Alliance of American Football Folds: Sudden Death for Spring Football?

Alliance of American Football - Charlie Ebersol
MICHAEL STEWART/WIREIMAGE; Alliance of American Football

Early on its first season, the Alliance of American Football seemed to be on the verge of scoring a pop-culture touchdown. An initial broadcast on CBS featuring games between the  San Diego Fleet and the San Antonio Commanders, and the Atlanta Legends against the Orlando Apollos notched nearly 3 million viewers and fared quite well against an NBA telecast on ABC.

Last night, however, the AAF’s game was called early.

In a statement released Tuesday, league co-founder Bill Polian said he was disappointed that Tom Dundon, the Carolina Hurricanes owner who took over the league early in its season, “has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football.” Dundon had injected $250 million into the operation, essentially taking it over from Polian and his co-founder Charlie Ebersol, a son of the former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol. A spokesman for the AAF could not be reached for immediate comment on Wednesday.

And with that, the field of play for the concept of U.S. spring football has grown more complex.

AAF organizers had hoped to avoid the fate of  entities like the USFL, the United Football League, and even a previous incarnation of the XFL – a joint venture of NBC and WWE, which is slated to rise again in 2020 with a new football venture backed by Alpha Entertainment, a holding company controlled by WWE head Vince McMahon.

A number of deep-pocketed entities and big media outlets are eager to add more football to the average American sports diet. Current rights to broadcast NFL games start to lapse in 2021, when ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” contract comes up for renewal. NFL broadcasts bring Walt Disney, CBS, NBC and Fox their biggest audiences of the season. The rise of successful spring football might give some networks leverage in coming negotiations with the NFL. Even so,the NFL had given a sort of tacit acknowledgement to AAF play, executives said, and an impression had begun to sprout that the new league might serve as a sort of feeder program for NFL teams.

CBS and AT&T had both struck deals to air AAF games. Founder Ebersol vowed to air games that boasted a high quality of play, rather than showy elements that previous spring leagues had tried to burnish. “You can’t do anything that’s going to feel like a gimmick,” Ebersol told Variety in February.  “I was dropped on my head a number of times when I was a kid,”  he quipped during the interview.“I don’t like doing anything that doesn’t scare me to death.” Others are about to pick up the gauntlet, but the challenge to spring football remains as tough as a strong offensive line.