In the past year we have seen the rise of alternative football leagues and the start of their quest for market share and television ratings for 2019 and 2020. The leagues provide the ability for football talent to compete at a high level and for viewers to watch football during the NFL offseason. The Alliance of American Football (AAF), founded by Charlie Ebersol and ex-NFL executive Bill Polian, is set to launch as an eight-team pro football league in 2019 and has secured a broadcast deal with CBS Sports. The AAF, along with the Vince McMahon’s XFL, are bidding to get the attention of fans during the NFL offseason and are set to launch in 2020.
The Alliance of American Football
Charlie Ebersol wants the AAF to reimagine pro football, focusing on player safety with an emphasis on fan participation through live streaming and fantasy sports. CBS will air AAF league games after its season opener on February 9, 2019.
The AAF will function as a single entity league (similar to Major League Soccer), whereby the league will have full ownership of the teams, rather than each franchise owning the team. To start, it will operate in eight markets, with each team having 50 player rosters. The eight teams consist of: Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, and Salt Lake City. Players on the teams will be made up of mostly by those cut from NFL teams and from other professional leagues, including Arena and Canadian. As of August 2018, the AAF has announced 205 players under contract with training camp for all eight teams set to start in San Antonio on January 4, 2019.
With the ever growing complaints about the NFL’s rule changes, including that of game time, the AAF seeks to garner fan attention by playing a game that fans will continue to be interested in watching. Compared to the NFL, the AAF will have the following significant rule changes:
- The season will have 10 games and rule changes intended to decrease game time.
- There will be no extra points, teams must attempt two-point conversions from the 2-yard line.
- The offense will start with the ball at the 25-yard line instead of the kickoff used in the NFL.
- In an attempt to decrease game time, the AAF’s play clock will be 30 seconds, instead of the NFL’s 40 seconds, and replays will be limited to two coach’s challenges for both teams with no televised timeouts.
- The AAF is also making strides to increase the players’ quality of life outside of the game through initiatives for the players, such as bonuses for play stats and post-play scholarships.
The XFL Revival
The original XFL was announced in February 2000 with no teams, no coaching staff, and no stadiums, yet it played its first game within 12 months. The XFL played in 2001 and featured eight teams in Las Vegas, New York/New Jersey, Memphis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, San Francisco, and Birmingham. A contributing factor to its fall was its attempt to appeal to both wrestling fans and football fans with unconventional rules imposed on a traditional game. Additionally, poor quality of play and cameramen who focused on cheerleaders more than the game demonstrated just how quickly and inadequately this league was created. Teams and coaches had to then quickly find players and try to adapt them to the rules of the game while also conditioning them enough to play in this “more violent” game. Unsurprisingly, the original XFL was shut down after its first season.
In January 2018, WWE Owner and CEO Vince McMahon, announced the relaunch of the XFL, to begin in 2020. During the reveal, McMahon discussed many details about the league that would set itself apart from the NFL. Like the AAF, the XFL would function as a single entity ownership, where the XFL will own all of the teams in the league. This would put all of the teams in similar positions for payroll, league rules, and salary structures. In a single-entity league, the league owns all of the teams and controls the operations. A single-entity model allows the leagues to function efficiently and policy decisions can be implemented unilaterally. This means operational cost savings for the league and the legal benefit of not being subject to Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Under Section 1, competing businesses are forbidden from collusion or conspiring in ways that unreasonably harm competition. Major professional leagues like the NFL are vulnerable to claims under Section 1 because they are composed of individually owned teams that are competing amongst one another. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that a parent and its wholly owned subsidiaries, such as the AAF and XFL, are incapable of conspiring under Section 1.
Despite all of the benefits, there are potential drawbacks to the single-entity structure. Fans may be concerned that since the league owns all of the teams, they would have the power to dictate major decisions such as play calling and decide which players will play in the game. The single-entity united structure will ultimately require both leagues to be transparent with fans and players about fair play and competition. Additionally, some fans enjoy that the NFL teams have owners and even affiliate the owner with the team, such as Jerry Jones and the Cowboys. The single-entity structure teams of the XFL and AAF won’t have owners, and thus could decrease the fan loyalty that is tied to the representation of a team through their owner.
When announcing the relaunch of XFL, McMahon also stated that players would be banned from expression permitted in the NFL, such as protesting the national anthem. McMahon went further to state that the NFL, by permitting these types of expressions, is “too soft.” In 2001, McMahon viewed the XFL as the anti-NFL and repeatedly called it the “No Fun League.” McMahon now views the XFL as not in competition with the NFL and further refuses to talk about it, instead saying he wants the XFL brand of football to be a faster, family friendly game. McMahon’s promise to create distinctions from the NFL includes the idea of polling fans and football experts to ensure his game doesn’t include some of the NFL rules that fans have become increasingly annoyed with.
In June, it was announced that Oliver Luck will be the first commissioner and the chief executive officer of the XFL. Luck is relocating to Connecticut to prepare for the launch of the league in 2020 after leaving the NCAA, where he oversaw regulatory functions. The new XFL will be composed of eight teams on a 10-week schedule, with rosters of 40 players and game time of two hours. Players are not allowed to use the league as a platform for social or political issues and those with a criminal history are precluded from playing. McMahon will use 2018 as the year to put the league infrastructure into place before teams are formed in 2019, which would allow McMahon the time to coordinate the way he didn’t in 2000.
The Success of the Leagues
Charlie Ebersol once made a documentary about why the XFL failed. Now he is set to use that analysis and launch AAF one year ahead of XFL’s reboot, a strategic move meant to grab fans before the XFL will launch. The big question is whether the leagues will learn from past failures and create a viable product that can eventually compete with the NFL, or at least steal some of its market share.
The XFL has stated that it ultimately wants to be a competitor of the NFL. The AAF on the other hand sees itself as complementary, but does not want to be viewed as a mere minor league due to its structure. Players in the AAF won’t be locked into long-term deals and the season ends in April prior to NFL training camps, allowing the AAF to act as a feeder into the NFL. The AAF has structured their three-year $250,000 players’ contracts to include the ability for a player to leave if given the opportunity to play for the NFL.
Through the application of its rule changes, Polian expects the AAF’s strategy to be exciting and garner interest of traditional football fans. The AAF and the XFL’s alternative leagues will now have to compete for the ratings during the NFL offseason. With the AAF having bigger financial backing, a complementary NFL mentality, and play to start a year earlier, McMahon and the XFL may gain the advantage before the XFL’s first season even starts.
The question becomes whether fans will care about and watch spring football. Both leagues will have to overcome the competition between each other, the limited media exposure, credibility, and a lack of initial fan base. The challenge is how to develop the team in a way that generates profit while realizing the possibility for quick player turnover. The move by the AAF getting Steve Spurrier to coach the Orlando team creates familiarity, which can help shape the league and garner fan attention.
The leagues business plan needs to provide fans with a real alternative to the NFL during the offseason for it to truly stick. Both the AAF and XFL will have more than enough interested players, but will the leagues garner enough fans, specifically enough fans to justify the financial investment? What befell the XFL before was a stronger focus on entertainment rather than football. The challenge for the AAF and XFL becomes a balance in remaining traditional, yet differentiating itself enough from the NFL and other entertainment options to draw a legitimate fan base.