When former general manager Bill Polian initially decided to create a professional football league, he did not set out to dethrone the National Football League.
A former ESPN analyst, Super Bowl champion and one of the brightest minds in the sport, Polian understood that the Alliance for American Football was never meant to be a replacement for the face of America’s Game. Instead, the league looked to position itself as a strong complement to the sporting mega-giant.
But on April 2, the AAF officially announced that it would suspend operations eight weeks into a 10-week regular season. Upon receiving the news, Polian told members of the press that “the momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”
To his credit, the former Colts GM makes a strong point about the viability of the AAF. Games were broadcast weekly over networks such as NFL Network, B/R Live, CBS Sports Network and even premiered on national CBS the weekend after the Super Bowl. Aside from having a significant network presence, the league certainly generated enough interest — especially for its first year — to create a strong following. In its opening week, the league averaged almost 3 million viewers on a national network and continued to maintain a steady viewership of around 500,000 for the rest of the season.
These numbers will not shake the NFL to its core, but they demonstrate a strong showing for a first-year spring football league comprised of NFL flameouts and former college stars attempting to resurrect their careers.
Furthermore, the league offered an opportunity for non-traditional markets to maintain strong fanbases, which was the case for many teams. Clubs such as the Orlando Apollos (with a record of 7-1 and the heavy favorite to win the championship) and the Memphis Express (signed Johnny Manziel) drew significant interest despite being located in smaller, football-deprived markets.
However, there were inescapable problems that posed issues for the league throughout the season.
Even though the league was impacted by another company’s mishandling of payroll, the league was bought out by Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon. With his purchase, Dundon aimed to infuse cash into a league that had run dry quickly. This began to cast a shadow over much of the season; a sense of distrust in league stability persisted until Dundon decided to suspend operations altogether. Players lived check to check on non-guaranteed contracts and wondered if the league would suddenly go under.
The league’s strategy from the outset was to complement to the NFL, but when the league balked at the opportunity to use the AAF as a minor league or development program, the AAF had no choice but to fold.
Although the league has failed with projects such as NFL Europe, the idea of a formal minor league for the NFL on American soil would represent a significant addition for the league.
While obvious trepidation regarding liability and expenses would linger, the addition of a development league such as the AAF would give NFL teams more leeway and freedom to test out practice squad players in game environments. Additionally, opening the door for new markets remains one of the NFL’s key focuses. Exploring a footprint in places such as San Antonio, Birmingham and Salt Lake City would be a wise move for a league focused on global sport domination. Lastly, the rule changes and technological advancements put forth by the NFL could help usher the game into a new era of both excitement and efficient game times. It wouldn’t hurt to have a league in which new rule proposals could be tested, either.
From a player’s perspective, the AAF presents a paid opportunity to continue a career in professional football. While baseball, basketball and hockey each have alternative leagues in which players can make a living playing at home or overseas, no such option exists for football players. In the eyes of the NFLPA, a complementary (possibly minor league) system would allow players on the roster bubble to make money playing the game in the offseason.
The AAF represents the latest in a long line of failed football leagues. In five years, it’s possible that many will look back and laugh at the weird rules, the funny team names and the random collection of players. But at the same time, it is distinctly possible that a post-lockout NFL could look back on this decision as one that doomed the league in its much anticipated 2020 CBA negotiations.
However the league’s legacy comes to pass, the AAF certainly made an impact.
Jimmy Goodman is a junior writing about current events in sports. His column, “The Point After,” runs every other Tuesday.