Can a secondary pro football league like the AAF ever survive?

By MIKE HERNDON

The Alliance of American Football is no more, suspending operations before it could even finish its first season.

Say it with me, loudly for those in the back: You cannot run a professional sports league on a shoestring. And in football, if you have to ask how much that is, you can’t afford it.

But that’s apparently exactly what the AAF tried to do. While we’ve been enjoying hearing about the games – even if relatively few of us were actually watching them — signs of the league’s financial instability had largely slid by unnoticed – cheapskate cost-cutting like not feeding support personnel on team flights, an average league-wide attendance of only about 15,000, a TV deal that reportedly didn’t generate any revenue, and the curious sale of a majority stake to Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon early in the season.

Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian had reportedly sold their franchises on the idea that there was a three-year plan to get the AAF hinged with the NFL. But there apparently wasn’t a strong enough plan to get the league through Week Three of the season without outside help.

MMQB’s Albert Breer reported that “perception inside the AAF” was that Dundon’s primary reason for his investment was to gain control of a potentially lucrative app the league was developing that could support real-time gambling. If true, it’s no different than hedge funds buying up companies to strip them for parts – the rich getting richer by cutting their workforce’s throat.

When the news broke that operations would be suspended, a league that started as a feel-good story with SkyJudge and the Head Ball Coach became a clown show. Players around the league reportedly had to pay for their own flights home, and according to a report out of Memphis, the Express returned to their hotel to find their belongings moved out into the lobby.

So now the eyes of the football world turn to Vince McMahon, who is looking to reboot the XFL after it went down in flames like the Hindenburg in 2001. Some apparently believe he’ll learn from past mistakes and find a way to make it work this time.

I’m at a loss as to why anyone believes it’ll be any different.

Can any secondary professional football league survive? The vast amount of money needed to field the sport makes it an unlikely undertaking from the jump. The AAF was smart to try to piggyback its season after the end of the NFL’s season, when fans are still going through a withdrawal of sorts, and align former college stars with franchises in the same states or region. It had decent television exposure for a startup, though some games were on networks unavailable to basic cable subscribers, but it had reportedly signed away its rights to any revenue from the deal in order to get that exposure.

Television, and particularly the revenue it can generate, are essential pieces for any league to have a chance. For a football league, it’s also becoming apparent that there needs to be a true developmental partnership with the NFL. And the NFL already has a developmental league – college football – with a workforce that doesn’t even have to be paid.

Small wonder the AAF’s efforts to convince the NFL to send players its way fell on deaf ears. For any new league to have a legitimate chance, it’s going to have to recognize that college football and its traditional role as the springboard to the NFL are the competition.

Time and again, we’ve seen that leagues can’t survive with rosters of NFL cast-offs. The product isn’t good enough to draw sustained interest. Unless and until top prospects see a secondary league like the AAF as giving them as good or better preparation for the NFL than college programs do now, it’s not going to work. And with the NCAA facing increased pressure over compensation for players, whether it be through name, image and likeness rights or other means, the timing may never have been better to offer an alternative.

But how to sell that? Sure, you can give the players a little money, but for a league fighting to get itself off the ground it won’t be much, and anyone who thinks there isn’t any money circulating in the college game is fooling themselves. What you need is to demonstrate a track record of putting players in the NFL, and the only way to do that with any amount of consistency is by attracting prospects who have the talent to make it.

It’s the chicken and the egg. And that’s a riddle that probably can’t be solved without the help of an NFL that has no reason to bother trying.



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