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AAF Closes Up Shop

Developmental league was in its maiden season

AAF: Birmingham Iron at Atlanta Legends
Trent Richardson (#33) of the Birmingham Iron
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Alliance of American Football, otherwise known as the AAF, has called it quits according to Chris Mortensen of ESPN. This was the first season of operation and was supposed to be a developmental league for former NFL, CFL and college players in order to hone their skills and make them again ready for the next level.

For the AAF, the next level would have been to finish their first and only season.

The AAF was financed by Tom Dundon, owner of the NHL Carolina Hurricanes, and not individual owners typical of other professional sports leagues. So when Dundon decided that the money he was putting into the league each week was not generating any positive revenue, he decided to suspend all operations - and that was that. The checkbook had enough. If the league had been structured with individual team owners, when a single franchise would struggle financially or outright fold, the schedule may have to be adjusted but the league and its players would continue on.

League co-founder Bill Polian released the following statement:

“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football. When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all. The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”

The AAF had placed teams in eight predominately southern climate cities such as Orlando, Birmingham and San Antonio, among others. The idea was to continue the game of professional football after the Super Bowl with a spring format in warm weather environments.

All along, the AAF had maintained they were not an NFL-rival league but a compliment entity to make former players better with actual playing time experience. The league’s coaching staff and front office was dotted with numerous great people such as Steve Spurrier, Mike Riley, Mike Singletary and Dennis Erickson. But the talent level just wasn’t good football as evidenced by offenses generally stiffled by the defense. The attendance numbers were horrilbe except in San Antonio where the home crowd would regularly place 30,000+ in the stands and merchandise sales were high. Usually, the average AAF gate was 10,000-15,000 (or less) for every game and continued to be that way even when certain clubs continued to win.

Orlando couldn’t even practice in the State of Florida because of Workman’s Comp restrictions and had to be bused up to Georgia in order to make their preparations each week.

In the beginning, there was a huge question as to why the AAF was needed and what their purpose was. 83% of player rosters had signed an NFL contract at some point in their career. But the NFL, CFL and even the Arena League keep very meticulous records regarding free agents at all positions and their whereabouts. It was assumed that after this year, many of the league participants would be invited to a professional camp. But realistically, how many of these formerly-waived players would actually make an NFL 53-man roster, or even a practice squad?

There have been plenty of professional football leagues that have attempted to survive. However, every single one was an NFL-rival league. Each went after established players, coaches and front office personnel in order to gain notoriety and find success on the field and at the gate.

But not this league. There was even mention that the AAF could become a viable farm system for the NFL. The problem with that notion is several things. First, the NFL already has a very successful farm system in place called college football. And the costs to the NFL is a big fat zero each year. Players come out of college football in good shape, physically able to grasp the game, have maturity, experience and are able to become new roster members at the next level.

The second thing is the NFL has already attempted several times to dabble in a farm system and closed them down. From 1965 to 1969, the NFL supported the Continental Football League with clubs in Orlando, Hartford, Montreal, Seattle, Mexico City and Norfolk, among others. But financial reasons ended the league. Another league formed in 1991 called the World League of American Football and was owned by the NFL. This league spread across Europe, Canada and the United States and eventually was called NFL Europe and then NFL Europa. It too was supposed to be a developmental league and allow third-team guys, free agents and former college players the opportunity to play full-time in a spring format. But in the end, the NFL shut it down in 2007 because it cost too much to operate.

One of the biggest problems for the AAF was their TV exposure. Although opening weekend on CBS generated high ratings, subsequent games were mainly on NFL Network which is usually a special order on certain cable packages. If the league had been seen regularly on one of the four national networks, it may have gotten a loyal fan base going but instead played to obscurity each week.

The media relations department wasn’t very helpful or available for most of the season and the league stymied fans by not releasing individual team headquarter addresses which did not allow followers the ability to communicate by mail with players.

Only two weeks remained on the schedule and several clubs had already qualified for the playoffs.

There have been many pro football leagues that folded very early in its history including four American Football Leagues (1926, 1934, 1936 and 1940), the XFL plus the World Football League closed midway through their second season in 1975. But even though each of these leagues discontinued and failed for financial reasons, they all crowned a league champion and some even named All-Star teams. The closing of the AAF is the first time a league has ceased during its very first year before finishing.

The NFL fully embraced the AAF and its intentions including most coaches and executives, but sadly did not offer any financial assistance. Nor should it have. The NFL never needed the AAF nor did it care if the hundreds of players were now real estate agents, school teachers, firemen or the multitudes of other occupations these former players had ultimately become engrossed with.

One of Dunden’s sticking points of the AAF’s future was for NFL clubs to surrender their bench players to become an integral part of AAF rosters, get needed playing time and make the AAF rosters more fan-friendly with more big-name recognition. This was how NFL Europe operated and currently the NFLPA did not wish to revisit that possibility again, or perhaps ever. Without the NFLPA players involved, Dunden had threatened to end the league prematurely just last week.

With the failure of the AAF to complete its first season including the upcoming playoffs, and the advent of the new XFL to begin play next spring, it is doubtful the AAF would rebound and will simply become a footnote in the history of professional football as the sport’s shortest season ever.

Numerous former Browns were dotted on AAF rosters including the recent signing of Johnny Manziel, Channing Stribling, D.J. Smith, Karter Schult, Trent Richardson and Gavin Escobar. Schult was one of the league’s sack leaders whereas Richardson led the AAF in rushing TDs.