The Alliance of American Football bets on success where others have failed

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Illustration by Francesco Zorzi

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.

At the Alliance of American Football press conference in March.
At the Alliance of American Football press conference in March. Credit: Photograph courtesy of AAF

(His father, former NBC Sports Group Chairman Dick Ebersol, sits alongside him on the board of the AAF. The architect of NBC's Olympics coverage and creator of "Sunday Night Football," the elder Ebersol was instrumental at NBC in launching the doomed XFL back in 2001 with the World Wrestling Federation.)

For all the cloak-and-dagger stuff surrounding the proprietary tech, the platform already has impressed the right sort of people in the gaming world. Later this week, the AAF will announce an exclusive three-year partnership with MGM Resorts International that establishes the Las Vegas-based casino colossus as the official sports-betting partner of the league. Per terms of the deal, MGM also will invest in the AAF tech platform, which Ebersol says will not only allow for a rewards-based system of integrated gaming but will offer in-game wagering to fans in states where sports gambling is on the up and up.

The agreement with MGM comes in the wake of a May U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively gives state legislatures the wherewithal to legalize sports wagering at their own discretion. Since then, legal sports books have opened their doors in such East Coast redoubts as New Jersey, Delaware and West Virginia, and larger states like New York and Pennsylvania could usher in legitimate sports action by next year. Legal scholars and betting enthusiasts alike agree that as many as 20 states may usher in legal gambling by the end of 2019.

Point spreads and the money line are among the first things that come to mind when many sports fans think of MGM. But in 2017, a year before the NBA inked a similar deal with MGM, Commissioner Adam Silver said that "in-play" wagering accounted for some 85 percent of the bets placed on pro hoops in the U.K. Ebersol is emphatic about the role the AAF's real-time gaming, or wholly integrated fantasy offerings, will bring to bear on fan engagement. Not only will the AAF app stream games direct to the fans, but the data the league's tech team will be able to collect from its over-the-top user base should serve to provide the league with valuable intel about how viewers are interacting with the content, which in turn will go a long way toward helping shape the league's product strategy.

"We are not a gambling organization," Ebersol says. "I believe the value proposition for us is that because of the type of data we can create and the manner in which we can capture it, we can provide the information faster to MGM and our end users than anyone's ever been able to deliver it before."

Still, there's something to be said for how the dynamism of the in-play gambling cited by Silver calls for the same sort of riveted-to-the-screen fan engagement Ebersol hopes to foster by way of his dynamic, integrated fantasy offerings. While Americans tend to lay their bets on the spread and then passively (if not anxiously) sit and take in three hours of action, European bettors are wagering on a constant stream of variables: free throws, quarter scores, three-point shots and every other data point you can think of. If their American cousins can get just as hopped up about dynamic gaming, the AAF has a shot at reinventing the entire value proposition of live sports packaged for a younger audience.

Among the rewards systems the AAF tech team is testing before the opening kickoff is an incentive that would allow users to rack up points by interacting with the commercials. (Points would be redeemable in the form of cash or prizes.) "Now our sponsors are fully integrated with our users at the point at which they're the most engaged," Ebersol says. "You're the most engaged when you're watching the game, which is the point when you're actually the least engaged with fantasy as it's been played for the last 15 years."

But can they play

If Ebersol is banking on tech to carry the AAF into its second season and beyond, the fact that the league will live or die based on the quality of football it provides is certainly not lost on him. This was a lesson Dick Ebersol learned the hard way when the much-ballyhooed XFL lost more than half its audience between the first and second weeks of its lone season on NBC.

The elder Ebersol was quick to recognize that the cartoonish, woefully undercooked XFL left much to be desired. In a segment that was included in his son Charlie's 2017 ESPN documentary, "This Was the XFL," Dick Ebersol acknowledged that a cast of NFL washouts given just a month to prepare for a full season of football didn't make for a terribly compelling fan experience. "I thought we were going to deliver good football," he said. "I don't believe in my entire career in sports or show business, I was ever more wrong."

(L) Michael Vick and Charlie Ebersol; players at the combine in Atlanta.
(L) Michael Vick and Charlie Ebersol; players at the combine in Atlanta. Credit: Photographs courtesy of AAF

Here's why Ebersol fils believes the AAF is positioned to field eight teams that will be worth watching after the NFL closes up shop for another season on Feb. 3: The league is actively recruiting from the 1,184 players who just last week were cut from the active NFL rosters. For the most part, that gives the AAF a chance to try out a group of athletes who managed to make it all the way through the final week of the preseason before bum luck, a dropped pass or a blown tackle derailed their dreams of suiting up in the Show. (As of last week, the AAF had 321 players under contract.) Fortune has played a not-inconsiderable role in the formation of any number of NFL legends; if Drew Bledsoe didn't get injured by Mo Lewis in 2001, the No. 199 pick of the year-earlier draft, Tom Brady, might never have gotten a chance to introduce himself to the world outside of Michigan.

The AAF also has a regional allocation strategy—a sign of a higher football IQ at work, one that has co-founder Polian's fingerprints all over it. Whenever possible, the league tries to assign former college stars to the team closest to their point of origin; in other words, Auburn and Alabama alums are more likely to be signed to the AAF's Birmingham franchise, where local fans can continue to cheer for a native son. Wherever applicable, players who didn't suit up for a college team in the Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego or Tempe area will be sent to whichever team is closest to the NFL franchise with which they were most recently affiliated.

The terms and conditions of the AAF contract should also help recruit a better class of player. Per the NFL-out clause in the AAF's standard $250,000, three-year deal, any player who gets drafted by an NFL franchise is free to go at the end of the season. "All previous spring football leagues were specifically designed to prevent players from going to the NFL," Ebersol says, adding that the NFL-out clause allows the "highest-quality players to come play in our league in a way in which they don't feel like they're giving up on their dreams." The AAF also offers a one-year scholarship for every year played in the league and bonuses that reward players for "developing an organic and meaningful interaction with their fans."

For football fans who may not be interested in gaming, gambling or any sort of interactive experience other than the tried-and-true hollering at the TV, another key selling point of the AAF may be the relative scarcity of ad breaks. In order to speed up the games, which Ebersol says will run for about two and a half hours, CBS and CBSSN will throw to commercial only during natural breaks in the action. As a result, the average AAF telecast will feature around 30 in-game ad units, or 60 percent fewer commercials than a standard NFL contest (73).

The AAF is currently lining up sponsors for long-form integrations, but buyers say the more quotidian business of locking in the bulk of the in-game units will only begin in earnest once there's more clarity as to what's actually up for sale. "We haven't seen so much as a logo on a helmet, let alone a schedule," says one national sports TV buyer. "I don't think anyone expects us to push our clients into the mix before we know who's going to play."

Ebersol likely understands this.

"Building a league like this, as we know from history, is about seeing past the first season," Ebersol says. "Sometimes, it's about just playing past the first season."

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