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AAF is Gone But Why Do Investors Keep Falling for Spring Football?

17 Apr, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Another one bites the dust. The Alliance of American Football, previously set for a late April championship, has been, according to league officials, “suspended.”

For those keeping track, that means it suffered the same fate as United Football League, U.S. Football League and the XFL – the first version, anyway. Promoters say a new and improved version of the XFL will ride again in 2020. More on that in a minute.

According to Pro Football Talk, the announcement was made in the early days of the month “in the aftermath of ominous comments from Tom Dundon, who became majority owner of the AAF several weeks ago. Dundon committed $250 million in funding to the league, but he had the ability to pull funding, and he obviously has. A source told PFT that the AAF needed roughly $20 million to get to the end of its first season. Instead, the season will end with two weeks left in the regular season, and with a four-team postseason that never comes to fruition. Most recently, the league filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, noting its assets lagged far behind its liabilities.

Steve Spurrier, whose team had been poised to win the championship, expressed frustration – and maybe a little disbelief.

“Everybody wanted to play out the season and everybody is disappointed,” Spurrier said, via Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel. “Everyone was led to believe that the Alliance was well-funded and we could play three years without making any money and this, that and the other. Obviously, everything that was said was not very truthful."

However, the announcement was a decision many pundits thought was  a foregone conclusion. The AAF, they noted, was headed down the slippery slope from the beginning.

“There is not really any way around it,” noted the Washington Examiner several weeks ago. “Although the AAF’s competition level is definitely good, it’s still second-rate to the NFL. Looking at the rosters, the majority of the players have brief NFL experience, but there is a reason why they are playing in the AAF and not the NFL. It is hard to see why fans would invest loads of their resources to an inferior product, without the traditions and connections of college football, even if it is decent.”

USA TODAY was even more blunt, noting “It does not take a Wharton graduate” to know the AAF was fated to fold.

(Side note: Oh, ouch.)

And Front Office Sports says the economic fallout continues. Players were left stranded with no paycheck and no way home and, according to Christopher Boyce and Lauren Seabrook of WFTV9, the league still owes UCF more than $1 million for the lease it signed to play at Spectrum Stadium that has gone unpaid. They aren't the only ones either. In San Antonio, a school district and a graphic designer are waiting on payments of $47,000 and $4,500 respectively. Already, lawsuits have been filed by players and vendors.

But of course, another question remains: why do people keep attempting to start spring leagues? From everything that has happened, it's possible to see that such programs are on a collision course with failure.

The first impediment, obviously, is the fact that spring football is invariably trying to compete with so much else going on in the marketplace at that time. The NBA and NHL are still in regular season (and the NHL is moving into playoffs). Baseball is in preseason but still getting a lot of press from Spring Training, and Opening Day is around the corner for all teams. March Madness (for both women and men) is in full swing. Golf is, as well, and so is NASCAR.

And, notes the Examiner, spring football just can’t compete.

“The issue is that the AAF, and any leagues like it, do not serve any massively under-served market. It’s not like sports just go away after the NFL’s season ends. The AAF is not offering fans anything unique. It’s not 12-man football with three downs and a wider field like the Canadian Football League, and it’s not the air-raiding Arena Football League, where there are numerous rule differences between it and traditional football.”

This also does not bode well for the XFL: “The first XFL, not the one that will make its debut in 2020, fizzled out after one season (2001) despite its opening weekend receiving a 9.5 in the Nielsen TV ratings; the XFL’s failures themselves should explain why Vince McMahon probably should not run another football league, even though he is going to try it again anyway.”

Want a full list of leagues that have tried or are currently trying to operate outside the NFL? Go here.

But it’s not like anyone actually learns anything from failed spring leagues – despite the still-fresh memory of the crash/burn of Major League Football before it even kicked off. Yes, there are still spring leagues afoot. Pacific Pro Football announced its opening with much fanfare – but since then, has not responded to inquiries about its much-heralded March 2020 opening. And the Freedom Football League is also saying it will kick off in spring 2020. That league, supported by Pro Bowler Ricky Williams, Terrell Owens and Simeon Rice, is claiming “about 100 stakeholders with 50 former players among them.”

It’s hard to tell whether, at this point, FFL, is all about attracting retired (or otherwise currently not actively playing) athletes or developing new talent – but one thing is for sure: odds in the sports world are that, yet again, history repeats itself. 

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