The New A.A.F. Is Betting on Football, and on Betting
By Joe Drape
Feb. 8, 2019
There are a multitude of ways to lose money in sports, and historically one of the most dependable ways is to start a professional football league. Charlie Ebersol knows this better than most. He had a front-row seat when his father, Dick, the longtime NBC executive, was a partner with the XFL for its only season in 2001.
Still, Charlie Ebersol, a co-founder of yet another new league, the Alliance of American Football, is bullish on his chances to beat the market. And he argues that timing and technology are on his side this time.
The A.A.F.’s 10-week season opens Saturday and ends before the N.F.L. draft. This is by design, Ebersol said.
“It would be an act of insanity to try to compete with the N.F.L.,” he conceded. Instead, Ebersol intends to fill a post-Super Bowl vacuum and feed a viewing audience that he and his partners believe has an insatiable appetite for football.
“Two hundred million watch college and pro football compared to the 130 million combined that watch the other major sports,” Ebersol said. “We don’t need to get all of those football fans to tune back in, but I like our chances of getting a significant chunk of them.”
To do so, the A.A.F. is working to make its games easy to find. In addition to a deal to place some of its games on the NFL Network, the A.A.F. has agreements with CBS Sports’s networks, TNT and Turner’s B/R Live streaming service.
But the A.A.F. business plan goes beyond football and television; it is hoping to land in a right-place-right-time moment in which sports betting is now legal and expanding in the United States. Eight states already offer gambling on sports contests, and by next year, sports betting could be legal in at least a dozen more.
Anticipating and embracing interest from serious and casual gamblers, the A.A.F. has invested heavily in the technology and platforms that can provide data in a blink of an eye, all in the hope of transforming a minor league football broadcast into an interactive experience. Among the A.A.F.’s early investors were venture capital firms like Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, media companies like the Chernin Group and the gambling and entertainment powerhouse MGM Resorts International.
MGM executives said they were most taken by the A.A.F.’s app, which can provide a host of data in milliseconds. The information arrives so fast, in fact, that the league and its partners said it could eventually allow in-game betting on play outcomes — like pass or run — and a host of other propositions.
“It’s a technology play,” Scott Butera, MGM’s president for interactive gaming, said of the A.A.F. “These specialty leagues will be relevant to sports betting. We think what they are doing is portable to other sports in terms of streaming, watching and making it an entertaining customer experience.”
Ultimately, however, the A.A.F. will be judged by the quality of its football. To that end, a founder of the league, Bill Polian, a former general manager of the Buffalo Bills and a Pro Football Hall of Famer, has put together a league office of seasoned football people, including the former N.F.L. players Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu. The league owns all eight of the teams and has installed big-name veteran coaches — Steve Spurrier, Mike Singletary, Dennis Erickson, Mike Martz — in cities like Orlando, Memphis, Salt Lake City and San Diego.
The league will lean on some gimmicks: There will be no kickoffs (teams will start on their 25-yard line instead) and no point-after kicks (only 2-point conversions allowed). And a so-called sky judge will keep watch over the action, empowered to correct officiating errors immediately.
But some other innovations — no TV timeouts; completing games in two and a half hours; tickets priced no higher than $50; three-year, $250,000 contracts to hundreds of players — have raised questions about the league’s long-term economic viability.
“There’s always been a belief that there’s room for spring football because of the game’s popularity,” said John Kosner, a longtime ESPN executive who now runs his own company, Kosner Media. The problem, he noted, is “no one has pulled this off before, so it’s not trivial what they are trying to do.”
Kosner said the A.A.F.’s timing — just as sports betting tries to move into the mainstream of American culture — is fortuitous, since the amount of energy and venture capital investment available in sports right now is “unparalleled in my career.” He also suggested that Ebersol’s experience as a television and film producer would come in handy.
“Charlie is smart, organized and patient, and best of all, he is a good storyteller,” Kosner said. “He can make the fans care about the game.”
Seventy percent of the players signed so far have played in the N.F.L. in the past 18 months, a group that includes quarterback Aaron Murray (Atlanta Legends) and running back Trent Richardson (Birmingham Iron). All have been signed to a three-year base deal that includes not only the $250,000 salary but also what the league calls engagement bonuses. Those are based in part on their contributions to the community.
And because the season is so short, all will be free to go to camp and sign with N.F.L. teams.
“We are not trying to be sexy,” Ebersol said. “We just need to block and tackle on the field as well as off it.”
For now, he is preaching patience.
“This is going to take five to seven years, and there’s going to be empty seats at first,” Ebersol said. “I caution everyone that this is not going to be an overnight success. But we will succeed.”