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AAF, AFL, XFL football leagues rush to fill NFL void

February 8, 2019

It’s that time of year every pigskin fan dreads: that desolate, football-less stretch after the Super Bowl.

This year, it’s six days long.

Saturday is opening day for the Alliance of American Football, one of several new or revitalized professional football leagues, backed with TV deals and big-money investors, looking to pick up where the NFL leaves off.

The renewed interest in an offseason alternative to the NFL comes just as the established league seems to be emerging from years of controversies over everything from concussions and domestic violence to Colin Kaepernick’s racial justice movement. Some had speculated the sport’s popularity was waning.

But the NFL’s falling television ratings bounced back up in 2018, and now football entrepreneurs are introducing leagues that will vie for football fans’ dollars in the spring and summer.

With so many leagues starting or restarting in 2019 and 2020, you’d be forgiven for losing track of the alphabet soup of offerings the AAF, the AFL, the XFL and others.

Unlike failed spring leagues of the past the USFL of the 1980s or the 2001 iteration of the XFL these new leagues have a different attitude. They’re jockeying for eyeballs with the NBA, not trying to show up the NFL.

AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol said he doesn’t look at either the NFL or other new start-up leagues as direct competitors.

“People assume that because you’re launching a new football league, that you have to be competitive to the NFL,” Mr. Ebersol told The Washington Times. “We’ve gone out of our way to not only be complementary to the NFL, but really to partner with them on a variety of levels.”

What could significantly buoy the AAF are its media partnerships. CBS will televise the opening day games one week after it carried the Super Bowl; it also will carry the championship game in late April. Other regular-season games for the eight-team league will be carried on the NFL Network or streamed online at Bleacher Report’s B/R Live.

CBS “just had the Super Bowl last weekend,” Mr. Ebersol said. “They ran a promo for us 25 minutes before kickoff that 75 million people saw. I couldn’t buy that.”

The XFL won’t start play until more than a year after the AAF, but will arrive with some built-in name recognition among football fans.

Billionaire wrestling mogul Vince McMahon has seen the same opening in the football market and decided to bring his old XFL back to life. The eight-team XFL, which brought a WWE sensibility to football in 2001, plans to kick off in July 2020 with a focus on innovation and technology.

According to reports, the league-owned franchise in the District will be led by former Michigan quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, who resigned Monday.

Mr. McMahon has said he plans to spend about $500 million on the XFL relaunch. That’s not much when you consider the 2018 NFL salary cap was $177.2 million per team, but it’s still enough money to potentially attract talented players and secure a high-profile broadcast partner. Sports Business Journal reported that ABC and Fox Sports are in talks with Mr. McMahon.

Mr. Ebersol’s father, Dick Ebersol, was the longtime chairman of NBC Sports who helped Mr. McMahon launch the original league for one season almost two decades ago.

Looking back, the younger Ebersol said he thinks the startup’s combative stance toward the NFL ultimately ended up hurting the product on the field.

“When my dad and Vince tried this, they were so busy knocking the NFL the No Fun League and blah blah blah, all this other stuff players just assumed that the NFL didn’t want it to work,” Charlie Ebersol said. “So no quality players signed with them, and so you ended up with bad football. We went the other route.”

While the AAF and XFL aren’t going head to head with the NFL, they will find competitors in the offseason football space, including the Ted Leonsis-led Arena Football League.

The elder statesman of these alt-leagues, Arena nearly folded during a labor dispute before the 2018 season, but Mr. Leonsis’ Monumental Sports and Entertainment has kept the enterprise afloat.

Instead of folding, the league added a fifth team, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in January.

Mr. Leonsis, who owns a growing empire of sports franchises, including the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the NBA’s Washington Wizards, has said he sees a niche for Arena’s version of the game smaller fields and higher-scoring games played indoors that the NFL isn’t serving.

“Why would you want to be a poor man’s version of the giant of the sports landscape and not take advantage of it being indoors?” Leonsis told The Washington Times in July.

Other, smaller startups seem to be targeting football fans turned off by the NFL’s handling of controversies like player protests in 2016 and 2017.

Former NFL player Bob Golic, one of the founders of the American Patriot League, which also kicks off this year in small markets like Daytona Beach, Florida, and Shreveport, Louisiana, has promised fans: There will be no kneeling during the national anthem.

The eight teams in the AAF, the league kicking off this weekend, are concentrated in more mid-sized markets in the South and Southwest. Most will play in high-capacity stadiums, such as the Alamodome in San Antonio and Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium.

Many players suiting up for the AAF had brief NFL careers, and 71 players have an “out” in their contracts if they draw interest from an NFL team. As local football fans know, one of them was Josh Johnson.

Johnson was the first overall pick by the San Diego Fleet in the AAF’s first quarterback-only draft. Soon after that, he signed with the injury-hampered Washington Redskins. Another AAF quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, also joined the NFL’s Carolina Panthers at the end of the season and has since returned to his AAF team, the Orlando Apollos.

Johnson is not currently with the Fleet and won’t appear in the first AAF game between the Fleet and the San Antonio Commanders. Two people told The Washington Times that Johnson is still nursing an ankle injury he sustained in December while with Washington, so he remains on the Redskins’ roster for now.

Still, Mr. Ebersol was excited about the appeal players such as Johnson and Gilbert could bring to the AAF.

“In both cases, both players expressed interest to come back because they believe playing in our league gives them the best chance to show off their skill set to better improve their position, either in our league or in the NFL,” he said.

Mr. Ebersol said the league made only nine changes to the existing NFL rule book. The most noticeable: the elimination of kickoffs. But Mr. Ebersol was more bullish about the addition of a ninth referee they call a “SkyJudge.”

The SkyJudge will watch from the press box and has the power to correct any egregious mistakes the other refs make. The missed pass interference in this year’s NFC Championship Game comes to mind, though the concept was in place before that obvious example happened.

Other than that, the AAF’s first games might very well look like NFL games, from the presentation by CBS and NFL Network to the similar rules.

“One of the things I firmly believe about the previous leagues is they were so busy reinventing the game of football that they forgot that football doesn’t need very much reinvention,” Mr. Ebersol said.

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