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Game over? AAF suspends operations as full shutdown looms

The AAF has reportedly suspended operations and will not finish its inaugural season, with the hiatus coming about a week after majority owner Tom Dundon first said the league was in danger.

The Alliance of American Football has reportedly suspended operations and will not finish its inaugural season, with the hiatus coming about a week after majority owner Tom Dundon first revealed the pro football league was in danger of shutting down without increased cooperation from the NFL. The AAF required a further $20 million to finance operations for the rest of its season, according to Pro Football Talk; the league is eight weeks into a scheduled 10-game slate.

The AAF isn’t formally folding yet, again per PFT, but things seem “to be moving in that direction.”

It’s been just six weeks since Dundon—a former subprime lending executive who went on to found Dundon Capital Partners—committed to invest $250 million in the AAF, adding the league to a pro sports portfolio that also includes the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL. The AAF first entered the spotlight in early 2018, announcing plans to create a developmental football league that it hoped would serve as something of a minor league to the NFL. Its initial backers reportedly included Founders Fund, Slow Ventures and The Chernin Group, and Keith Rabois is a member of its board.

As of last week, Dundon had put $70 million of that $250 million commitment into the AAF, per The Action Network. Another investor, businessman Reggie Fowler, had reportedly committed a prior $170 million to the venture but had only actually invested $28 million at the time Dundon entered the picture.

Although the league never had any sort of public ties with the NFL, it seems Dundon was counting on such a relationship developing. The timeline for creating a minor-league-style system with the NFL was a point of contention between Dundon and AAF co-founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian, again per The Action Network. In late March, Dundon told USA Today the league might have to soon cease operations, citing the difficulty of serving as a developing league if “the [NFL] players union is not going to give us young players.”

Polian seemed to confirm that Tuesday’s decision was Dundon’s alone.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” Polian reportedly said in a statement given to media outlets. “When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all.

“The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”

In February, reports emerged that the AAF had pursued former NFL quarterbacks and noted football lightning rods Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick as potential cornerstone players for its first season, but both players demurred. More recently, the AAF became the latest landing spot for another controversial quarterback, former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who signed a contract with the AAF’s Memphis Express in mid-March.

Shortly after news emerged on Tuesday that the league had suspended operations, Manziel took to Twitter with some words of realism for his colleagues:

Darren Rovell of The Action Network has plenty more on the specifics of the suspension of operations, including some particularly juicy tidbits. One of those is that Dundon reportedly funded the AAF payroll but did not pay the league’s vendors, and that it’s currently up for debate whether Dundon or the league’s original owners is on the hook for the money those vendors are owed.

The saga will surely continue to play out. But for now, it’s looking like the final whistle for VC-backed football will sound sooner than expected.

Featured image via spxChrome/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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    Written by Kevin Dowd

    Kevin Dowd wrote The Weekend Pitch newsletter for PitchBook, covering startups, buyouts and the rest of the private market.

    A native of the Pacific Northwest, he’s an alumnus of the University of Washington with a degree in creative writing and journalism. He enjoys books and basketball and, most especially, books about basketball. He feels uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person.

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