Attempting to start a football league that’s not the NFL is no easy task. It appears the latest attempt, the Alliance of American Football (AAF), won’t be keeping its doors open for much longer. On April 2, it was announced the league would be suspending its operations with the likelihood of folding altogether.
This doesn’t seem to forebode well for the next reincarnation of the XFL, which will be starting in 2020. However, the XFL can learn from the AAF’s mistakes as it gets ready to open its league next year.
Here are four lessons the XFL can take away from the catastrophe known as the AAF.
1. Have money to pay the players right out the gate
Reports said the AAF needed a $250 million investment from Tom Dundon just to meet payroll after one week of play. Dundon “only” ended up investing $70 million, but how was the AAF not prepared to pay everyone past one week of play?
There were obvious organization and money issues with the AAF. According to various reports, only players and coaches were fed on team planes — everyone else involved with the operation had to get their own food. When the league was suspended, there wasn’t any severance pay and players were forced to purchase their own flights home. Their belongings were tossed from their hotel rooms and they were left on their own.
Unorganized is an understatement...kicked out of our rooms (that weren’t paid apparently) 17 hours away from home with a car full of my belongings and nowhere to go...#JoinTheAlliance @TheAAF @CharlieEbersol @TDCanes @espn @BleacherReport @aafexpress— Anthony Manzo-Lewis (@amanzolewis) April 2, 2019
@TheAAF I woke up to over a $2500 charge pending on my account from the Sonesta hotel our team stayed in. I called the bank and Memphis team president. My only option is to dispute the charges on Monday. The same thing happened to other players on our team @ohrnberger— Adrien Robinson (@ItsARob8One) April 4, 2019
The Action Network’s Darren Rovell reported that Dundon didn’t pay vendors for the league either. It was an unequivocal mess from top to bottom.
Steve Spurrier, head coach of the Orlando Apollos, also called out the AAF, saying they weren’t truthful about the viability of the league:
“Everyone was led to believe that the Alliance was well-funded and we could play three years without making any money and this, that and the other. Obviously, everything that was said was not very truthful.”
That cash infusion seems to have what ultimately led to the AAF’s quick demise as a league. The investment gave Dundon the power to fold the league on a week-by-week basis — it appears he’s decided to exercise that power. So why did founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian try to put this league together so hastily if they didn’t have the funds?
Well, it’s important to remember that the AAF was announced after Vince McMahon revealed that he was bringing back the XFL. The AAF tried to jump the gun and start playing first, even though it’s apparent now that it was not fully prepared to launch.
That’s a lesson the XFL knows all too well. The first version of the XFL, which only lasted a season, was rushed out to production after just one year.
When the XFL’s return was announced over a year ago, McMahon made it clear he didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes that tanked his league the first time around.
“It’s extremely important that we have time to get together and get them practicing so we can have a quality product,” McMahon said at the time.
McMahon, who will be funding the league by himself, also recently sold $270 million worth of WWE stock in preparation of his new league starting up next year. That’s a start in the right direction that the AAF didn’t make.
2. Be way, way more organized than the AAF
One of the big reasons why the AAF fell flat on its face is because even beyond money, it didn’t seem prepared for everything it takes to run a professional sports league. Here are just a few things that went wrong due to poor organization.
- The Orlando Apollos, who eventually ended up being the best team in the league, were not able to practice in the state of Florida.
All sports franchises have insurance companies that cover them, but the AAF struggled to find an insurance provider at the start of the season. Since Florida excludes professional athletes from their worker compensation laws, the Apollos actually had to practice in Kingsland, Georgia, which is just a few minutes from the Florida border.
AAF players are feeling the brunt of the league being suspended as well. After being promised health insurance for an entire year, the AAF will end health insurance at the end of April.
Another #AAF player tells me when he signed his contract, he was told he’d also have health insurance for an entire year, not just duration of contract.— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) April 3, 2019
Again, this is one player, but This was the message he was sent last night pic.twitter.com/wEPPVFrT0A
The players who got hurt are now on the hook for their own medical expenses.
XFL commissioner Oliver Luck has already confirmed the new version of the XFL will have insurance, unlike the previous iteration.
- The AAF games were kind of hard to find. They rotated between CBS Sports Network, B/R Live (which had a hilarious blooper with Marvin Lewis), and NFL Network — not exactly the most accessible channels for people wanting to watch the games.
