When the AAF, or Alliance of American Football, kicked off after the Super Bowl last winter, it had great ambitions. It wanted to be a minor league of sorts for the NFL — a place where draft picks could play and develop, and also a place where NFL busts could set out on a redemption quest to make it back.
To a certain extent, it succeeded in this. High past draft picks like Christian Hackenberg, Trenton Richardson and Garrett Gilbert were signed to deals, and past NFL coaches like Steve Spurrier, Mike Martz and Dennis Green were named as head coaches for some teams. The league also had some big name advisors on board so that it could do its best to not re-write the mistakes made by the XFL when it launched and failed after a single season in the early 2000s. What’s more is that player and coach salaries were pretty good, at least sound enough to justify interest in the league and make for some competitive football.
You can see why the AAF had some promise to it. Throw in the fact that it had a decent TV deal — and that it actually sustained some pretty good ratings all season — and the outlook appeared to be even more promising. The AAF wasn’t trying to compete with the NFL — the league firmly understood that it would never be able to overtake it. It merely wanted to serve as a developmental league for it.
So, what went wrong? Why did the AAF suddenly shutter its doors and cancel all football operations in early April when there were two weeks remaining in addition to the playoffs? Let’s take a look:
Early Season Financial Struggles
The first big warning sign occurred about 10 days into the AAF regular season, when original founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian realized they were short on cash and wouldn’t be able to pay the league’s players or coaches without some help. They got help from Tom Dundon, who invested an additional $250 million into the league under the stipulation that he would also be named chairman. In other words, Dundon became the new boss of the AAF.
Around the time Dundon came aboard, reports came out that the league nearly folded several times prior to his onboarding for a variety of reasons. Again, not something that exactly gives off those warm and fuzzy feelings.
In addition to financial issues, the AAF was also involved in some pretty damaging lawsuits. Perhaps the most notable was from Los Angeles venture capitalist Robert Vanech, who claimed that the league was his idea and sought financial damages and 50 percent ownership in the league. Add in the fact that the league wasn’t able to come to terms on a worker’s compensation agreement for its players, and legal issues with the league reached new heights.
In the end, Dundon made the decision to suspend the league with two weeks remaining in the season (not including playoffs). But the biggest losers weren’t Dundon, Ebersol or Polian — it was the players. Reports following the cancellation announcement indicated that players were left pretty high and dry. They had to pay for their own flights home, had to figure out their own housing arrangements, and injured players were left responsible for their own medical costs. Some players even returned to the hotels they were staying at only to find their luggage waiting for them in the lobby, as they’d been kicked out of their rooms.
It’s all a sad ending to something that was so promising for players looking to stay involved in football and possibly get a shot with the NFL. But alas, it was not meant to be. And now, with the XFL about to kick off (again) in 2020, the AAF is another failed league that others can dissect and learn from. But when it comes to any sort of minor league football, the people have spoken several times. We’ll see if Vince McMahon can get it right with the XFL in a little less than a year.