It may be what people want, but is it really a good idea?
The Santa Clara
February 14, 2019
Have you ever thought to yourself, wow, I wish there was an NBA G League equivalent for football? Ever started watching a football game on TV and decided that you would rather finish your homework and go to bed early instead? Can you name the six teams that are part of the Arena Football League for 2019?
If you answered yes to any of these, then you might love the Alliance of American Football (AAF)—a brand-new professional football league that kicked off this past weekend.
I’m not going to lie, before my friends brought it up, I was completely oblivious to the fact that a new football league had even been introduced. And after turning on a game and looking at the stands, it seems like most other football fans were unaware as well.
The opening game—televised on Saturday night primetime on CBS—drew in 2.9 million viewers. I was actually impressed by this, until I realized that “Sunday Night Football” averaged 19.7 million viewers per game at the midpoint of the 2018 season and “The Big Bang Theory,” which is on its 12th season, still pulls in 18.3 million viewers.
Many journalists and social media users spoke highly of the AAF’s performance in its first weekend, but I couldn’t seem to get on board.
First, let’s break down what the AAF actually is and why you should—or should not—consider caring.
As mentioned earlier, the AAF is a professional spring football league co-founded by Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian and TV and film producer Charlie Ebersol (whose father was a large contributor to NBC Sports and created “Sunday Night Football”).
The league is comprised of eight teams, with home cities based in Phoenix, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and San Diego.
There are also notable rule changes from NFL football, including significantly limited special teams, a restriction on the number of players allowed to blitz and different overtime rules.
More specifically, there are no kickoffs, no onside kicks and no PATs. To start a drive, the ball is placed on the 25 yard-line, a team can elect to attempt an “onsides down”—a fourth and 12 from their own 28 yard-line—if they are losing by 17 points or less or if the game has less than five minutes left, and teams must go for a two-point conversion after every touchdown.
On defense, only five players are allowed to blitz and they must begin the play around the line of scrimmage. Safety and cornerback blitzes are not allowed. Finally, overtime allows both teams a chance to score, giving each the ball at the 10 yard-line. If the game is tied after one round, it ends in a tie.
After Saturday’s games, most football fans seem to be excited about the Alliance’s potential. Even I have to admit, for a league attempting to do what so many others have failed to do over the years, the AAF got off to a pretty good start.
Not only is the league backed by some pretty strong investors, including MGM and a number from the Silicon Valley, it is also packed with former NFL executives, general managers, coaches and players.
In the locker room, Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary is Memphis’ head coach, former Falcons’ quarterback Michael Vick is the offensive coordinator in Atlanta and coaching legend Steve Spurrier is leading Orlando.
In the league office, Hall of Famer Willie Lanier is an executive and former Pittsburgh Steelers stars Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu are the head of football operations and head of player relations, respectively.
Lastly, Mike Pereira, who you may know as the guy football announcers call in New York every time a play is under review, is—you guessed it—an officiating consultant.
However, what is different about the AAF’s approach is that instead of attempting to compete with the NFL, the AAF is attempting to complement it.
Co-Founder Bill Polian explained that part of their business plan includes the NFL acknowledging them as a “breeding ground for talent where they can develop their players,”—almost like the minor leagues for the MLB, but with more brain injuries. The season is purposely scheduled for after the NFL season finishes in order to avoid competition for viewership.
“We’re not competitive, we’re complementary,”Co-Founder Charlie Ebersol said. “We look at the NFL as, we’re going to support your existence, let them play in your league, put content on your network. They’re a partner. The goal is to improve and support the ecosystem of football.”
And while this business strategy and the AAF’s execution might be on point and successful so far, Ebersol’s quote is what I primarily take issue with.
Yes, the quality of play is much lower. Yes, the stadiums resemble the infamous Donald Trump inauguration photos with empty seats all around. And yes, some of the uniforms could most definitely use an upgrade already (just check out the socks the Arizona Hotshots and San Diego Fleet are forced to wear). Oh, and are the San Antonio Commanders wearing pink?
But, with all the recent scientific discoveries in regard to the link between football and brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, I find it hard for myself to support an expansion of “the ecosystem of football.” Although I played football myself and continue to watch the NFL with enjoyment, I also reflect on the detrimental effects the game has been proven to take on players’ minds and bodies.
America loves football, there is no doubt about that. It is a contact sport with an element of danger to it played by some of the world’s strongest, biggest, fastest and most athletic people. But what does the decision to expand the game of football say about our priorities?
Financially the AAF may succeed, yet that is only a reflection of the country that tunes in every week to watch it.
By no means do I have the answer to this problem, but if Americans are willing to celebrate the expansion of football, we might just be forced to recognize our priorities for entertainment over players’ future well-being and be obligated to ask ourselves honestly, is that something we can stand by?
Contact Kyle Lydon at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.