The announcement that uniform company Starter will be a sponsor of the Alliance of American Football (AAF) made some trade journal headlines. Not too long before that came the announcement that WWE chairman Vince McMahon was going to invest $500 million to resurrect the XFL.
The question, however, was whether America was even listening – or whether it had become tone-deaf to the promises of spring football.
According to recent announcements, the AAF (which is slated to start in February 2019) will have teams in Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and San Diego. Coaches include Rick Neuheisel (Phoenix), Steve Spurrier (Orlando), Brad Childress (Atlanta) and Mike Singletary (Memphis). ESPN has noted the players will receive three-year, non-guaranteed contracts worth $250,000 each.
XFL, meanwhile, which originally lasted only one season (in 2001), is supposed to ride again in 2020. The average salary for its 40-man rosters will, according to reports, hover around $75,000, with players who are more in demand making much more than that.
If fans get behind either or both of these leagues, they offer potentially good economic impact and (for fans) a chance to see football after the Super Bowl. So why is there so much doubt?
Maybe, say some analysts, because it’s not the first time the U.S. has been promised spring football – only to see it go flat. Major League Football talked a good game about its spring 2016 launch, which it then postponed to 2017 – and then went dark. (The public bitterness about this is evident from the comments on MLFB’s Facebook page.)
Then there was the Pacific Pro League, which was supposed to start in 2018. According to an article in The Washington Post, the PPF or PacPro, as it is also known, stated it would field a four-team season using promising young players, in an attempt to give them the experience and exposure they need.
The league also intended to offer salaries to players. All teams will be owned by the league, and the average player salary would be $50,000, according to the Post. This, they say, would create a viable alternative to NCAA play.
However, the most recent news out of PacPro was back in early 2018, when it was announced that adidas would be a sponsor. A USA TODAY article around the same time noted the start-up date is now summer 2019.
What makes spring football such a hard sell? The timing, for one. Theoretically, it is competing with baseball, both on the major and minor league levels, as well as the college lacrosse, baseball and softball seasons. And, of course, the NFL has the undisputed market in football – and it’s looking at international expansion. And in December 2016, the NFL notified its 32 teams of a spring development league that would operate beginning in April 2017 and would work with NFL veterans who do not have contracts.” The NFL has since openeda Facebook page for that league. In short, the market is a pretty hard glass ceiling to crack if you're not the NFL – not that plenty of others haven’t tried.
The United Football League (UFL) played from 2009 to 2012, mainly in markets where the NFL did not have a presence at the time. However, the small league (it had only five teams) was trying to play in the fall season, meaning it had to compete with NFL, as well as with high school and college ball.
The previous incarnation of the XFL league debuted with eight teams. It failed to gain traction with audiences and ceased operations after only one season.
The United States Football League played for three seasons, 1983 through 1985 in a spring/summer format. A fourth season, to be played in a traditional autumn/winter schedule, was set to commence before the league folded. (Trivia point: one of the league’s backers was Donald Trump.)
AAF’s backers say it’s different and that it can fill a void other leagues haven’t, offering (theoretically) a pathway to the pros right out of high school, bypassing what one article calls the ‘indentured servitude of the NCAA.’ (Hey, they said it, not us.)
Forbes also sees potential in the XFL, noting, “The average salary of $75,000 won't make the XFL a competitor with the NFL at the outset. It can make it a professional feeder league. That's something the NFL has relied on the NCAA for, but the XFL could position itself as the best option. Viewers could be watching future stars under the XFL shield instead of bowl games."
The viability of spring football’s biggest obstacle is going to be the public perception of it as a losing game. Even the mainstream media seems dubious. USA TODAY qualifies its coverage of AAF with the phrase, ‘if it comes to fruition.’ Even more ominous? Forbes' no-holds-barred declaration, "The XFL, which once lost $70 million, is even more likely to fail in 2018."