The Alliance of American Football, an independent football league that was destined to fail without the financial support of the NFL, has failed. With two games remaining in the regular season, the AAF will announce today that it is suspending operations, according to multiple reports.
Though premature, this was always the destiny of the AAF. Every independent 11 on 11 football league that has come before the AAF has folded due to financial difficulty, from the USFL in the 1980s to the XFL in 2001 to the UFL from 2009-2012 and everything in between. Even the Arena Football League ceased operations for the 2009 season and had just four teams in 2018 (though have added two teams for this upcoming season), down from 17 in 2008.
The AAF had promise. Filled with former and hopeful NFL players and some high profile coaches, the AAF was attractive to viewers. Even after the novelty of Week 1 wore off, viewership was respectable. And the league was a viable testing ground for rule changes.
But from the get go, there were problems. After just two weeks, the AAF needed a financial injection simply to meet payroll. Despite respectable TV ratings, attendance was terrible, with five of the league’s eight teams (Birmingham, Memphis, Atlanta, Arizona, and Salt Lake) drawing fewer than 15,000 a game.
On Monday, AAF Chairman Tom Dundon, the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes who provided the in-season cash to continue operations in exchange for taking over the league, said that without the ability to bring in players under contract with the NFL (read: free labor), the league could not survive.
After the deal with Dundon, sources say it became clear to league co-founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian that Dundon’s objectives were different from the original plan.
Ebersol and Polian’s plan was to develop the league for three years on its own before becoming a feeder system to the NFL. Dundon, however, wanted to create that minor league relationship immediately and sought to use the leverage of folding the AAF to get a deal with the NFL Players Association to better insure a flow between leagues.
As it stood, the NFL collective bargaining agreement would not allow several of Dundon’s asks, including a flexible system between AAF players and NFL practice squads.
While Dundon funded the league payroll, sources say he did not pay vendors that worked with the AAF, many of whom are still looking for their money. It’s of debate what party — either Dundon or the first ownership group, which was diluted by Dundon’s investment — should foot the vendor bills.
It’s a shame. The NFL needs its own proper minor league. It needs a league where young players can grow, fringe veterans can get another chance, where coaches can develop, and where the league can try things out. The AAF’s plan to become that was ambitious but ultimately fruitless, because they didn’t have the financial backing to survive, and then when they did get a cash influx, had to hand over the keys to someone who entered after the season started and changed the direction of the league.
Next year, the XFL is slated to reboot. It too will fail. And so will the next one, and the one after that. The only solution is a fully NFL-backed league.