What have we learned after two weeks of the Alliance of American Football?

We’re two weeks into the latest experiment in alternative professional football, and these are my observations after watching (or attending) at least some of each of the eight AAF games so far:

  • The actual football isn’t that bad. There have been a couple of snoozefest games (both of Birmingham’s), but both of Arizona’s games have been exciting (that was the scene at their home opener at the top), and Orlando’s win over San Antonio Sunday was probably the best of the bunch. This should improve, as it’s hard to have any kind of cohesion in football when you have a relatively short training camp and almost no preseason to speak of. Still, there are far too many field goals and far too many dropped passes.
  • The broadcasts are hit-and-miss, too. They’re pretty shill-tastic, and some of the announcers either talk way too much (Maurice Jones-Drew, who is otherwise pretty good), or are way too enthusiastic (Ben Holden…dial it back just a little bit, there, Johnny Most). Still, if there’s no Kenny Albert, Chris Myers, Dick Stockton or Sam Rosen, that’s a win. (I recommend watching AAF Raw on their app for an announcer-less experience.)
  • The rules changes have, largely, been good. The 30-second play clock and fewer commercial stoppages means the game keeps moving, which is a major problem with today’s NFL. Most games have been taking around two and a half hours, which is nice. Removing kickoffs was a well-intended idea, but (a) it’s strange to just start the game with a team on offense at the 25 and (b) if players are going to make it back to the NFL, they’re going to have to play special teams, so why remove those reps completely from the equation? Basketball got rid of almost all the center jumps, but still starts the game with one, so it would absolutely not be a player safety issue to have each half begin with a kickoff, but have no kickoffs after that.
    And while we all know Point After Touchdown kicks are boring and nearly automatic (though less so at the NFL’s new distance), the mandatory going for two after a touchdown isn’t perfect, either. Any time you remove options, you remove strategy, and “will they or won’t they go for two here?” is a nice moment of anticipation and second-guessing. Take that out, even under the guise of reducing the kickers’ influence (which is great unless you happen to be a kicker), and the game loses something.

  • There are more female on-field officials (two) and women on the studio set (two) than female cheerleaders (none), which is at once cool and a reflection of the times in which we live.
  • The finances….don’t look good. The telecasts seem to have three, maybe four, sponsors: Navy Federal Credit Union, Wheels Up (which I still haven’t figured out, but it appears to be for rich people), the Air National Guard and an erectile dysfunction pill. (Starter is their uniform partner, which is probably not a straight cash transaction, and MGM Resorts are the league’s gambling partner.) Fewer commercial breaks make for a better experience, and the AAF claimed fewer spots would result in being able to charge more for each one, but we’ll see. TV ratings were pretty good for the first game on CBS (not so great on NFL Network), but the USFL and XFL started out well on television, too.
    And then there’s attendance. Through eight games, they’re averaging an announced 19,417 a game, which is (a) twice what the last outdoor alternative league drew in its first season and (b) probably not nearly enough to pay the bills.

    San Antonio Commanders257,03328,517
    Orlando Apollos120,19120,191
    San Diego Fleet120,01920,019
    Birmingham Iron234,35817,179
    Memphis Express111,98011,980
    Arizona Hotshots111,75111,751
    Atlanta Legends   
    Salt Lake Stallions   
    AAF TOTAL8155,33219,417

    (Atlanta and Salt Lake have their home openers next week.)

    So where’s the “massive market for spring football” I keep hearing about?

    Do the math: Eight teams of 52 players1Fifty-two players? Really? I could have saved you five million just by cutting that to 44. on contracts worth about $83,333 is almost $35 million just in player wages. If they do average 20,000 a game for 40 games, that’s 800,000 tickets. They’d have to sell those for an average of nearly $50 a ticket2I paid $20 for end zone seats in Tempe. just to cover player salaries. I don’t know what they’re getting (if anything) from television3Bleacher Report? Really?, but I’m going to guess it’s not enough to cover the gap.

    Weather may be impacting crowds, but that’s part of the bargain the AAF struck: by insisting there be no time off between the Super Bowl and the start of their season, they were just asking for cold and potentially inclement weather, even with all the teams located in the south and west. (Perhaps spring football should be played in the….actual spring?)

  • The app is just okay. The predictive play-calling part is fun and semi-addictive, but you were supposed to be able to bet through it, too, and I have not seen that functionality. (Not that I would use it.) The actual gambling action on week one was reportedly just okay4And don’t listen to the supposed experts at CBS Sportsline, who insist they can pick winners in a league with no history. They’ve been wrong a lot already..
  • It’s kind of fun, after all. I had a good time at the Hotshots’ first game, and (strange to say), the AAF has made me remember that I actually like football. (Digression: I stopped watching college football in 2014 and didn’t follow the NFL last season for the first time since 1976.) It’s not the USFL (which I loved), but it’s pretty okay.

Just by getting to the field and not looking like a total joke, the AAF has staked a claim to being the most successful alternative football league since the USFL. And it should give the revived XFL either hope or reason to pause. This league got to market first, and got 400+ players under contract, while Vince McMahon’s league will have to make do with guys who aren’t even as good as that, unless they’re going to pay more than $83k a year.

As for the other recently proposed alternative football leagues?

I think that’s it. It’s the AAF or the XFL (for now). If you’re demanding spring football, those are your options. For now, enjoy the AAF for what it is and don’t worry too much about what it’s not. The odds are against it (even if you can’t bet on their survival in Vegas).

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch