AAF 2019: How the new Alliance of American Football stands out in a growing pro football landscape
Charlie Ebersol used lessons from his father to help create the AAF from scratch. Here's what makes it different
Startups are Charlie Ebersol's thing. They've been his thing his entire life, long before he first conjured up the Alliance of American Football. The son of legendary former NBC television executive Dick Ebersol started his first company when he was 12 years old: a movie review magazine that he distributed to local coffee shops across New York and Connecticut for a dollar an issue. But as a pre-teen, Ebersol's resources were practically non-existent. So to physically build out the magazine, he began using (i.e. stealing) his parents' copy paper. "I had no overhead cost," he said. "As it turns out, I had really good margins."
He also had an honorary copy editor for a dad. After three weeks of working tirelessly, a proud Charlie handed his father the first issue. Dick took one look at the cover and handed it back to his son without ever opening it up. The title, Movie Maddness, contained a typo -- an extra "d."
"My whole career has been defined by working to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again. It took me years, I mean decades to come to grips with the fact that that moment defined a lot of my psychosis," Ebersol said.
While Movie Madness had a somewhat short life cycle, the AAF is Ebersol's fourth company and suffice it to say he's far more prepared. The alliance's inaugural season begins on the weekend of February 9-10, one week after Super Bowl LIII, and continues through the championship game in Las Vegas on April 27. ( .)
The AAF kicks off this weekend so Ben Kercheval joined Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to break down everything about the new league, and you can listen here:
As CEO, Ebersol has overseen a process that began three years ago inside his own head with the dream that if he built a quality football product during the time of year when fans still crave inventory in cities where there is a demand for it, the growth would follow. He would know. Dick, of course, was one of the founding minds behind the short-lived XFL, along with WWE CEO Vince McMahon. Charlie got a firsthand look at the whole operation and later directed the ESPN 30 for 30 "This Was the XFL."
"I remember being on the sidelines and thinking 'this is incredible,'" Charlie said. "When I started to dig back into that a couple of years ago to do the film, I started seeing how the potential was never met in terms of what you could do with football. You had lots of people show up. They just showed up to bad products. So if you really focused on having a good product, there'd be something there."
Ebersol's dream is now a reality. There are eight teams spread across the country, from the Southeast to San Diego and Salt Lake City. As a so-called stopgap between college football and the NFL, the AAF is loaded with names you already know -- Birmingham Iron running back Trent Richardson, Orlando Apollos coach Steve Spurrier, Atlanta Legends offensive coordinator Michael Vick and San Antonio Commanders GM Daryl "Moose" Johnston, to name a handful -- along with some names you'll know soon enough, all with their own stories of how they got here.
Meanwhile, the front office has been built out with some of the biggest names from the NFL, including co-founder Bill Polian, former Titans and Rams coach Jeff Fisher, former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and safety Troy Polamalu. "It's football for football people, by football people," Polian said.
And, last but not least, board member Dick Ebersol.
Lessons learned from the XFL
The AAF actually marks the first time the Ebersols have worked together. "When I first told my dad I wanted him on the board, he might have been the happiest retired person you've ever met," Ebersol said, "yet he embraced it more than anyone."
If nothing else, the new league is a chance for Dick to pass along his experiences to his son. The XFL lasted one whole season in 2001 and failed for a variety of reasons, the catch-all of which is that it overestimated the parts of football and wrestling it thought viewers wanted to see -- big personalities, violence and the like -- and underestimated the logistical hurdles of putting together a league of quality football. It overpromised and underdelivered. (However, it is worth noting that the XFL was innovative all the same. There would be no SkyCams in the NFL today, for example, without the XFL.)
With the XFL 2.0's reboot scheduled for 2020, the AAF will have a year's head start in the complementary pro football league arena. Ebersol noted that one of the defining characteristics of his league is there's more that makes it similar to the NFL than what makes it different. "We're not looking to be a markedly different product," he said. "We're actually looking to be a very, very similar and very parallel product to what the NFL has."
It remains to be seen if the new XFL has learned its lessons, but Dick certainly has. His biggest piece of advice for his son should be no surprise. It was one word: Football. The on-field product had to be the most important part. To wit, teams have been in training camp for the past month and were cut down to 52-man rosters on Jan. 30. Before that, there was a quarterback draft. Before that, a formula created to allocate talent regionally. And before that, there was research and development. The concept has been years in the making.
