The Alliance of American Football (AAF) debuted over the weekend to a solid reception. Football leagues other than the NFL have happened in the past, but no league has been able to stick in the spring. Can the AAF be successful as a developmental football league? The good and bad will be considered as the league is analyzed to see if it can fit the bill of a long-lasting football league.
Opening Weekend Viewership
Who would’ve thought that a football league starting the week after the Super Bowl would’ve worked out? The AAF debuted on February 8 and had their games televised on CBS. It was scheduled for primetime and outdrew the NBA, as the league had a projected 2.9 million viewers.
The number of viewers is a great start for a new league, but that isn’t the whole story. Games are not currently scheduled for CBS, or national television, for the rest of the season. The games are currently scheduled through week 5 of the season with the games airing on TNT, NFL Network, CBS Sports Network and Bleacher Report Live (streaming). Can the league continue to get good ratings on those channels/websites?
The scheduling not only allowed the league to pick up viewers who were coming off of the Super Bowl, but it also is the best for the players. With the league having regular season games scheduled through April 14 and playoffs afterward, it should allow for NFL evaluators to look at the players in the AAF for possible roster spots. The NFL Draft will be over by the time the AAF Championship concludes and NFL teams can watch the film and offer AAF players invitations to training camp after they have evaluated all their needs when it comes to their depth.
There is a downside to the scheduling of the league. While there is no football on, there are other major events that could draw away viewers from the AAF later on in the season. Right now it is only going up against a few major sports, including the NBA, NHL and regular season college basketball. The schedule will go right through college basketball conference tournaments and March Madness, which is also scheduled for the weekends. That could hurt viewers and they could lose some of the initial interest in the league. The latter half of the season will also go up against the NBA Playoffs and the start of baseball season.
The start to the season has been great, but the league needs viewers to sustain their success. Will the AAF be able to keep up the viewership, while competing with more sports, to attract more sponsors and advertisements?
Some football leagues have a hard time getting qualified coaches to sign up. The Arena Football League often didn’t have a lot of people on the staff that had experience at the NFL level. The AAF has former NFL head coaches who are working with these players, which gives more legitimacy to the league, but will also help the players know what it takes to get to the next level.
Mike Martz (San Diego Fleet) was a great offensive coordinator and got a chance to be a head coach for the St. Louis Rams. Mike Singletary (Memphis Express) had a stint as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, while Dennis Erickson (Salt Lake Stallions) coached the 49ers along with being a notable college coach. Steve Spurrier (Orlando Apollos) coached at the college and pro level and was even around for another spring football league in the USF. Rick Neuheisel (Arizona Hotshots) was a college head coach and an NFL assistant. Mike Reilly (San Antonio Commanders) was a longtime college head coach. Tim Lewis (Birmingham Iron) and Kevin Coyle (Atlanta Legends) both have spent time as NFL assistants.
These coaches may not be the best of the best, but for a developmental league that is working with the NFL, they did just fine with their coaching hires.
With it not being a league set on competing with the NFL, no players were offered millions of dollars. Instead, every player makes the same base salary of $70,000. That will increase to $80,000 in 2020 and $100,000 in 2021. The players will have chances to earn bonuses on and off the field to supplement that income.
It likely isn’t the salary that some of the players envisioned having when dreaming of playing pro football, but it is a solid salary while they work on their crafts.
Each player is on a three-year contract, which makes teams focus on younger players who can fulfill all three years. The good news for the young players is that there is an NFL out in their contract, meaning if they get the opportunity to sign with an NFL team, they won’t have to be bought out of their contract. This makes the contracts mutually beneficial for the league, who is focusing on being developmental, and the players.
For the most part, the AAF did a great job choosing cities who would be interested in their team. Placing teams in Memphis, San Diego, San Antonio, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Birmingham, all cities that don’t have pro football teams, was a good call. This helped the league average over 20,000 fans in attendance for the first four games of the season this weekend.
Two teams, the Arizona Hotshots and the Atlanta Legends, are in NFL markets. This could be problematic, as fans may just want to support the NFL team in their community and take a pass on the AAF team. They could generate more interest by placing these teams in markets that do not have a football team. In their first home game, Arizona had the lowest attendance of the opening weekend with 15,000 fans. That’s not a bad showing for the AAF, but also one that may not be able to sustain success.
Now, there are already rumors swirling about the AAF already wanting to add four more teams for next season, with two going to each division (East and West). If they choose the right markets, they can sustain some of the opening weekend success into next season too.
There are some rule changes that could affect the league and its ability to stay relevant. There are no kickoffs in the AAF, as they look to cut down on injuries. Return specialists will still have a chance to prove their worth on punts, but will not get a chance to see as much open field as they would on kickoffs.
There are no extra points after touchdowns. All teams are forced to go for a two-point conversion after every trip to the end zone. This will limit kickers to just kicking field goals with the rule that there are no kickoffs, but it should generate more excitement.
AAF teams are only allowed to blitz five players. In that rule, the players blitzing have to be within two yards outside the line of the defensive line and within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The quarterbacks and offensive lines will have to identify a blitzer, but if they execute well, will be able to pick up any blitz. Quarterbacks don’t have to process as much and offensive lines won’t be tested as much as in the NFL.
There is an added official in the AAF in the Sky Judge. This official will sit in the press box and be able to tell referees to call penalties, to watch for different things and to pick up penalties. The objective of this official is to make sure the game is officiated well and to keep the game safe. They also have the conversation with the replay official televised and audible for the fans to see, which is great transparency.
Some of the rules make the game more fun, while others make it safer, but do any of them limit the league’s ability to sustain itself?
Level of Play
One of the biggest criticisms of the AAF on the opening weekend was the level of play. Offensive lines seemingly failed to get a lot of push and gave up a lot of sacks. A lot of teams, but not all, struggled to score offensively, even with the rules that should make it easier for offenses to move the ball.
While this is a concern moving forward, the teams should get better as the season goes on. According to several of the league’s broadcasts over the weekend, teams had just 25-30 practices before the start of the season. With more practice time, they should be able to play better as a whole.
There was also a lot of rust that needed to be worked through for a lot of these players. For some players, it had been years since they played a competitive football game. Some were fortunate to play in the NFL, or in NFL preseason games recently, but even then they weren’t participating or getting as many reps as the NFL’s stars. This weekend provided them with a start to knock the rust off, but it may take a few games before their best football is played.
This is a major concern for the league and it needs to get better, but the jury is still out on the level of play in the league. It doesn’t need to be great, as these aren’t the best players in the world, it just needs to improve. Then the question will shift towards whether people are interested in watching a league where the common fan may only know one or two players on each roster. That is something that they don’t have an answer for yet.
Will the League Stay Alive?
While there are some things to improve on, the AAF has gotten a lot of things right. The numbers may dip from their opening weekend, but their willingness to work with/around the NFL and to be a developmental league gives them a niche. With there already being rumors about expansion, the league looks like it is here to stay.