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The AAF’s threats of shutdown are half weird bargaining tactic, half ‘oh shit’ moment

The AAF’s lead investor says it might shut down without NFL players. Alright, seeya.

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Less than two months after investing $250 million in the Alliance of American Football, majority owner Tom Dundon is threatening to shut it down.

The fledgling football league is only eight weeks into its inaugural season, but its future may be in danger. And while one of the symptoms of its potential failure may be the declining ratings that have followed a buzz-less March, Dundon says the cause is the NFL.

“If the players union is not going to give us young players, we can’t be a development league,” said Dundon, according to USA Today. “We are looking at our options, one of which is discontinuing the league.”

It’s a statement that comes across as half bargaining maneuver and half statement of intent. Dundon is working to apply pressure to the established football league that has embraced the AAF more than any other startup professional football league. The NFL gave the spring league its tacit sign of approval by allowing the AAF space on its eponymous network, but now Dundon is angling for an even bigger asset — NFL prospects.

Adding a handful of former Day 3 picks and potential early September roster casualties would give the AAF an influx of talent to soften the edges of what’s been some ... well, let’s say inconsistent football so far. It would also add an air of legitimacy to the league with another unspoken endorsement to the AAF’s level of play. Both would be a major boon to a league that started with a bang but has seen its influence wane as viewers moved on to bigger and better things as the year wore on.

Dundon’s original deadline of coming to a shutdown decision within a few days of his March 27 comments didn’t pan out. However, it only took took days into April before rumors of the league’s demise began to spread.

Is Dundon speaking truthfully when it comes to shutting down the startup football league in which he invested heavily? It’s impossible to tell right now, but there are plenty of arguments to both support and detract from his comments.

Why Dundon might be serious: the AAF’s television ratings aren’t good (but they aren’t awful either)

Like a muted version of the XFL before it (the 2001 version, and not the upcoming 2020 one), the AAF burst onto the scene with strong ratings and plenty of interesting discussion points. There were a handful of familiar faces, innovative rule changes, and big hits that helped ease the transition from Super Bowl 53 into the bleak tail end of winter.

SB Nation’s recap after Week 1 was positive — “The league is good!” Television ratings reflected that as well. CBS’ slate of games peaked at 2.9 million viewers during the opening weekend. But that boost also came from a primetime spot on a basic cable network. The channel roulette that followed — the AAF bounced from TNT to the NFL Network to the CBS Sports Network to online streaming via Bleacher Report — chipped away at that audience. Late February games on NFLN saw the audience drop to somewhere between 400,000 and 450,000 viewers.

But that’s still pretty good for a nascent sports league in an absolute dead zone of programming. The AAF, lower-tier football most consistently broadcast on a cable channel dedicated to a single sport, fared better than some of its direct competitors in February. It got better ratings than NBA games on NBATV, PGA Tour events on the Golf Network, and NHL hockey on NBC Sports. Turner Networks not only picked up more games to broadcast, but also plugged those broadcasts heavily during the NCAA Tournament.

The league’s rushed, we’ll-put-games-wherever-we-can-just-let-us-know strategy is working in stretches, though not the way Dundon and the rest of the league might have hoped. While ratings have declined, the AAF — the NIT of professional football — is still drawing more viewers than the NIT of college basketball (which is, of course, the NIT).

That’s not ideal, but the league is pumping out useful sports programming in a content-starved season. You can understand why the AAF is angling hard to find a catalyst to reverse the downward trend of his ratings, and why Dundon turned to the most obvious source: the NFL. There’s potential there, but football’s monolith isn’t interested.

Why Dundon probably isn’t serious: The NFL doesn’t need a developmental league (and everyone knows this)

Minor leagues have worked well in America’s other big three sports. The recent success of the NBA’s G-League has even renewed calls for a feeder system the NFL hasn’t had since NFL Europe shuttered its doors in 2007 (please join me in pouring one out for the Rhein Fire). While that wasn’t the AAF’s explicit goal early on, it’s always been a possibility.

“I think this will be complementary to the NFL,” former Pittsburgh Steelers safety and AAF head of player relations Troy Polamalu told the media back in 2018. Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco took that idea a step further after the league’s opening weekend in February.

“It has the potential to be a nice complement to the NFL. It’s a great spot for a developmental league for players, but even aside from that -- coaches and front office, officiating, athletic trainers and video equipment people, public relations -- all of that. So I think it’s a great place where people can develop in every department of football operations. Every department that touches a football team can get some real-life experience.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn even expressed interest in loaning out practice squad players each spring.

AAF officials — and only AAF officials, really — have made statements about ongoing talks with the NFL about loaning out players. The NFL’s silence on the subject, however, speaks multitudes.

