Pro football — actual games — won’t disappear from TV screens, mobile devices and the American consciousness once the Super Bowl ends next February.
The Alliance of American Football will kick off the following Sunday. On network television (CBS) as well as through a multitude of free digital platforms.
Yes, spring football. We know, from the USFL to the World League to the XFL, the idea has not worked. Here’s why the Alliance has a strong chance of succeeding: the folks involved.
The Alliance is the creation of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian, one of the most respected and accomplished executives in NFL history, and Charlie Ebersol, a longtime TV and film producer. Ebersol’s father, Dick, defined NBC Sports’ programming for more than two decades and created “Sunday Night Football.” Dick Ebersol, who also pioneered NBC’s Olympic broadcasts, will serve on the board of directors.
Former players such as Justin Tuck, Hines Ward and Jared Allen will have significant roles in a league the younger Ebersol calls a “true partnership.”
“That’s the best way a league can perform and will be ultimately the key to success, having an interwoven product,” he says.
“Whenever you have an endeavor that involves the kind of teamwork football involves,” Polian adds, “it implies a partnership, the need to get their buy-in and do things, particularly in a startup, that represent their best interest … to make sure players know we have their best interests at heart. That is the guiding philosophy.”
Co-founder Polian, who built the Bills, Colts and Panthers into Super Bowl teams, will oversee the football side, helped by former player and front office executive J.K. McKay, who has been involved in other startups.
The league will have eight teams — cities and stadia to be announced, though look for complementary sites, not NFL venues, and warmer climates given the February-late April schedule. Rosters will be culled from NFL cuts to the 53-man maximum after preseason, which Polian calls “the core of our constituency”; collegians who have gone undrafted, including underclassmen who have lost any remaining eligibility; players looking to return to the sport; and free agents from the CFL or elsewhere.
As a single entity, the Alliance will own all contracts and players will be dispersed in a variety of manners. If someone played in the NFL or in college for a Florida team or school, he’d likely wind up on a Florida-based franchise, for example. There also will be a mechanism after those allocations for a team interested in a certain player to get his rights. And then coaches of specific teams will have access to a group of players outside the allocations.
A draft of players in late fall after the college season concludes — “Players who probably are coming off injury or some other situation where they want to perhaps play in our league in order to enhance their draft status,” Polian explains — also is planned.
With an eye on player safety, the Alliance also will eliminate kickoffs. There is a unique plan for onside kicks, with the team wanting to try one instead taking possession at its 35 yard-line on a fourth-and-10 to try one play to keep the ball.
“This eliminates two plays that if you were reinventing the game are plays you would probably leave out,” Polian says.
The three-point stance for linemen, judged by many a dangerous technique, also could be banned.
The preponderance of video reviews by officials won’t be an issue in the Alliance, Polian says. Each coach will be allowed two challenges and that’s it for replay.
And here’s one everybody but a placekicker will love: all extra points are 2-point conversion plays from the 2-yard line.
Ebersol has spent three years putting together the Alliance. He and Polian, backed by the numbers showing America’s passion for the sport, see a huge void the league can fill.
“Football is so dominant for six months of the year,” Ebersol says. “It even hides a number we focused on: millions of fans who stop watching the top five sports in America when football is off the air. Millions of football fans who don’t want to watch other sports.
“And there are 59 million who play fantasy sports, 29 million of them stopped when football ended.
“So what to do to really empower our fans? Fans are investors. They invest time and emotion and money … and what they get in return is the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. We wanted to empower the fans so they will be rewarded for being fans of their team, so fans have a real stake in the league.”
How will they do so?
Ebersol mysteriously says to “stay tuned.”