Charlie Ebersol, co-founder of the Alliance of American Football, kept a key lesson in mind as he built a new football league.
Nobody is ever going to beat the NFL, and it’s foolish to try.
The World Football League in the 1970s and the USFL in the 1980s tried signing top talent away from the NFL, from Larry Csonka to Herschel Walker. The XFL, with Charlie Ebersol’s father Dick partnering with Vince McMahon, tried to bill itself as the anti-NFL in 2001. It failed after one season.
It’s probably smarter to not believe you’ll topple the NFL, which is entering its 100th season and is the most popular sport in America by a mile. The AAF, coming off a positive debut weekend, expressed again that it understands its viability will be to work alongside the NFL, not against it.
AAF doesn’t want to compete with the NFL
There isn’t an official partnership between the NFL and AAF, but there isn’t any ill will between the two either. That’s a reason the AAF shares television partners, including having games on the NFL Network. It’s a reason the CBS broadcasts last week looked a lot like NFL broadcasts.
“One of the things I took away from my father was that — 17 years ago one of the biggest mistakes they made in launching the XFL was that it was about ‘The NFL was the No Fun League!’ and they’re going to compete with the NFL,” Ebersol told Business Insider.
“It tells players they should not play in your league, because their ultimate goal — to get back to the NFL and play in the Super Bowl — will be undermined by the fact that you’re directly competing with the partner that you want to be in business with.”
There’s no ambiguity there. The AAF’s goal is to work right alongside the NFL. That makes sense. The NFL could use a developmental league. Perhaps we’ll see a day in which the NFL loans some of its young players to the AAF for development, which would presumably draw in fans of those NFL teams (for example, imagine if someone like Kyle Lauletta of the New York Giants, a 2018 fourth-round pick and possible Eli Manning successor, was on display in the AAF now).
There’s room for a second professional league, but it will always need the NFL’s support. Good or bad, the NFL is too entrenched to be knocked off by a new league. Ebersol said there’s an out clause in AAF contracts that allow players to leave for the NFL. The path to longevity to the AAF is working with the NFL, not against it.
AAF knows there are challenges ahead
Ebersol made other great points to Business Insider. The AAF focused mostly on secondary markets for its eight teams, hoping to find a niche in those cities. They also wanted to be in warm-weather locations because of when their season would be played. He reiterated that the league focused on the on-field product, and that showed. The football wasn’t NFL level, but it was fine.
All of that has worked out, so far. Fans weren’t tuned in because they wondered what tricks the AAF would do, like the XFL many years ago. They didn’t expect a league on par with the NFL, because the AAF never has billed itself as a competitor to the NFL. That meant there weren’t grandiose expectations for the product on the field. The AAF understands it’s a minor league and won’t be trying to sign NFL stars to grow beyond that.
There’s also a long way to go. The television ratings on Saturday were great, even beating a strong NBA matchup between the Thunder and Rockets on Saturday night, but other leagues have debuted to great ratings. The AAF isn’t declaring victory after one week.
“We feel really good about them and that our theory that Americans want more football tends to be true,” Ebersol told Joe Reedy of the Associated Press. “However, we still have to remain slow and steady in building things. We are going to be facing stiff competition as soon as next month [with the NCAA Tournament].”
It has been positive to this point, however. They’ve learned from the mistakes of the previous pro football league startups, and perhaps the biggest lesson was to not make an enemy of the NFL. That will never be a good long-term strategy.
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