Nearly 300 athletes had travelled to a gym near Houston, and you could see the desire in their sweat-stained faces, as well as from the number of out-of-state license plates in the parking lot.
Each of the hopefuls paid a fee of $175 to attend a one-day open tryout for the latest attempt to launch a professional American football league. The NFL may have been wounded by political divisions, concussions and cord-cutters but it remains the world’s richest sports league. And one of the briefest, with a quality-not-quantity recipe that means there are only 150 days between the kick-off of the 2018 season in Philadelphia on 6 September and Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on 3 February.
The Alliance of American Football will debut six days after the Super Bowl, its Silicon Valley backers and front-office cast of NFL veterans convinced there is space in the market for a spring league that fans will devour in stadiums and on screens. The Alliance is pitched as a complement rather than a challenger to the NFL, its ranks to be filled largely with not-quites or not-yets whose talent would otherwise go to waste after failing to catch on with the NFL or Canadian Football League.
“They call that Sunday after the Super Bowl the saddest Sunday of the year, because there are millions – and our studies have shown this, tens of millions – of football fans that do not watch any other sport after the Super Bowl until football starts again. So I think there’s an appetite for it, if we can put a quality product on the field which I believe we can,” said JK McKay, the Alliance’s head of football operations and a former NFL receiver.
Its birth offered a second chance to the 287 men running drills in the summer heat at the Texas combine earlier this month, projecting aggression and politeness, confidence and humility, in the hope that a decision-maker would note – not their name, not yet – but the number on their jersey. Leagues, meanwhile, have had far more than two chances to make it big since the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1966 and the Super Bowl era began.
It must be hard to concentrate on possessions on the field when your stuff is being repossessed off it. In 1974 the World Football League, which had teams as far apart as Honolulu and New York, spent heavily but saw several franchises relocate mid-season during that first year. Its championship game was almost scrapped because the eventual winners, the Birmingham Americans, owed over $200,000 to the IRS. It folded in 1975.
The United States Football League endured for three spring seasons in the mid-80s but collapsed after an ill-fated decision to go head-to-head with the NFL at the urging of the owner of the New Jersey Generals – a certain Donald J Trump. The indoor Arena Football League, meanwhile, hobbles on – in 2018 it had four teams, all in the north east, with the Washington Valor winning the title despite a 2-10 record in the regular season.
The Alliance is co-founded by Charlie Ebersol, whose father, former NBC Sports boss Dick Ebersol, partnered with the WWE wrestling magnate Vince McMahon to launch the eight-team XFL. Strangely, even though The Rock was “psyched, pumped, geeked and cranked” for the XFL, stunts such as promising a camera in the cheerleaders’ locker-room and replacing the coin toss with a scramble between two opponents for the ball failed to convince viewers that the XFL was a serious proposition. The cartoonish antics of the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, the Las Vegas Outlaws, the Chicago Enforcers, the Orlando Rage, the San Francisco Demons and the rest proved a turn-off and the XFL lasted only one season, in 2001. Charlie Ebersol directed an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the XFL’s failure. McMahon, meanwhile, is threatening an XFL reboot for 2020.
For the 35-year-old Ebersol, the Alliance’s business plan is pure logic. The NFL’s TV ratings are under strain but, he pointed out, remain vastly ahead of other sports. “And for reasons that exceed almost all understanding you have this sport that runs for six months to the day and then shuts down and doesn’t come back for six months,” he says.
The Alliance is launching in eight cities, mostly in the south, with only two served by NFL franchises: San Diego, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Antonio, Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and Orlando. Teams will play 10-week regular seasons with 52-strong rosters, each player earning a basic $250,000 in total over three years with an out clause if the NFL calls. There are a handful of rule differences compared with the NFL.
Mike Singletary, the former Chicago Bears player and San Francisco 49ers head coach, said he was persuaded to take charge of the Memphis team after conversations with Bill Polian, the highly-respected six-time NFL Executive of the Year who is the Alliance’s head of football and co-founder. The recently-retired NFL stars Hines Ward, Jared Allen and Troy Polamalu have executive roles. Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, will be the Atlanta team’s offensive coordinator. Steve Spurrier, a celebrated college coach in Florida, will take charge in Orlando.
Financial backers include the Founders Fund, started by Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist known for tag-teaming with Hulk Hogan on the lawsuit that helped destroy Gawker, and the Chernin Group, the majority owner of Barstool Sports.
The Alliance has a broadcast deal with CBS but its tech investors are looking beyond conventional television. “They believe that the growth of real-time [fantasy] gaming is one of the most significantly underdeveloped, under-represented areas. Certainly not just in sports but beyond sports. And so what we’re building starts with football but has a much larger opportunity, we believe,” Ebersol said.
“Fantasy, bizarrely, is this passive experience. We think of it as somewhat active because of daily fantasy but the reality is, you stop playing before the game starts and then you become a Twitter follower or Twitter poster I guess I should say until the game ends, you have no control over your outcome. We’ve developed a game and infrastructure that is uniquely ours that allows people to play in real time which I think is going to be a big deal.”
A successful mobile real-time fantasy sports platform would likely give the Alliance a head-start when the kind of in-game internet wagering that’s common in Europe comes to America. That is expected to happen in the coming years after the US Supreme Court last May paved the way for widespread legalised sports betting.
For now, though, given the history of its predecessors, simply surviving for more than a season or two would be a notable achievement. “The Alliance league will be kind of like the little brother of the NFL, trying to be bigger one day. That’s kind of how I look at it,” Singletary said.
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