ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAMIEN WEIGHILL
History is littered with football leagues that barely got off the ground, from the much-hyped XFL to the intentionally tiny UFL to the explicitly developmental FXFL. On paper, start-up leagues make sense—millions of people follow the NFL and NCAA, and a new league could find success attracting even a fraction of that fanbase—but in practice, low quality of play and high cost of operations have doomed every league that’s tried to coexist alongside the NFL for the past half century.
Still, new leagues continue to launch, each hoping it will be the one to survive. The latest, the Alliance of American Football, kicks off this month, fielding teams in Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis; Orlando; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; San Diego; and Tempe, Arizona. AAF cofounder and CEO Charlie Ebersol, the son of famed TV executive Dick Ebersol, believes his league has found the right formula: high-profile coaches (Steve Spurrier, Mike Singletary), a schedule that begins right after the NFL season ends, creative fantasy-sports options, and shorter games (with fewer replays and commercials and no kickoffs).
“Football is unequivocally the most dominant sport in the United States,” Ebersol says. “As television becomes more and more dependent on live events, the need both on the media side and the fan side for somebody to come along with really high-quality football in the spring is extraordinarily high.”
Ebersol, who directed an ESPN documentary on the XFL, says the biggest lesson he learned from that league’s failure (a relaunch is planned for 2020) is that any new league needs to focus on the on-field product more than on marketing. The AAF is certainly trying: Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian is a cofounder of the league and serves as the head of football, while future Hall of Fame player Troy Polamalu is the league’s head of player operations.
While the NFL remains America’s most popular and profitable sports league, it has endured a string of controversies in recent years. Does that mean football fans might be willing to flock to a new league? “I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation—people looking for another avenue of football,” says Andrew Brandt, a sports-business columnist and executive director of the Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova University. Brandt does note, however, that a new league could provide an alternative that addresses certain complaints. “[Some fans] don’t like the way the NFL appears to be corporate and veiled in everything they do,” he says. “[The AAF] can be a little looser on that.”
So can the AAF survive? “They seem to have as much momentum—or more—as any league since NFL Europe,” Brandt says. “I think it’s something that will have legs, more so than others in the past. But, until it happens, it’s natural to be skeptical.”
A sampling of past attempts to launch new pro football leagues
United States Football League
An off-season NFL competitor that signed big-name talent (Herschel Walker) but folded after announcing a move to the fall.
Arena Football League
An indoor league that still exists, although only four teams remain after years of struggling.
A developmental league backed by the NFL, originally called the World League of American Football.
Vince McMahon’s league made a point of its hard-hitting play and scantily clad cheerleaders.
United Football League
A fall league that never had more than five teams.
Fall Experimental Football League
A league designed to showcase players for the NFL and experiment with rule changes.