PHOENIX – Suspending operations just two weeks before the end of its inaugural 10-week season, attempts to continue the upstart Alliance of American Football will be difficult, Don Gibson, a professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said.
The AAF is the latest of several expansion football leagues to run into issues, including the World Football League, the United States Football League and the XFL, which folded in 1975, 1985 and 2001, respectively. Despite plans by World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon to bring the XFL back in 2020, the viability of alternatives to the NFL remains in question.
“Was this cessation of operation due to poor management or just the lack of interest in the product that they were putting out?” asked Gibson, a veteran sports lawyer and executive who joined Arizona State’s faculty in 2017. “At the end of the day, the real question is going to come down to, is there a real market for this product? Are people footballed out?”
The eight-team league includes the Arizona Hotshots, who were leading the league’s Western Conference with a 5-3 record and played their home games at Sun Devil Stadium.
Multiple media reports throughout the day Tuesday said the league would suspend operations. Late Tuesday, the Hotshots confirmed the reports via Twitter.
— Arizona Hotshots (@aafhotshots) April 3, 2019
According to an email that went out earlier in the day to league employees, there are plans to keep a small staff in place and seek “new investment capital and restructure” the business.
The email #AAF employees were sent minutes ago, announcing the almost assured end of their inaugural season and the immediate suspension of their league’s operations. (Via an AAF source.) pic.twitter.com/iS2rPzXy4d
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) April 2, 2019
The decision to suspend operations promises to have ripple effects on everything from corporate partners to team employees, including about 20 people who work in a variety of business roles for the Hotshots. The email told employees that if they were not contacted, their employment would be terminated Wednesday and they will be paid up until that date.
AAF players relished their brief experience in the league.
— Rashad Ross (@RocketRoss_19) April 2, 2019
How you get fired on your day off??
— Rashad Ross (@RocketRoss_19) April 3, 2019
I will forever be grateful for the @TheAAF and the @aafhotshots …. mixed feelings right now!!! These guys all have become my brothers! N we Definately finished #1 in the league!! But its time to go back to the @NFL ????
-Monster [mon·ster]: ???? pic.twitter.com/Ivl0fzQIAG
— Steven Johnson Jr. (@SMJ2852) April 2, 2019
Just the reality of this unfortunate situation.. great concept, good football on the field and fun for fans to watch. Just not enough money to go around which has been the main problem with “other” leagues for a long time.
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) April 2, 2019
AAF co-founder Bill Polian issued a statement saying that he was “extremely disappointed” that league chairman Tom Dundon had decided to cease operations.
“When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all,” Polian said in his statement. “The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”
AAF co-founder Bill Polian issues strong statement after new owner Tom Dundon shuts league down. pic.twitter.com/YwFWaLFwwl
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 2, 2019
Games often played in stadiums that were less than half full, something Gibson said can damage broadcast partners too.
“Ticket sales are an important part,” Gibson said. “From a broadcasting standpoint, when you partner with a property, you don’t want to see empty seats on your television screens because that will affect your ability to sell advertising and to engage other partners in supporting the enterprise.”
Opening weekend AAF games in February drew better ratings than the NBA, according to CBSSports.com. Games were broadcast each week by a combination of CBS, CBS Sports Network, NFL Network, Bleacher Report Live and TNT.
Those broadcasts flowed through Scottsdale’s Sneaky Big Studios. The north Scottsdale facility founded in 2016 by Bob Parsons partnered with the league to produce game telecasts and pregame, postgame and halftime shows from its studios in north Scottsdale.
Sneaky Big declined comment to Cronkite News.
The decision to suspend operation came from Dundon, who with his investment earlier this year became majority owner. He also owns the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL.
When reports of the shutdown came out Tuesday, Orlando Apollos coach Steve Spurrier said his team, which led the Eastern Conference with a 7-1 record, should be declared champions. Their only loss came against the Hotshots, 22-17.
That prompted Arizona coach Rick Neuheisel to tweet a response.
Spurrier says he feels for the players who put the work in and that it's sad the league ended this way.
— Luke Hetrick (@LHSportsTV) April 2, 2019