The AAF makes successful debut as NFL's spring league - but will it last?

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Wearing an Alliance of American Football-branded varsity jacket and a slightly dazed expression, Charlie Ebersol bounced into the press room after the game and declared his delight that the new league was trending on Twitter and its app was zooming off the virtual shelves of the Google and Apple stores.

“The intensity was outstanding,” said his fellow co-founder, Bill Polian, one of the most garlanded executives in NFL history. “Our hope was that this would look like real pro football and that’s exactly what it looked like.”

Promising a blend of serious sport and Silicon Valley savvy, the AAF debuted on Saturday with a 15-6 win for the San Antonio Commanders over the San Diego Fleet and a 40-6 thrashing of the Atlanta Legends by the Orlando Apollos. Another two games followed on Week After Super Bowl Sunday as the Birmingham Iron hosted the Memphis Express and the Salt Lake Stallions travelled to the Arizona Hotshots.

Ebersol, a charismatic 36-year-old Los Angeles-based television producer and erstwhile companion of Britney Spears, believes that Americans are addicted to football and knows that even a bad Super Bowl ( hello, Atlanta! ) draws more than a hundred million viewers, some of whom will suffer withdrawal symptoms after the game ends. Ebersol is betting that he has the cure. In fact, he’s placing a number of bets - and so might you one day as the US relaxes its puritanical gambling laws and we move closer to a world in which ads urge viewers wagering their children’s college funds on the punt returning ability of the Carolina Panthers.

The AAF thinks there are enough could-bes and weren’t-quites out there to build watchable teams; that the country is still besotted with football despite the barrage of negative headlines in recent years; that broadcasters too pine for live action after the NFL season; that six cities without NFL franchises can provide decent fanbases; and that the coming expansion of legal sports betting creates an opening for a tech-smart business that will generate the kind of real-time app data that can be used for fantasy games and English Premier League-style in-match gambling.

With the latter in mind it is no shock that the AAF’s investors include the Vegas powerhouse MGM Resorts International and Founders Fund, Peter Thiel’s San Francisco venture capital firm, as well as Chernin Group, owners of the bro-centric Barstool Sports website.

The league is styled as accessory to the NFL rather than adversary and the NFL Network will televise 19 AAF games. There’s also a broadcast deal with CBS, and an early audience figure from Saturday of nearly three million was promising. Reassuringly for Ebersol given his desire to cling to the NFL’s coat-tails, broadcast ratings and the entertainment factor rebounded during the just-ended NFL season, despite a Super Bowl where the only visible artistry was on the much-inked chest of the half-time entertainer.

A prosperous AAF would be a potential source of signings and a comfort to the NFL as it confronts (or ignores) various crises, from concussions to quality of play to the shabby treatment of Colin Kaepernick to sniping from the Tweeter-In-Chief. The president would no doubt have approved of the pre-game spectacle at the Alamodome, which featured a heavy military presence and the unfurling during the national anthem of an American flag so large that it filled the entire field save for the end zones.

Season tickets in San Antonio cost from $75 to $1,000 and the announced attendance on Saturday was a solid 27,857. Many fans dressed in the newborn team’s colours, San Diego’s players were lustily booed even during the warm-ups, and catches and clatterings drew hearty roars.

It was an assured and credible curtain-raiser, as the AAF instantly conformed to the norms of the top American leagues: slick branding, professional presentation, noisy demands for the crowd to get loud, jumbo video screens showing fans dancing badly and a contest that purposely started later than the advertised time.

The regular season ends on 14 April, with a four-team playoff and a final in Las Vegas. Many of the AAF’s players were on the books of NFL teams; Nick Rose, the San Antonio kicker, was released last month by the Los Angeles Chargers, while cornerback De’Vante Bausby made six appearances for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2018 season. Players each earn a basic total of $250,000 over three years. With eight 52-man rosters, that entails $104m in squad salary commitments alone. A substantial outlay - but puny compared to the NFL, where the per-team salary cap in 2018 was $177.2m.

The biggest danger to the AAF is probably not the NFL but past evidence and a rash of other start-ups. America’s sporting landscape is strewn with the wreckage of failed football leagues. Perhaps most notorious was the XFL, the brainchild of the wrestling mogul Vince McMahon. It folded in 2001 after a sole season in which more attention to detail appeared to have been devoted to the cheerleaders’ looks than the attractiveness of the on-field product.

McMahon, though, plans to reboot the XFL in 2020 with Oliver Luck, father of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, as commissioner and teams in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Washington. Mostly larger markets than the AAF but a more direct test of whether NFL fans want spring football.

In the meantime, Major League Rugby’s sophomore campaign is under way, while yet another gridiron hopeful – the Freedom Football League, which, in pointed contrast to the NFL, styles itself as a player-focused, fan-owned platform for social justice - plans to launch next year.

Even if there are enough major cities to absorb these new competitions, it’s an open question as to whether there will be sufficient interest from TV executives and advertisers for them to survive. Ebersol, who directed a documentary on the XFL, is not naive. “Nothing that happens on the first night is indicative of what history eventually shows you,” he said. “I’d like us to be a story of growth… I think that’s what we laid the groundwork for.”

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