While players will no doubt make the transition from AAF rosters to NFL training camps this fall, finding and developing talent has never been a problem for the league. Three years of college football have proven to be a solid litmus test for parsing out high school players with next level talent, and players who fall through the cracks still often find their way to the league. Over the past five years alone NFL scouts have been able to draw talent from the Canadian Football League — North America’s real No. 2 football league — Australia’s National Rugby League, the German Football League, and more.

The NFL does have a problem churning through talent, though. The AAF is asking teams to loan players out for more game experience — a risk/reward scenario that teeters significantly toward the former rather than the latter. The NFLPA staunchly opposes any expansion of NFL schedules, mostly in the interest of preserving its members. As much as the league and some of its players may want to help the AAF and earn extra reps with the Orlando Apollos or Memphis Express, the wear and tear of a year-long football schedule is a much bigger negative than the potential growth of an extra 10 games against other rostered NFL prospects each spring.

Even if that weren’t the case, the NFLPA believes a loan-out program would violate the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which only makes it prospects bleaker.

Why Dundon probably isn’t serious: he’s looking to expand the AAF

Dundon, league co-founder Charlie Ebersol, and, huh, Eminem have reportedly started up high-level talks about moving the league north to Detroit to fill some of the void the southern-operating AAF has left behind.

Expansion into a new market may be a good idea if ratings can hold solid and the league can prove to not be a money pit in its opening year. It also won’t be cheap, and Dundon’s public comments could be a signal for potential investors who, like him, and interested in coming in, “saving” the league, and potentially even bringing a professional football franchise to their hometowns.

Why Dundon might be serious: he’s not really on the hook for the full $250m

Dundon’s investment in the league is a $250 million commitment, but he hasn’t invested that full amount with the AAF yet. He reportedly can stop his investment schedule when he feels the league isn’t worth it — and a lack of NFL partnership could be the tipping point. While he hasn’t confirmed this is the case, he also didn’t deny it when the Sports Business Journal pressed him on the issue:

“I have committed to investing $250 million into the Alliance of American Football. We now have the necessary capital to accelerate growth. We have the capital to make this a sustainable and profitable league.”

If Dundon is in fact investing on a week-to-week basis, it makes sense he’d want to speed up any negotiations with the NFL and NFLPA by putting them on blast publicly. But he’s not exactly presenting the rest of professional football or future investors with a can’t-miss proposition.

Why Dundon probably isn’t serious: this has all the gravitas of a Gobias Industries pitch

There’s a chance the Hurricanes owner is punching above his weight class, poorly. With Vince McMahon’s XFL coming next fall it’s easy to spread misinformation, but this comment from a source close to the league certainly seems troubling.

The NFL is starting up CBA talks next month, and suddenly the AAF — the league that likely needs a major change in the CBA to allow players to be loaned to its sidelines — could be shut down in a matter of days? Especially with a couple weeks left in the regular season and the ratings bump that should follow a showcase AAF championship game that comes the night of the final day of the NFL Draft? That seems ... excessive.

There’s no way Dundon doesn’t already know that, and that’s why his statement Wednesday can’t be taken at face value. If it’s 100 percent earnest, it’s also incredibly dumb. The Hurricanes owner is set to invest a quarter of a billion dollars in a startup football league — already a bad sign — and his big plan was get the NFL and NFLPA’s OK to allow its borderline players to play even more football? It’s a strategy whose major gaping flaw shows up before you finish the mission statement.

As a promotional tactic and bargaining chip it’s a strange play as well. Will more fans tune to in watch Dundon’s failing league now that he’s inadvertently thrown his players under the bus by saying the league can’t survive with them? Will investors support an expansion into the Midwest knowing the project’s lead investor can pull the plug at any time and is talking loudly about doing so? Is he making an appeal to fans who filled a relatively sport-less void in February to return to the league for its post-March Madness playoffs lest it fold thanks to bad ratings? This could be an actual thing — after Dundon invested his $250 million in the league and reports of possible missed paychecks arose after Week 2, the league’s ratings actually rose significantly in Week 3.

If not, is Dundon really trying to guilt the NFL, currently under the most focused scrutiny its ever seen regarding player health both on the field and in retirement, into loaning out its lesser players to a situation where they’d be more likely to sustain injury? Is he creating a situation for other investors to join him in his bailout mission for a business plan that’s failed time and time again? Is he really considering expansion when eight teams appears too heavy a burden to bear? And is he, in fact, the worst negotiator one source has ever seen?

It looks like it’s some combination of these factors — but no matter what the motivation is, it certainly doesn’t sound good. We’ll know more once his self imposed two-day deadline runs its course this week.