Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 4, 2019

Some Fans Are Rewarded, Some Fans Are Conned

On Wednesday night, in London’s northern reaches, a football club inaugurated a new stadium. For nearly two years Tottenham Hotspur, known to its legion of faithful simply as the Spurs, had played home games at Wembley Stadium. But that magnificent edifice sits ten miles west and a lengthy Tube ride away from the Spurs natural home. As the intensely localized rooting interests of English Premier League soccer are gauged, especially in greater London, which hosts seven of the league’s twenty teams, ten miles might as well be half a world away.

So it was an eager full house of more than 62,000 fans who swarmed into the shiny new stadium, which sits on the same plot of land where the Spurs have played their home games for more than a century. The gleaming structure, built at a cost of $1 billion, looks like a giant flying saucer about to launch into space. As is often the case with such projects, whether those who live in the blocks of row houses that sit in its shadow will reap any economic benefits from the grand project is still very much an open question. But the ultimate impact on the neighborhood, one of the poorest boroughs in all of London, was hardly top of mind to fans on Wednesday. They were focused on cheering Harry Kane, Tottenham’s captain and leader of the English national team, and roaring their approval for the two Spurs goals that produced a shutout victory over Crystal Palace.

But even as those fans were celebrating both a win and a new beginning for their team, on this side of the Atlantic thousands of fans of American football were living an utterly different story. In eight cities stretching across the southern half of the United States from Orlando to San Diego, men and women and boys and girls who had attached themselves and a part of their psyche to the franchises of the new Association of American Football were discovering they had been played for fools; that in exchange for their fandom they were made victims of a giant con job.

The history of American football is littered with the carcasses of upstart professional leagues that sought to challenge the NFL. For a few years after World War II the All-American Football Conference attracted some top players to its eight teams. But in the end the AAFC couldn’t sustain itself financially, and after four seasons of play the league folded, though three franchises – the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts, and San Francisco 49ers – were invited to join the NFL. Years before Joe Namath and the New York Jets legitimized the AFL by winning Super Bowl III, the Browns stunned the NFL establishment by dominating the league in the team’s inaugural 1950 season.

A decade later the American Football League began play. The brainchild of Lamar Hunt, who had been rebuffed by NFL owners when he attempted to buy a franchise, five of the AFL’s eight teams were in the south and west, where the NFL had few franchises. Two more were in New England and upstate New York, additional areas that had no NFL connections. Hunt recruited owners with very deep pockets, who were both able to weather initial lean years and attract significant talent with rich contracts. One of those players was Namath, who signed for the then record sum of $427,000 out of the University of Alabama. Then NBC enriched the young league with a television contract. After a few seasons engaging in a costly bidding war for college talent, leaders in both leagues saw the wisdom of merging.

Since that 1966 agreement formed what has since become the modern NFL, further rivals have regularly been cast aside by the behemoth of American sports leagues. World, United States, X, United, and Fall Experimental, no matter the name of each succeeding Football League, attempts to compete with the NFL rarely lasted more than a couple of seasons. But co-founders Charlie Ebersol, son of former NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, and Bill Polian, who served as general manager of three different NFL franchises, vowed that the AAF would be different.

The new league’s ten-week season was scheduled to begin shortly after the Super Bowl and end before the NFL Draft, filling a hole in the calendar for football fans. Ebersol and Polian negotiated broadcast deals with CBS, TNT, and even the NFL Network, ensuring visibility. And the AAF invested heavily in technology and making data available to fans, hoping to cash in on the growing number of states allowing sport betting as well as the huge market for fantasy sports.

While the TV broadcasts attracted viewers and attendance was decent, especially in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego, what the co-founders’ business plan apparently did not include was any cash. After just two weeks of play rumors circulated that the AAF couldn’t meet payroll, and those whispers were effectively confirmed when Tom Dundon, owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, was given a majority stake in the league after promising to invest $250 million. But just six weeks later Dundon apparently decided that he had seen enough. On Wednesday the AAF suspended operations and terminated all league employees via email. That message included the usual hyperbole about restructuring operations and seeking new investment capital, but the simple truth is that the AAF is done.

In the end the only thing different about the AAF was the speed with which it failed. Only Ebersol and Polian know what was in the fledgling league’s checking account when the first game, between Atlanta and Orlando, began on February 9th. But to have brought their product to market while promising so much to both fans and the young men wearing AAF team uniforms while being as illiquid as the AAF quickly proved to be borders on fraud. Fans in northern London had reason to rejoice this week, as promises made to them were delivered. But in Orlando, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, San Antonio, Tempe, Salt Lake City and San Diego, the only possible conclusion was that fans had been taken for a ride.

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Responses

  1. It’s good to have a dream, but cash in hand is best. A good look at a sad situation. Well done, Mike.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. It’s a mess, though I doubt the boys at CBS will spend much time talking about it during tonight’s game.

      Mike


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