Assessing the Prospects of Minor League Football
Does the AAF or XFL know what they’re in for?
The Minor League Landscape
Over the last two years, I entrenched myself in America’s second division soccer league, the USL (United Soccer League). In college, I went to Tampa Bay Rowdies games, who played on St. Peterburg’s waterfront, just a five-minute walk from my dorm room. Since leaving, I’ve been a die-hard fan. This was my first time getting invested in a professional minor league franchise.
Minor league sports exist in a different dimension for most sports fans. The connection from fan to team is more intimate. The fan bases are smaller and more compact geographically, the organization’s budget is smaller, and the players and coaches are more accessible even if they change from year to year.
Minor league soccer’s rise to prominence has coincided with the rise of soccer’s popularity in America. What only a few years ago was a disjointed second league system with several leagues of varying teams has mostly come together with the USL expansion. Now there are many markets where USL teams are attracting rabid fanbases. USL matches accrue nearly 5,000 in attendance leaguewide.
The NBA has been looking into their own minor league system, rebranded from the D-league to the G-League, to support a Gatorade sponsorship. The G-League may potentially house straight from high school players looking to skip the year or two they would spend playing in college. The G-League is also expanding, with 27 teams this season, and a 28th affiliate next season. The goal is to provide every NBA team with a G-League affiliate.
Baseball’s minor league system is the biggest and most impactful in American sports. There are several tiers of the MLB’s minor league, not including other regional leagues all where teams may farm and groom players who have plans for getting a stint in The Show. The best average attendance in minor league baseball goes to the Charlotte Knights just below 9,000 per game.
With all these examples of minor leagues in other sports, where has it been for football? The NFL mostly recruits their players from college through the draft. After the draft, there are not very many options for players to get meaningful reps outside of getting on a practice squad and praying for a call-up.
Neither the Canadian Football League or Arena Football have done much in the way of producing a new talent crop for the NFL to choose from. The argument that college football is the only system the NFL needs is justifiable. There are well over a hundred colleges funneling 85 players through their roster per year. Is the college to NFL pipeline foolproof? Obviously not, but the quality is still high enough where talented college players can see immediate or long-term success in the NFL.
If minor league football were to become a reality, it would need to embrace the humble beginnings of existing in the minor league sports realm. That realm is not flashy, glittery, or lathered in bags of money falling out of the sky. It would also help to have the blessing of the NFL and, in some capacity, be recognized as a minor league system.
The Oddity of Ebersol vs. McMahon
If having a new football league in 2019 and another in 2020 wasn’t strange enough, even stranger is the connection between the founders of each league. Charlie Ebersol, son of legendary television producer and executive, Dick Ebersol, is the creator of the Alliance of American Football. Charlie’s father sits on the board for AAF along with former NFL executive Bill Polian.
The AAF is slated for kickoff a week after the Super Bowl fielding eight teams that have already been named, designed, located, and drafted. The AAF is partnered with CBS to stream games on their app. The season will have a 10-week regular season and two playoff weeks with the championship game scheduled for late April.
The XFL expects to begin in 2020 either in late January or early February but there has been no clear confirmation. The only thing the XFL can confirm is that there are eight locations they intend to play at. So far there are no details as to broadcast partners or sponsors, and the teams have yet to be designed.
Vince McMahon made the XFL announcement himself back in January in a 25-minute press conference. His league structure will mirror the AAF’s. A 10-week regular season with two playoff weeks and the championship game in the 12th week.
The similarities don’t end there for the AAF and XFL. The leagues have been structured and branded so similarly, one would imagine they’re in direct competition with one another. Once you add McMahon and Dick Ebersol’s history as close friends into the equation, highlighted in Charlie Ebersol directed 30 for 30 documentary, “This was the XFL”, curious minds wonder what conversations are happening behind the scenes.
Deadspin’s David Bixenspan asked the same question I just broached and further researched it. His inquiries were met with the unsurprising, “no comment”, responses. His article written back in March, highlighted how prepared the AAF was in comparison to the XFL, and not much has changed since.
The AAF appears to be all systems go, and Ebersol appears to have a grasp of what his league is in an interview with Sports Illustrated. If Mark Cuban ever needed a Shark Tank doppelganger replacement, Charlie Ebersol would be the first in line at the audition.
When Ebersol was asked if it was intentional to launch the AAF before the XFL, Ebersol responded by saying that the AAF had already been in development in secret for over a year. Ebersol wanted the league to be ready when it was announced, and by all accounts, that is what he has done. For irony’s sake, McMahon announced his XFL reboot, with the condition that they’d need two years to prepare it.
The leagues distinguishing factors they’ve heavily promoted have been practically identical. Shorter games, simpler rules, safer equipment, and fantasy football integration.
What Ebersol and McMahon have been championing first and foremost is the crucial factor of quality of play. How plausible and sustainable is it for either the AAF or XFL to provide quality football games to the American public?
Quality of Play
This is where we enter into speculative arguments. Both Ebersol and McMahon assume that the American public wants more football. With such astronomical numbers in viewership, no matter what the headlines suggest, the NFL is by far the most popular sport in America and it's not close. With such a long offseason, it would only make sense for that time to be filled up with more football, right?
