Why the Alliance of American Football Never Really Had a Chance

For diehard fans like myself, there’s nothing better than the illustrious journey of football season. It begins with preseason in August and transitions into a thrilling regular season filled with fantasy football action, college rivalries and professional dominance, culminating in the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl.

From September to early February, the National Football League (NFL) captivates its audience every week. Yet, after the Super Bowl, there’s little for fans to enjoy. Avid fans immerse themselves in free agency and draft analysis, eagerly waiting to see the formation of teams for the upcoming season. But there aren’t any NFL or college games, and the greatest excitement is the 40-yard dashes prospective players run at the NFL Scouting Combine.

This past offseason, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) sought to add some live-game excitement during the NFL’s dull period. The AAF was a new football league featuring eight teams and kicking off its inaugural season the week after the Super Bowl. But, fewer than two months later, the league shut down. In reality, the grueling nature of the sport, an inability to recruit NFL players and the lack of demand for an offseason league meant that the AAF never had a legitimate chance to succeed.

But to many football fans, the sudden failure of the league came as a surprise. Football has never failed to captivate the national audience. For example, 19 of the 20 most watched television events in American history have been Super Bowls and 37 percent of Americans picked it as their favorite sport to watch.

Given the high demand and its strong business model, the AAF seemed to have the potential to flourish. It wouldn’t be competing with the NFL, received a $250 million investment by Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, was broadcast by CBS and brought on hundreds of notable ex-NFL players.

At first, it appeared that the AAF was on track for success. According to the league, more than six million viewers tuned in to its inaugural weekend. Its first Saturday night game averaged more viewers than the NBA game in the same time slot.

But soon, hope of a second football league began to turn. Dundon’s $250 million investment kept the AAF afloat, but it couldn’t pay its players after only the second week of games. The league  was operating at a loss, it didn’t attract a large enough audience and had high expenses from paying players and coaches, extensive medical staffs and other employees. Dundon wanted NFL players to play in the AAF in the offseason, but he was unable to reach a deal with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and the league suspended operations before finishing its first season.

Dundon, the league’s majority investor and commissioner, is rumored to have made his investment in the AAF because of the league’s intriguing gambling app, which provides gamblers with crucial information to potentially enable live-game gambling. In addition to this unconventional motivation, Dundon’s goals were largely incompatible with those of the AAF’s founders. Dundon firmly believed that the league needed NFL players to succeed, while the AAF’s founders saw it as a “farm system” for young players to prepare for a career in the NFL. Once he was unable to strike a deal with the NFLPA, Dundon shut the league down against the founder’s wishes.

In retrospect, Dundon’s vision was wildly unrealistic. The football season may be relatively short, but with reason; football is a brutal sport. An athlete’s body can only handle so many of the high-impact collisions endemic in football. The NFL’s offseason is significantly longer than that of other major sports because the players need it.

Because of the risk of potentially career-ending injury, it is doubtful that any NFL players with substantial playing time would be interested in playing in a less popular, lower-paying offseason football league.  Additionally, the league minimum in the NFL is $480,000 (with an average salary of $2.7 million), but the AAF was set to pay each player an average of $75,000. From an economic standpoint, a high-level player would be hard-pressed to risk their future NFL earnings for an AAF salary.

On top of injuries like an ACL tear or shoulder dislocation, concussions present a significant threat. A Boston University study determined that 110 out of the 111 NFL players it examined post-mortem had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked with memory loss, depression, dementia and other traumatic symptoms. While any hit to the head in football can be detrimental, the study showed that the accumulation of hits over a long period of time causes the most damage. The additional brain damage caused by playing an extra 10 games is significant, further disincentivizing NFL players to join the AAF.

The founders, on the other hand, had a more plausible vision for the AAF as a minor league for football. Major league baseball (MLB) has a multi-tiered developmental system and the National Basketball Association (NBA) has a similar program called D-League. But this concept failed to recognize the intrinsic differences between the sports.

Consider the MLB. When a star baseball player is drafted in the first round, he doesn’t go straight to the MLB like a top pick in the NFL would. Even the best players in the MLB start in the minors and progress through the minor league hierarchy before making it to the majors. With developmental football, however, that wouldn’t be the case. Football players don’t have time to develop in the minor leagues. According to Statista, the football average player only has a 3.3-year career, compared to 5.6 years in baseball.

The best college prospects will go straight to the NFL, where many thrivera even in their rookie seasons. Sending them to the AAF poses too severe a risk for minimal reward. Fringe NFL players will battle for roster spots, and those who don’t get spots on the 53-man roster will likely end up on a team’s practice squad, with the hope of eventually seeing playing time.

Additionally, minor league baseball runs contemporaneously with the MLB, as each major league team has a “farm system” with affiliate teams from  which they recruit players. The NFL could adopt this system, but that would defeat the purpose of the AAF as an offseason league. If the AAF and NFL played during the same season, the AAF would be vastly overshadowed. But if it played in during the offseason, it would be difficult for the NFL to use it as a minor league.

A final culprit in the failure of the AAF is that the football season is special because fans miss the sport during the long offseason. If football were year-long, it would be much harder to follow, and fans wouldn’t pay as much attention. In March, the NCAA basketball tournament draws sports fans, who then shift their focus to the NBA and NHL playoffs from April to June, until baseball in the summer. Then, when September rolls around, there’s immense excitement for the return of the NFL.

It made sense that the AAF had a successful first week. The absence of football games for seven months is a challenge for NFL fans so there was interest in the AAF as lingering excitement remained after the end of the NFL season. However, as the weeks went by, it was inevitable that fans’ interest would fade as March Madness began, and it soon became apparent that the AAF was doomed to failure.