"Almost any company you start, you have what I refer to as 'E-L-E': an extinction-level event. Your parents figure out that you're stealing their paper for a magazine and start charging you, and it puts you out of business in one day. Every company has a handful of those," Ebersol said.
"This company, for the first 15 months, had three or four a week and you never knew what they were going to be."
That's probably because the AAF didn't begin with a pre-existing infrastructure, not like the XFL had. "Seventeen years ago, WWE was a billion dollar company. NBC and General Electric, its parent company, were the biggest in the world. So when they were like, 'Oh, yeah. We're starting a league,' instantaneously they had human resources and marketing. They produced a full marketing run that was like Michael Bay explosions, tanks, all this other stuff.
"We've had to build everything from scratch. And in having to build everything from scratch, you have a lot of benefit. You can create. You have no debt. You have no tech debt. You have no intellectual debt. You have no bureaucratic debt. But you also have nothing to fall back on."
Building the teams
Ebersol used the "If you build it, they will come" adage more than once. But how, exactly, do you build it? There's no widespread draft for the AAF -- at least not in the way the NFL does it. There was a quarterback draft last November in which teams can either protect a quarterback on their roster or pick one up elsewhere. Polian also mentioned, while declining to get into the "secret sauce," that the league office has a process to allocate talent to its individual teams. "We make sure that access to talent -- you know, we're not picking it for them -- but that access is available to everybody, on a relatively equal basis."
The allocation process is executed through a point system. Teams can acquire players through a handful of regional college football programs, along with a few select NFL teams and a CFL team. The idea is two-fold: to disperse talent as equally as possible with some wiggle room -- specifically, a quarterback might fit another coach's offense, and through the quarterback draft, could end up with that coach -- while giving local fanbases name recognition and nostalgia.
"We've studied a lot of different ways to try and build rosters," Polian said. "We went back to the USFL experience and we realized that it gave us two things. Number one was instant recognition in the home market because players that were not well-known to the football public at large are quite well-known in their local markets. That was a huge plus. And then secondly, it gave us an orderly and reasonable way of making sure that the talent was kind of spread evenly."
There are myriad angles that go into a company's success or failure, but achieving as much parity as possible is the single biggest key for the AAF's future. There are many voices at the table, but as Head of Football, the details of Polian's job will ultimately decide whether the game is, well, good or not.
The allocation not only needs to work for competitive balance, but for the longterm health of the alliance. As a single entity -- there are no owners amongst the teams -- the AAF rests its hat equally on everyone's success. Ebersol joked that he could guarantee there would be 40 wins and 40 losses this season*, and to his point, not everyone can win every game. However, in introducing a new team to a city, even ones ready to embrace professional football, one big-picture concern is a continuously bad team.
*Technically there can be ties. More on that below.
But it's not the only forward thinking challenge. Brand loyalty takes time regardless of winning or losing. There are plenty of recognizable names amongst players to coaches, but as of now the alliance is chiefly concerned with packaging good football in a more easily digestible time frame.
Streamlining the game
The AAF is not trying to reinvent pro football as much as cut out the fat. Ebersol doesn't even view other leagues, including the NFL, as competition. "My competition is movie theaters, restaurants, the reason I'm leaving the house to go do something," he said. "So I looked at the benchmark of two hours and 15 minutes and two hours and 30 minutes. Is that how long someone is willing to go sit in a movie theater to watch a movie? Can we meet that benchmark without affecting the quality of the game?"
As such, the 150-minute time window was born. The AAF will aim to finish games in two-and-a-half hours, down about 30 minutes from the NFL's slotted window. Practically everything the league does in the rulebook is based on this principle, including a 35-second play-clock, just like the XFL had. According to Ebersol, this speeds up the pace of play without rushing players to the line and failing to properly get the play off, leading to incompletions, increased snaps or penalties due to fatigue.
And kickoffs? Gone for player safety purposes, but also in response to what the league has determined to be the least interesting play in the game according to fans. Instead, each team will start on the 25-yard line. Onside kick attempts are substituted by offenses beginning on their 35-yard line and playing one "fourth-and-10" down. If the offense converts, it keeps the ball.
Also on the cutting room floor are television timeouts. "The economics of the world have changed. You don't need to sell that many commercials to engage with a consumer anymore," Ebersol said. "What's the number one complaint among fans about the actual production of the broadcast? It's the commercials. You're going to commercial every couple of minutes, and you're gone for a couple of minutes at a time. If you ever look at a game tape, the actual game play is like 18 minutes long.