This is where Ebersol and McMahon miss the point. The American public will watch football if their teams and the best guys are playing. More hardcore fans will watch multiple games to get their fix. And others will watch because they gamble on football whether it be betting games or in fantasy leagues. The NFL is also a social symbol for family and friends to gather around the television or at a bar and chop it up.
What’s undeniable is that the talent level and star power of NFL players cannot be replicated. Football talent is limited enough as it is. There are only a handful of great players at any given position, and the gap from good to bad increases marginally once you start going down an NFL depth chart.
In rare cases, a late round or undrafted player shines and fans and the media bask in the narrative. Victor Cruz is one of my all-time favorite players as he was instrumental in taking the Giants to Super Bowl 46, but how many out of the blue stories can we honestly expect? Ebersol mentions Cruz, who was an undrafted free agent, and Brady, picked in the 6th round, as guys who could be the roadmap for making his league a success. But even if the AAF or XFL develops a Cruz level talent, does that make either league must-watch?
Ebersol and McMahon, when asked, come back to the same message. They want to put quality football on television or stream. The inherent problem with this messaging is that both men are indirectly inferring that the NFL doesn’t already put on the highest quality of football. Even if that’s not their intention, that’s how their statement will be perceived. In turn, their on-field product is going to be compared to the NFL by viewers. Once the average football fan sees that they’re watching an amateur game, their interest with the league will likely end there. Even if the rules or pace of play are better and the game is safer, the NFL would then just repurpose their success for their own, as they have with every other defunct former league.
As far as structure goes, the AAF is starting with a major advantage by being first. To Ebersol’s credit, his league is completely organized with many football minds and players behind his cause. His league is populated with NFL castoffs and hopefuls, and he has television rights in place. If the AAF can survive for five years and be sustainable as a business, then it's a success. But trying to put on quality football from the jump and get a large audience to invest in your product because it’s ‘more football’ is fools gold.
The only minor advantage the XFL has is seeing the AAF be the guinea pig, and either improving upon it or out-financing it.
If the fringe NFL players find a home within the AAF, what does that leave left for the XFL? McMahon in his announcement promises he will listen to the fans as for what they want the XFL to be. This assumes that the fans don’t already enjoy what they’re getting out of the NFL. The NFL already has all the star players and exciting games sports fans crave, so what could the XFL provide that’s different? There’s not a significant amount of people who are truly perturbed by national anthem controversies or player safety concerns.
The verdict is that NFL fans want to watch Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and the countless other stars that populate the NFL do what they do best. I can guarantee that the XFL or AAF will have no one in or near the same class as Patrick Mahomes. Even if both Ebersol and McMahon firmly understand that they’ll be putting inferior games on air, then their expectations for their league should be mild at best. Sports viewership is and always will be driven by star athletes.
Minor league sports are known for player development so that their players can become stars. Once a player’s potential is realized, they move up and out of the lower league. Minor league sports never develop a sustained quality of play comparable to the league above them.
If history has anything to say about alternative football leagues, the prospects aren’t promising. The most recent major football league was the UFL which if I do remember its existence, it’d be a vague memory. The UFL ran from 2009–2012 before financial struggles overcame the league. To the UFL’s credit and a best-case scenario for the AAF or XFL, UFL games averaged 15,000 in attendance during their 2010 season.
The USFL, which could be considered the only legitimate league to compete with the NFL (after the AFL merger and football was becoming a more popular pastime), ran from 1982–1986. The USFL was able to develop some star players who eventually became NFL stars. Names such as Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, and league star Herschel Walker.
Ironically, how the league acquired Walker eventually lead to the downfall of the league. Walker’s star power was evident and positive for the league, but his contract was a “personal services contract” in order to bypass the league salary cap. Once this loophole was created, teams in the USFL went above their financial means to acquire players.
Instead of decreasing team spending, the league decided to acquire more teams and their subsequent expansion fees, but this further strained the league as its TV deal wasn’t meant to support 18 teams.
Managing a football league and teams is an expensive commodity. The AAF or XFL getting past year one will be a milestone. If the AAF or XFL can get several years into their existence and have financial stability with the possibility for growth and expansion, then they will have accomplished the unprecedented.
The USFL began with an emphasis to acquire college players who played in the same region as an existing USFL team. This strategy has also been employed by the AAF. It is unknown if the XFL will also follow suit. This goes back to how important community is in a minor league landscape.
The AAF is priming itself to be the more competent fixture of the two leagues. They spent a year in development before announcing the league, unlike their counterpart XFL that was announced by McMahon with little league structure in place.
The AAF’s shop features clothing items fully designed and branded specifically to their teams. The XFL has a shop despite team designs, logos, or even the team names existing. Their team t-shirts are literally the XFL logo and the name of the city. Even more puzzling than selling team specific shirts when only the city is announced, is that the XFL is already selling season tickets. The XFL doesn’t have any teams, players, or idea what their schedule will look like, but they’re already charging $50 for season tickets. Comparatively, season tickets are $75 for AAF games.
The most intriguing aspect of the AAF and XFL is if their promise to “reimagine football” is a promise that will be realized. Can their efforts to make the game move faster, simplify the rules, and enhance player safety actually become a reality? If either league is successful in any of those measures, I wouldn’t be surprised for the NFL to quickly adopt their strategies if effective.