Now, with the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever in the books and the NFL season officially over, it's time for the AAF to shine. The league will make its debut this weekend, with two games Saturday night and two more on Sunday. It will keep that cadence of four games each weekend through the middle of April, with playoffs to follow. We took a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of the league's structure a few months ago.
This isn't the first time a new football league has tried to gain serious traction in the US, nor will it be the last—at least two other leagues have already announced plans to launch in the next year or so. History, though, suggests it will be difficult for any non-NFL entity to establish a long-term footprint.
The USFL flamed bright, but ultimately crashed and burned. The original XFL can claim a few revolutionary ideas, but it never really had a chance. The Arena Football League achieved some measure of niche success before fading into Bolivian, as Mike Tyson might put it. Not since the AFL-NFL merger nearly 50 years ago has any true challenger appeared.
Can the AAF become the first? Even if its goal isn't to present a true alternative to the NFL, can it at least establish itself as a respectable entity in the world of sports? And perhaps the most important question to a list of investors that includes Founders Fund, Slow Ventures and M Ventures: Can it make money?
If I actually had the answers, I'd head to Las Vegas and make a bet or two on the AAF championship odds. But here are a few reasons for optimism—followed by a few reasons for pessimism—about the prospects for this new player on the pigskin scene:
Why the AAF can win1. It has the infrastructure
For a startup in an arena where it's notoriously difficult to succeed, there's a lot to like. The league is led by Charlie Ebersol, the son of iconic NBC Sports leader Dick Ebersol, as well as by longtime NFL executive Bill Polian. The Ebersols were involved with the first iteration of the XFL, so they have some experience in trying to get a new league off the ground. The AAF also has financial backing from several large, established names with experience in sports and startups, with The Chernin Group and Keith Rabois joining the aforementioned group of VCs.
The AAF also seems set for a good bit of exposure. Every game will be broadcast in some capacity, with CBS and TNT televising a single game each, and the rest split up between the NFL Network, the CBS Sports Network and B/R Live, an offshoot of Bleacher Report and Turner Sports. It's not like every game will be on ESPN, but fans who are looking for AAF contests will be able to find them.
And while ticket sales are still very much a question, the league's teams are playing in stadiums large enough to support some serious crowds—and it's hard to imagine the AAF thriving without building strong local followings. The average capacity of the league's eight venues is nearly 55,000.
2. It's trying new things
The AAF is introducing a whole slate of new rules designed to make the game more entertaining and perhaps a bit safer, including the elimination of kickoffs and efforts to limit contests to two-and-a-half hours. As the NFL seems to become more and more an exercise in using slow-mo replay to legislate arcane rules that nobody understands, an effort to make things more accessible and fun is certainly worth a shot.
Instead of plopping teams in the eight biggest markets in the country, the AAF seems to have located its franchises strategically in cities with established football fan bases, with a particular eye toward places where the NFL has no footprint—cities like San Diego, San Antonio, Memphis and Birmingham. To create an immediate connection with those fan bases, the league is doing its best to put players on teams near where they played in college. A former star at Florida State, for instance, would likely be on the AAF's team in Orlando.
The AAF has also announced plans for a new kind of in-game fantasy app and unveiled a partnership with MGM Resorts. Legal sports gambling is coming to the US, and perhaps the AAF can capitalize and find creative ways to turn wagers into steady revenue.
3. People love football
Let's not overthink it. This is the "Field of Dreams" idea: If you build it, they will come. Recent controversies aside, professional football is still one of the most beloved institutions in America. As long as you don't openly antagonize fans, there will likely be a certain baseline of interest for any activities taking place on a gridiron.
Why the AAF may be doomed to fail1. It's a regional league
The flip side of the AAF's focus on Southern markets where the NFL isn't already king is that the league has entirely abandoned the northeastern part of the country, which happens to include New York, Boston and some of the rest of the largest sports media markets in the country—not to mention Bristol, CT, the home of ESPN. Say what you will about media elites and East Coast bias, but garnering coverage from established sports media will be a necessity if the AAF wants to become an established name. That will be more difficult when it has no presence in the Big Apple. Out of sight, out of mind.
Perhaps that's an oversimplification. Perhaps the AAF can thrive without leading SportsCenter. But the league's geographic choices would also seem be a serious hindrance to its potential footprint. If you live in the Northeast, the Midwest, the Great Plains or anywhere on the West Coast north of San Diego, you don't have anything close to a hometown team. I'm no geography major, but I'm pretty sure that list covers well over 100 million people.
Residents of Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia might love football. But they have no local reason to tune in to the AAF.
2. It's a second-tier product
If the AAF does go bust in a year or three, this might ultimately be the reason. It's hard to sell people on spending their time and money on a league that doesn't feature the best of the best. College football can claim the finest teenage and early-20s players in the land. The best adults are in the NFL. The AAF seems destined to be an uncomfortable middle ground.
So much of what makes sports fun to watch is the chance to see amazing athletes do amazingly athletic things. Think Odell Beckham Jr.'s famous one-handed catch, or Patrick Mahomes' knack for the no-look pass. We watch NFL games and marvel at the incredible things these people can do.
But when happens in a league that, by design, doesn't feature those incredible people? This isn't to denigrate the players in the AAF, all of whom are world-class athletes (or close to it) in their own right. But will people tune in to watch a league full of A-minus athletes when they're used to A-plus? Will the highlights catch fire on social media when the feats aren't quite so extraordinary? We'll soon find out.
If a lack of star power is a problem, the AAF can always focus on selling its teams first instead of its players. But that's another unavoidably difficult aspect of getting a new sports league up and running: A huge part of sports fandom is the emotional ties people and their families have built up with teams and franchises over the years. When a team has existed for less than a year, it's hard to feel the emotional tug that makes it tough to miss a game.
One of the top storylines leading into last weekend's Super Bowl was the symmetry of the matchup: It was Patriots vs. Rams once again, 17 years after the two franchises met in the game that launched the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick dynasty. That sense of history and rivalry is huge. When the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers play, there are about 13 different levels of history and significance at play. When the Atlanta Legends and Orlando Apollos meet in the AAF's opener Saturday night, will anyone outside the two cities have a reason to care?
Then there's the nitty-gritty business stuff. The advertising, the logistics, the insurance, all of the other hundreds of things big and small that go into running a professional sports league. It's really hard to get a multimillion-dollar entity off the ground. There's a reason, after all, most startups fail.
As far as pro football startups go, the AAF has a lot going for it. But there might be more cause to be skeptical about the league's future than there are reasons to think a true challenger to the NFL is finally here.
Related read: What's up with that VC-backed pro football league?