When the San Diego Fleet face off against the San Antonio Commanders this coming Saturday, the two teams won’t just kick off the first season of the Alliance of American Football (AAF). The game, as well as the face-off between the Atlanta Legends and the Orlando Apollos, is also supposed to be the beginning of an ambitious new data venture, which is being piloted with the league’s new iOS and Android mobile apps.
“Our business started as a technology business,” AAF founder and CEO Charlie Ebersol told Variety this week. The league spent some 18 months building the technology behind its mobile app, which isn’t just meant to relay the typical mix of news, clips, and player profiles. Instead, AAF’s app is allowing fans to follow games with a real-time visualization that Ebersol likened to “‘Madden’ meets ‘Angry Birds,’” with animated football helmets representing each and every player whizzing over a virtual field.
The app also allows participants to pick the next play and win points, bringing gamification to the fan experience. All of this is being made possible by an architecture that is supposed to get play-by-play data points to the app with a delay of 200 milliseconds or less, compared to the up to 30 seconds of delay sometimes seen in other sports apps. “Most of the existing platforms are built as secondary solutions,” he said. “We are a startup and are controlling the league end-to-end.”
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The AAF isn’t the first attempt to launch a new football league, and keep fans of the sport hooked beyond Super Bowl Sunday. Past efforts have failed, and AAF’s will get some added competition next year when Vince McMahon launches his own XFL league.
However, things have changed since the XFL’s first incarnation back in 2001. One significant shift has been the legalization of sports betting, which some predict to bring in as much as $7 billion per year. That helped to convince investors to open their check books, said Ebersol (the league counts the Chernin Group among its investors, which also is backing the sports betting-focused Action Network).
The other major change has been advancements in technology, which ultimately enable new business models. Case in point: Major League Baseball launched MLB Advanced Media as a way to live-stream its games to fans. The subsidiary built out its own video streaming infrastructure, and began powering other media companies as well, ranging from HBO to ESPN, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Ultimately, MLB Advanced Media spun out its technology into BAMTech, a company that is now majority-owned by Disney after a combined $2.75 billion buy-out.
Ebersol’s ambitious plan is to follow MLB Advanced Media’s playbook, but with a focus on data instead of video. “That’s 100% our model,” he said. As part of that strategy, AAF plans to license its data tech to other sports leagues, sports betting outlets, and ultimately non-sports businesses as well.
But first, that technology has to be literally field-tested, starting with Saturday’s games. Ebersol admitted that there may be bugs during the first few events. “We are definitely gonna fall on our face a few times over the next couple of weeks,” he said. Even so, he predicted that fans will love the new data-driven experience. “It really does look like nothing you have seen before,” Ebersol concluded.