Series on the Alliance of American Football: The Rise of the AAF

As a filmmaker and the son of legendary NBC television executive Dick Ebersol, Charlie Ebersol was motivated to create the Alliance of American Football (AAF) in late 2016 after producing the documentary This Was the XFL for ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series. The Xtreme Football League (XFL) was the 2001 brainchild of Vince McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The XFL, which aired on NBC, was designed to be an extreme version of spring professional football, but it was canceled after only one season because of low ratings, a lack of top-level talent, fluid organization, lackluster exhibition games, and bizarre rules tying it all together. This two part series considers the rise and fall of the AAF: the first part describes the creations of the league, while the second part evaluates how rapidly the AAF collapsed.

Birth of an Alliance

Today, many continue to poke fun at the XFL – especially after the announced 2020 reboot – and write it off as just another one of Mr. McMahon’s eccentric ideas; however, Ebersol saw something different. “I remember being on the sidelines and thinking ‘this is incredible,’” Ebersol said. “When I started to dig back into that a couple of years ago to do the film, I started seeing how the potential was never met in terms of what you could do with football. You had lots of people show up. They just showed up to bad products. So if you really focused on having a good product, there’d be something there.”

The development of the AAF in February 2017 was nothing short of extraordinary. Unlike the XFL, which was supported by the pre-existing infrastructure of the WWE – then a billion dollar company backed by NBC and General Electric – the AAF was built from scratch. According to Ebersol, “[w]e’ve had to build everything from scratch. And in having to build everything from scratch, you have a lot of benefit. You can create. You have no debt. You have no tech debt. You have no intellectual debt. You have no bureaucratic debt. But you also have nothing to fall back on.” Undeterred, Ebersol teamed up with former General Manager of the Buffalo Bills, Bill Polian, to create the AAF: an eight team league, with a 10-week regular season and four-team playoff, comprised largely of notable NFL talent.

Generating League Interest

The AAF was designed to capture the void left by NCAA, college football, and the NFL between February and August. Strategically, in October 2016, the AAF announced that it would begin play six days after Super Bowl LIII and conclude just prior to the 2019 NFL draft. According to Ebersol, “[i]t would be an act of insanity to try to compete with the NFL.” Instead, the defining characteristic of the AAF was to tap into the existing NCAA and NFL market. “We’re not looking to be a markedly different product,” Ebersol said; rather, “[w]e’re actually looking to be a very, very similar and very parallel product to what the NFL has.”

To attract fans and players alike, AAF rosters were composed of former notable NFL names, including players on NFL practice squads and players cut from NFL teams in early Fall. In fact, Polian saw the AAF as a potential “feeder system” to the NFL. According to Polian, the “objective is to take some of those people who can’t quite make it and make them into quality NFL players.” For all intents and purposes, the idea was that players cut from NFL teams would compose much of AAF rosters and would be intertwined with former NFL legends serving as coaches or players. Names like Trent Richardson, Steve Spurrier, Michael Vick, Daryl “Moose” Johnston, Jeff Fisher, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, and of course Bill Polian signed on at the outset of the league’s creation. As a further incentive, the AAF offered three-year, $250,000 player contracts that included an “out clause” if a player was offered an opportunity to play in the NFL.

Furthermore, AAF rules were also specifically designed to produce an efficient, high quality style of football. For example, games would only last about 2½ hours thanks in part to a 30-second play clock, removing kickoffs, fewer TV timeouts, and a fraction of the commercials of a regular season NFL game. On defense, no more than five players were allowed to rush the quarterback on passing plays; indeed, players that lined up on the line of scrimmage were automatically designated as one of the five players eligible to rush, regardless of whether they actually rush or not. A defensive player could not rush from a position of more than two yards outside the widest offensive lineman or more than five yards from the line of scrimmage (with an exception for play-action or run-pass option plays or if the ball leaves the tackle box).

One of the more creative rule changes was the removal of onside kicks; instead, if a team wanted to regain possession of the ball after a scoring drive, it could elect to automatically get the ball back at their own 35-yard line with a fourth-and-long scenario. Lastly, the AAF utilized an extra referee, known as the “Sky Judge.” Ultimately, the Sky Judge served as an “eye-in-the-sky” in the press box, and he or she had the authority to instantly correct “obvious and egregious” officiating errors. According to Ebersol, the AAF “looked at two things with the rule changes we wanted to make: Entertainment factor and the safety of the players. And we wanted to accomplish those things without dramatically changing the game where fans look at it and say, ‘[t]hat’s not football.’”

Next, Ebersol began tinkering with what he considered an antiquated viewing experience. First, the AAF inked deals with CBS Sports, NFL Network, SiriusXM, and Turner Sports. CBS agreed to air the AAF’s opening day and one game each week on CBS Sports Network, while Turner Sports agreed to broadcast one regular season game and one AAF playoff game on TNT, with one weekly game streaming on Turner’s Bleacher Report Live streaming service.

Once broadcasting rights were secured, Ebersol then wanted to employ innovations in technology to enhance the viewing experience. For example, each game production would feature six or seven cameras, including two Skycam systems. Although most NFL productions deploy three up-high cameras to cover the field, AAF games would typically have one; however, production teams would compensate with a more liberal use of the two Skycam systems.

Further, on the audio side, head coaches and quarterbacks were “mic’d up” (including play-calling microphones) and, with more freedom to deploy live mics on the field, the AAF would capture something more akin to an NFL Films-style inside-the-game audio. According to AAF Co-Head of Production, Mark Teitelman, “you see the NFL Films version on Inside the NFL. And it’s a totally different game because you hear everybody talking; you see what they’re saying. I would love to be able to give viewers that experience. I want to push the envelope a little bit and try to give people something that they don’t see when they watch football today.” Lastly, fans were permitted to stream AAF games for free through the league’s app. According to Ebersol, the AAF app was downloaded between six and nine million times across platforms, with roughly a million people using it during each game.

The Alliance Takes the Field

On February 9, 2019, the AAF began play six days after Super Bowl LIII, securing more than 6 million viewers. In the first weekend, AAF’s ratings stayed strong with CBS averaging 3.25 million viewers. The initial overall reaction was largely positive: the games were referred to as “fun,” “fast-paced,” and “comparable to the second halves of preseason games, with players who look like they’re about good enough to be on NFL practice squads.” However, on the other side of the coin, the games also featured breakdowns on the offensive line, a lack of quarterback-receiver communication, “shoddy offense,” and, surprisingly, low scores.

In the blink of an eye, things then took a turn for the worst in week two – seemingly out of nowhere, reports began emerging claimant the AAF faced severe financial problems, prompting a large investment from Tom Dundon, the owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.Though many believed Dundon had shielded the AAF from the same fate as similar football leagues of old, hindsight unveils what actually proved to be the beginning of the end of the AAF.

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