"The other thing is, for an advertiser, if a game is only going to full-screen commercials a couple of times a game, look at how much more valuable it is to the limited number of advertisers we give into. Right now there are 72 commercial units in the average NFL game. That is insane."
Most fans can get behind the elimination of unnecessary plays or timeouts if it improves the flow of the game. Replays fall under this category, too, and the AAF will reduce those by limiting them to a coach's challenge, of which there are two each. What fans might consider sacrilege is a tie. And, yet, the AAF will allow those in the regular season if the game isn't settled after one overtime period. The format itself more closely resembles college than the pros. Each team will start at the opponent's 10-yard line with one possession to score. Again, the 150-minute window is what's at stake.
Whether overtime games will end in ties is another thing, though. All AAF games require offenses to go for two after each touchdown, both in regulation and overtime.
Contracts and bonuses
While the AAF says it's more like the NFL than not, one key difference is in compensation. From the starting quarterback to the backup defensive end, each player is on a three-year, non-guaranteed $250,000 contract. This is a matter of leverage among commodities. The biggest stars in the NFL can command huge contracts and hold out until they get what they demand because the market allows it. Players in the AAF don't have that leverage and there are no agents.
At the end of the day, though, everyone playing in the AAF is looking for a chance, be it in the NFL again, or to simply to play as long as possible. "It's so refreshing," Arizona Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel said, "because at the collegiate level, we entitle them. We're the ones recruiting them. And they all have this expectation, they have to play now. At the NFL level, you've got a cap system because you've got so many vets that have earned their stripes. So sometimes that's the tail wagging the dog."
However, there are still two ways AAF players can earn bonuses: team-based, performance incentives and individual, fan engagement incentives. The team bonuses are achieved whenever one side of the ball does something significant, like score touchdowns. If, say, the Orlando Apollos have the highest scoring offense in the alliance, every offensive player gets an equal amount of "coins." Similarly, if San Antonio's defense leads the league in scoring defense, the defense gets a bonus. On an individual level, players can earn bonuses through their work in their local communities and social media outreach for good causes because that builds the goodwill between teams and fanbases.
(Ebersol and Polian both declined to get into the specifics of how the bonuses will be calculated, citing the need to explain the process in detail with all of the players. "Stay tuned," Ebersol said.)
"If you're a person that really gives back to your local community, and goes above and beyond, you're gonna earn more in the way of bonuses," Polian said. "If you happen to play on a team that has a great defense, because it's a team game, you'll earn money there. Whether you're the marquee corner or the backup nose tackle, everybody will get the same, so you're incentivized to play great as a team, not as an individual."
Learning to let go
Sitting along San Antonio's River Walk at a Tex-Mex restaurant, Ebersol, who had just come from a scrimmage between the Atlanta Legends and San Antonio Commanders, still had one major concern before the season kicked off.
"My fear is when to let go," he said. "The thing that keeps me up at night is at what point in time can Bill and I let this thing take flight? Because there's a balancing act. The thing that we've done that nobody's ever done before ... and I would venture [to say] might not ever be able to do again for a variety of reasons ... is we did this with no infrastructure.
"The company has gotten bigger than any individual person or any individual thing," he continued. "And when it starts to get to that size, and the ball starts rolling itself, there's a scary moment when you're rolling the wheel down the hill at your own pace, and all of a sudden it starts to separate from your hand. This is going wherever it wants now. It is its own entity."
Letting go requires a lot of trust in the people Ebersol has hired, from the top down. Ultimately, the product needs to be good enough for it to continue gaining momentum. Growth and profitability is the business' primary goal.
But what makes the AAF so interesting is that it's made up entirely of people looking for a chance in whatever form that may be. From players to coaches and everyone behind the scenes, it's more personal than business. And personal stories are the best stories.
"The entire league is about opportunity. From players to coaches, and sometimes the opportunity isn't necessarily to take the next step. The opportunity is to be on the sideline again," Neuheisel said. "There are a number of guys who this will probably be their last job. But what a fun job. And we [as coaches] get to teach and help graduate. I can't tell you how many times I've been in homes in my life [as a college coach] where I've said 'We're going to graduate your player.' I feel the same way in this league. I want to graduate these players to get a chance at the next level. Or graduate them with the thought that 'I finished everything I could do in football, and I'm ready for the next challenge.'"
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