Perhaps it was because the mercury hovered in the 30s or because football people, by and large, have little use for the sodden quietude that heralds a half-year's wait for their sport, but few at the Park Hyatt in New York this past March made much of the fact that Charlie Ebersol convened a press conference to coincide with the vernal equinox. First day of spring? Who cared.
Ebersol, the 35-year-old impresario and a scion of the sports-media world, was about to launch into a lengthy introduction to the Alliance of American Football. Designed to complement rather than antagonize the NFL, this new-look league hopes to keep football fanatics sated during the interminable off-season that descends as soon as the confetti stops flying at the Super Bowl. And unlike so many previous tilts at the startup windmill, Ebersol's vision addresses a palpable consumer desire (more football, please) while optimizing the one element that guarantees the sport will still have a following in the generations to come: gaming.
That Ebersol would attempt to launch a spring pro football league where so many others have failed (see sidebar, below) testifies both to his boundless self-confidence and a business plan that reaches beyond previous made-for-TV sports rollouts. Think of the AAF—the 12-week season of which kicks off Feb. 9—less as a gridiron arriviste and more like a tech startup, and you're halfway to seeing why Ebersol and his Silicon Valley backers believe they'll find success where a wrestling magnate, the president of the United States and Ebersol's own father were met with a series of sternum-rattling stiff-arms.
As much as the on-field product and the end-user, er, fan experience will dictate how America takes to the AAF, the longevity of the new venture may ultimately depend on the league's proprietary tech platform. While Ebersol, co-founder Bill Polian and their partners—these include Peter Thiel's Founders Fund and the Chernin Group, majority owners of Barstool Sports—haven't revealed the brand under which they plan to market their in-house gaming apparatus, the hardware and software components that have been in development for the better part of the last two years are internally referred to as "Alliance Digital."
Ebersol is cagey about that too. The AAF's hope is that its tech platform will revolutionize both football and how digital natives engage with the league's televised games, but few details are available. (Aside from the inaugural Feb. 9 broadcast and the championship showdown in late April, both of which will air on CBS, AAF games will be carried on the cable outlet CBS Sports Network.) Ebersol says that's a function of his vested interest in controlling the shape and substance of the narrative.
"My dad told me that when you have a really good story to tell, you need to drip it out as slow as possible so that the press will write about each thing individually," Ebersol says with a laugh.