We've seen this before, and we have every reason to be skeptical. Since the AFL/NFL merger of 1970, several "alternatives" to the National Football League have come and gone: the WFL of the 1970s, the USFL of the 1980s, the CFL's US expansion experiment of the 1990s, the XFL of 2001 and, most recently, the WLAF/NFL Europe (which was, in fact, funded by the NFL). Why should the fate of the All American Football League be any different?They come. They go. The World Football League, the USFL, the XFL. Some entrepreneur has a vision — there's room in a football-obsessed nation for another professional league — that invariably drowns in red ink and dissolves.
Organizers of the new All American Football League acknowledge the trail of failures. But theirs, they say, is a different approach: pro ball with a college sensibility.
For one thing, the AAFL has a completely different business philosophy than any of these previous leagues: they seek to cultivate the collegiate, rather than the professional, football fanbase for their support. The league plans to place teams within existing college football hotbeds, utilizing players from nearby colleges (all of whom must have a college degree) and playing football using collegiate, rather than pro, rules:
The AAFL hopes to tap into college loyalties and rivalries. A Florida team will play some games at The Swamp in Gainesville, others at the Citrus Bowl, Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium or Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. In Alabama, the league has lined up Birmingham's Legion Field. Other teams tentatively are set to play at Tennessee, North Carolina State and Purdue, and Katz says contracts are "ready to sign" for venues in Mississippi and Little Rock.Texas and Michigan are other targets for the league. The AAFL plans to announce its inaugural roster of teams sometime later this summer.
It's an interesting idea: rather than being a "pro" league, the AAFL desires to be a "post-collegiate" league. Perhaps its just a difference in semantics that the average football fan, rather he favor the pros or the colleges, won't appreciate. And perhaps, regardless of its intent, spring football just isn't meant to exist no matter how it is packaged. As ESPN columnist Chuck Klosterman explains:
There are some historical lessons that almost always prove true: Don't wage a ground war on two fronts. Don't impulsively buy a speedboat or a racehorse. Don't ask a woman who loves Tori Amos to tell you about her dreams. And do not stage professional football in spring. It does not matter that football is more popular in America than pancakes or puppies. There is some psychological (and I suspect meteorological) barrier that makes people uncomfortable with springtime pigskin. We unconsciously associate the advent of football with the dawn of autumn and the coming onset of winter; for whatever the reason, football games in the month of May always feel gratuitous and inauthentic. As such, history tells us that the AAFL is doomed. It might not matter what the league does or how it operates.But even Klosterman is willing to give the AAFL the benefit of a doubt, due to its unique "post-collegiate" philosophy:
Can this philosophy separate the AAFL from every other non-NFL football league that has gone before it? Klosterman compares the AAFL to the failures that have come before it:
Yet this league intrigues me.
It intrigues me for many reasons, but principally for its unspoken, overriding philosophy: The AAFL is trying to be a professional version of college football. It's kind of like when Ford and Chevy decided to build cars that were almost like Hondas -- the AAFL is hoping to repackage previously existing elements into something that's simultaneously new and familiar, targeted solely at fans who aren't particularly interested in anything else.
The World Football League (1974-75) failed because it ran out of money (the league supposedly paid its MVPs in cash because nobody believed a WFL check would clear). The USFL (1983-85) failed because of franchise instability, one crushing court decision and -- somewhat paradoxically -- too much money distributed unequally (by late '84, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump basically controlled everything). The XFL failed because football was not its priority (the entire endeavor seemed depressing and sarcastic). However, the unifying element in all those failures was a desire to compete against the NFL, an aspiration that's fundamentally impossible... But the AAFL has no intention of competing with anyone, and that might be its saving grace. Instead, it's trying to appeal to the kind of (typically Southern) dude who dreams of a universe where college football never ends.That kind of appeal appears to be exactly where the AAFL plans to hang its hat: it wants to become an "extension" of college football, and it does not want to compete with the NFL. And that, quite honestly, actually makes sense in theory. But will it work in reality? History is not on the AAFL's side in any case, but the only way to know for sure, of course, is to play the games and see what happens.
Aside from history, the AAFL has other substantial obstacles in its path. For example, is there really enough funding behind it? These kinds of endeavors invariably require a lot of financial backing and a lot of patience from those funding it. Its lack of a television contract is another huge obstacle. Perhaps that issue will be resolved between now and the time the league begins operations next spring; if not, its survival without television exposure, and the income stream it produces, will only be that much more dubious.
In spite of the odds against it, I, as a football junkie, hope that the AAFL succeeds. There are a lot of people in this nation that enjoy football regardless of the season, and there is a lot of good football talent out there that, for whatever reason, doesn't make it onto an NFL roster. The AAFL has a business plan that makes it unlike any other non-NFL professional league that has come before it, and maybe, just maybe, that's enough to make it work.
We'll find out next spring.