A League of Their Own

13 billion dollars. That is the revenue the National Football League grossed… in 2018 alone. To put that into perspective, that is the same number as the third, fourth, and fifth highest grossing leagues world wide, combined. What makes that so sensational is that while many of the most financially successful leagues such as the NBA, Barclays Premier League, and MLB have worldwide viewerships and fanbases, the NFL’s fandom is largely American. This just goes to show how immensely popular and successful the NFL is in the United States. To quote Dr. Cyril Wecht from the movie “Concussion,” “[In America] The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the church used to own. Now it’s theirs.” For close to 20 Sundays a year, the only thing on millions of Americans mind is one thing: the NFL.

This would lead most to believe that, in the United States, launching another professional football league wouldn’t be a sound business decision. Further evidence would be that multiple times others have tried, and multiple times others have failed. The most notable example was the XFL, a joint venture between the WWF (now WWE) and NBC as an alternative to the “weak” style of play that many fans began to associate with the National Football League. Players had nicknames on their jerseys, edgy personalities on and off the field, and an overall rough and rowdy style of play. Due to various ongoing issues, most notably a basic lack of viewership and a stable fanbase, the XFL failed after just one season causing investors to lose out on tens of millions of dollars. The supposed up and coming rival to the NFL was an absolute dumpster fire.

That being said, Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian, the co-founders of the AAF, had a slightly different business plan in mind. Rather than attempting to compete with the NFL, the founders of the AAF wanted to help it which, in turn, would help themselves.

Let me explain.

According to the founders of the league, the AAF is in no way trying to overtake the NFL in popularity. The AAF was trying to develop quality football players with NFL potential into full fledged NFL talent, while also putting a solid quality of football on TV for viewers to enjoy. Most (if not all) other top tier professional leagues have this sort of system in place. The MLB has hundreds of minor league teams, the NBA has the G-League, the BPL has numerous tiered leagues under them and so on and so forth. All that the NFL really has is the NCAA. Bill Polian and Charlie Ebersol tried to change that. A major goal of their league was to develop players for the NFL, as is made evident by the contracts all of their players sign. Every player gets a three year deal worth $250,000, but there’s a catch. In every contract, there was an opt out clause to go to the NFL. They encouraged their players to leave and go to what is theoretically their biggest rival. It is a very interesting business plan, and one that the sporting world is yet to ever see. On the purely football end, it’s already working. NFL scouts have already told multiple sources that AAF players from this past season will wind up on NFL rosters this upcoming fall.

That being said, the finances aren’t exactly lining up. The first week was a huge hit, football fans from across the country tuning in to quench their thirst for football the week after Superbowl Sunday. That being said, the viewership began to drop week by week and, with the viewership went the finances. Just eight weeks after the league’s launch, the ownership came to a collective decision to cease operations. They aren’t shut down per say, but at a halt due to lack of funds. While things aren’t looking promising for Polian, Ebersol, and the rest, their dream of starting a professional league is not officially dead.

The dream situation for the AAF’s revival is to have something similar happen to what did with Adam Thielen and HBO’s hit show “Hard Knocks.” The show saw a huge spike in popularity after spending much of a recent season covering the underdog story of Vikings’ wide receiver Adam Thielen. Just after the show aired, he breakout into an NFL superstar the following season. People then began to watch the show at much higher rates so they too can discover the next great NFL player. The AAF runs on a very similar model. If just one or two players can get their chance at the NFL through the AAF, and grow successful NFL careers because of it, this would be a major win for the AAF and increase their viewership greatly.

While the AAF is still in its infancy and the prospects for success aren’t looking bright, there is no denying its innovative business plan and model. The idea that another football league, with the same basic goal of making the most money possible, was founded with the express purpose of supporting the NFL is a very interesting proposition. Only time will tell as to whether or not the AAF works or not, but if it does this may give birth to a new brand of sporting leagues and business ideologies world wide.

Written By: Adam Bernstein (Writer & Content Producer, MSBC 2019)