The XFL has come to an agreement with ESPN and FOX Sports to televise the games on ABC, FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, and FS2.
“We are thrilled to partner with ESPN and FOX Sports, two innovative media companies with extensive experience in world-class football production that will undoubtedly help us reimagine football,” said Vince McMahon, XFL Founder & Chairman. “The XFL broadcast schedule provides us with incredible reach and makes it easy for fans to watch our games consistently every weekend.”
If that sounds like a direct shot at the AAF, it wouldn’t be the first time. The XFL also released this statement when the AAF went under:
“We have said all along the success or failure of other leagues will have no impact on our ability to deliver high-quality, fast-paced, professional football. The XFL is well-funded, we have time before kick-off to execute our business plan, and we will soon announce a national broadcast and cable TV schedule that makes it easy for fans to find our games consistently every weekend when we launch next February. There is no doubt that avid football fans want more and we’re excited to get going in 2020.”
- The AAF moved its championship game in the middle of the season. On March 20, it was announced that the AAF would be relocating the championship from Las Vegas to Frisco, Texas. It would have been played at The Star, which is an indoor stadium owned by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
The AAF had already sold tickets to the championship game in Las Vegas — moving it after selling tickets is grimy behavior, even if they would have had a better crowd in Texas.
3. Don’t hire coaches who are completely out of touch with the modern game
A league like the AAF isn’t going to have access to offensive masterminds like Sean McVay, Sean Payton, or Andy Reid — and that’s OK. But it still could’ve thought a bit more outside the box than some of the coaching hires that were made.
For example, the AAF hired Mike Martz and Mike Singletary to be two of the eight head coaches in their league. Martz hadn’t coached since he was the offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears in 2010. The Bears ranked 21st in points per game that season and 28th in yards per play.
Shockingly, spending almost a decade away from the game didn’t seem to give Martz an edge on his opponents. Martz’s San Diego Fleet went 3-5 and only threw nine touchdowns in eight games.
Mike Singletary had spent a decent amount of time away from high-level football before getting the Memphis Express head coaching gig as well. After being fired by the 49ers in 2010, Singletary spent four total years coaching before landing with the AAF this year — his last stop as a defensive assistant for Jeff Fisher’s Los Angeles Rams in 2016.
The Express were one of the worst teams in the AAF. They averaged just 19 points per game while giving up 24.3 points per game and finished the season 2-6.
Martz and Singletary were productive coaches at one point in their coaching careers, but that was such a long time ago. It’s hard to believe that they couldn’t find someone that had recently been around to game to lead two of their eight teams.
The AAF did have an older coach who was able to embrace the modern aspects of the game in Steve Spurrier — the head coach of the de facto league champions Orlando Apollos. Before landing with the AAF, Spurrier was last the head coach at the University of South Carolina in 2015. He was able to have fun with the game and even used the Philly Special in the first game of the season.
The Spurrier approach is a formula that can work for the XFL — hire coaches who know how to have fun and are familiar with the direction of football. Bob Stoops, Marc Trestman, and Pep Hamilton are confirmed as coaches for the 2020 season — all of them recently coached in the NFL or FBS college football in the past few years.
One question mark is Jim Zorn, who hasn’t actively participated in high-level football since being the Chiefs’ quarterback coach in 2012. The other four coaches haven’t been announced yet, but hopefully they’re solid hires who can keep games watchable.
4. Give the teams more time to prepare for the season actually starting
The AAF teams met in January for training camps, which were held in San Antonio at high school stadiums. Training camp for the AAF started on Jan. 4 and the league kicked off on the evening of Feb. 9. That’s not exactly a lot of time to get a team together, learn the playbook, and start getting in practice reps to make sure games run smoothly.
Obviously, development leagues will never be on the level of the NFL, but think about how much time goes into getting a team ready for an NFL season. Before the draft, there are offseason workouts. After the draft, there’s rookie minicamp and organized team activities. Then there’s training camp in the summer.
A lot of practice time goes into being able to coordinate an offense, defense, and special teams — one month just isn’t enough time.
There’s no to know for sure if the new XFL will be a success, but it has to be encouraging that it’s learning from past mistakes. Hopefully it can learn from the AAF’s mistakes as well.