NFL and I look forward to doing all I can to help them in their quest.”
The AAF shifted its first championship game from Las Vegas to Texas because of the lack of legal documentation for use of Sam Boyd Stadium, which is owned by the University of Las Vegas-Nevada.
Finally, Dundon said the NFL Players Association’s refusal to assign practice squad players to AAF rosters might be a death knell for the league. He turned out to be prophetic.
“We’re all disappointed, but on the other side, we got to be the champs, right?” said Spurrier. Some of us didn’t get into the Alliance to advance our careers, but the players … I’m more disappointed for all the players that believe, ‘This is my chance to show people this, that and the other that I can play this game. And a lot of them will get opportunities. They’ve shown enough.”