The newest non-NFL football league is here, and it comes in the form of a spring league called the American Alliance of Football — AAF for short. The league announced its existence in March 2018 and is starting its inaugural season on Feb. 9, 2019.
1. What is it, exactly, beyond “a football league”?
The AAF, founded by producer Charlie Ebersol and former NFL general manager Bill Polian, is similar to some of the previous non-NFL developmental leagues. Two of the simplest structural differences with the NFL are the time of year of the season (spring) and the length of that season (12 weeks, including the playoffs, with the championship at the end of April).
“Through the GMs, through the head coaches, through assistant coaches, guys who formerly played the game, we have so much to offer these guys that that’s all they need is the help in their development,” AAF Head of Football Development Hines Ward tells SB Nation. (One theme with the AAF: A bunch of NFL people you’ve heard of are involved.)
Ward says the AAF can “help give them an opportunity. And what you’re starting to find out is a lot of college guys aren’t really being coached the way they should be.”
So, the AAF is casting itself as a place where players can grow. It’s not branding itself strictly as an alternative to the NFL, like the new XFL is doing.
“I get a question a lot ‘How is this different?’” Ebersol tells me. “What’s different is that we’re the same. What I mean by that is everyone that’s tried to do this before the focused on trying to be different. They focused on trying to differentiate themselves between the NFL, which ultimately I think was part of their demise.
“Because if you’re a player who wants to play in the NFL, another league comes along, you look at that league as an opportunity to show your skills off and get back in the big show. The problem is, if they screw with the game, which all these people have done, you can’t get back in the NFL because if you’re playing in the CFL or another league like that, and NFL’s looking at that the game, it’s so wildly different.”
There are only about nine rules different from the NFL’s rulebook, too.
“We wanted the best players to feel like they could come play in our league,” Ebersol continues. And not feel like by doing that they felt they were sacrificing their ability to play in the NFL.”
One benefit to the AAF being developmental is that there’s less pressure.
“You see a guy drop a pass, [and] he thinks he’s gonna get cut,” Ward says. “Right then and there, so that fear factor — ‘Guys, no this is a developmental league.’ ‘We’re here to make sure that we help get you better each and every day you step on the field.’
2. How many teams?
3. And where?
All of them have at least one or two guys (whether a coach, a player, or both) whom NFL and college fans will probably remember. They’re in these places:
- Arizona Hotshots: head coach Rick Neuheisel, QB Trevor Knight
- Atlanta Legends: offensive coordinator Mike Vick, QB Aaron Murray
- Birmingham Iron: QB Blake Sims, RB Trent Richardson
- Memphis Express: Head coach Mike Singletary, QB Zach Mettenberger
- Orlando Apollos: Head coach Steve Spurrier
- Salt Lake Stallions: Head coach Dennis Erickson
- San Antonio Commanders: Head coach Mike Riley
- San Diego Fleet: RB Bishop Sankey
As you can notice, a good number of teams have some local names that fans will easily recognize. That was part of the AAF’s vision, says Ward.
You’ll notice a handful of local connections — like two high-profile former Alabama players now playing for the team in Birmingham, for instance.
“I think that was important to really establish a fanbase within our cities,” Ward says. “To have guys who played there, who they grew up liking or cheering for, and now really having the opportunity to see them. I thought that was important for our league as well as the players so they can get a sense of a comfort level playing back at home.”
4. What’s the schedule look like, exactly?
There will be 40 games in the regular season, with four per week. They’ll be split between Saturday and Sundays. So, good news to those of you who might miss football.
5. Do they have stadiums?
Yeah. The league’s playing its games in venues you’re likely familiar with:
- Atlanta at Georgia State Stadium, formerly Turner Field, the old home of the Braves
- Birmingham at Legion Field
- Memphis at the Liberty Bowl
- Orlando at UCF’s Spectrum Stadium
- Phoenix at Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium
- Salt Lake at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium
- San Antonio at the Alamodome
- San Diego at SDCCU Stadium, home of San Diego State and formerly the Chargers
6. How can I watch?
The first AAF game is on Feb. 9, between Atlanta and Orlando, is on CBS. Going forward, there’ll be a game per week on CBSSN, with those streamed on the AAF’s website.
TNT will broadcast one regular season and one playoff game per season, per Sports Business Journal. The NFL Network’s going to take two games per week and will broadcast a total of 19 games.
7. Any hints at the style of play?
It seems like there’ll be lots of spread offenses that try to move quickly and score a ton. Think more of a prototypical Big 12 game than an SEC game, in hopes of wooing fans.
“I think people are going to be very surprised not only at the quality of the football, but the heart that’s out on the field,” Ebersol says.
“I said this to the guys, ‘every sports movie is about the guy who gets knocked out six times and gets up seven. Every one of you is Rocky [Balboa], everyone of you is Rudy. Every one of you has a story of how you ended up an inch short, or whatever it was that held you back. This is bigger than that —you have an opportunity to tell this story while being what we all believe in.”