If you’re a regular here at all, you’ll recall that I’ve been watching and enjoying the AAF, the current player in the spring football scrub league space.
The thing is, spring football scrub leagues have rather a fraught history. There was the XFL1. The less said about that, the better. The USFL puttered along for three seasons in the 1980s, then tried to go toe to toe with the NFL and immediately folded. There are a bunch of minor leagues listed on Wikipedia, none of which I’ve ever heard of.
were are2 arena football leagues. The Arena Football League is down to six teams, but still trying its very best, while the American Arena League (est. 2017) is actually expanding to Pittsburgh3. There are other leagues, too, according to Wikipedia, which comes as something of a surprise. Arena football has some novelty, at least, with its smaller teams, smaller field, high scoring, and backyard-style rules (you can motion toward the line of scrimmage, and the nets are in play!).
Arena football lives, yes, but nobody has ever built a successful, enduring spring football league playing with substantially NFL-like rules. There’s one obvious reason: you’re competing with other, more meaningful sports. Hockey season is starting to get interesting, baseball fans wait on the edge of their seats for spring training news, basketball both pro and college is in full swing. Fans don’t have unlimited attention. You need buy-in, and you need a good product.
Does the AAF have it?
So far, there’s a surprising amount of buzz around the AAF. The games aren’t heavily attended by NFL standards, but they do seem to be drawing reasonable crowds—north of 10,000 in just about every game so far, and more than 20,000 in some instances like San Diego where the local football fans have been robbed or starved of their live football fix.
I’m talking about it, for another, as are the local sports radio personalities and a few of my football-related follows on Twitter and Youtube.
The Rules Changes
Now we get into the question of product quality. At least on this front, parvusimperator and I agree: the AAF’s changes are brilliant.
First: no TV timeouts. They do some product placement and fit in ads during natural stoppages in play, but they never outright stop the game for the purpose of advertising.
Second: fewer natural stoppages in play. Primarily, they’ve eliminated kickoffs. You start at your own 25, or you can elect to try a 4th-and-12 play from your 28.
Third: no extra points. You always go for two points, the effect of which is likely to reduce the number of ties in regulation and therefore of overtime. One of the AAF’s goals is to have games over and done in 2.5 hours. So far, they’re hitting that mark.
Fourth: simpler overtime. Each team gets one possession each, first and goal from the 10. No field goals. After each team gets a crack at it, the score stands.
Finally: the Sky Judge, a referee who watches from the press box and corrects bad calls.
The On-Field Product
The rules don’t matter if the football is crap.
So far, it hasn’t exactly been uniformly good, but it hasn’t been crap either. For every San Diego Fleet quarterback situation (two different starters through two games, combining for a less-than-50% completion rate) there’s an Orlando or Arizona, whose offenses seem to be firing on all cylinders and generating high scores and good football action.
It’s a little early to say if it’ll stay middling or trend one way or the other, but it’s a decent start for what it is, ultimately: an NFL minor league.
The Viewing Experience
One thing the AAF is doing right is streaming their games. During Week 1, you got the CBS commentary teams. Not so during week 2—instead, the stream was a commentary-free, graphics-free skycam, typically showing plays from the Madden-esque behind-the-QB perspective. Situation and score information comes from the web page surrounding the stream. You can decide for yourself if that’s good or bad.
Obviously, I haven’t been to a game in person, given that I am in Pittsburgh, where it is cold, and the AAF is largely located in the south, where it is warm. (Or warmer, at least.) Ticket prices are pretty reasonable. If you want a season pass to the club level, with (at least in some stadiums) all-inclusive food and drink, that’ll run you $800 or so a seat. If you don’t mind sitting at the top of the stadium (or the top of the lower bowl, for larger stadiums), you can find season tickets as cheap as $75, which (like some Browns games a year or two ago) is less than you might pay, per game, to get into a high-end high school game.
Concession prices seem to vary. They’re expensive in San Diego, because they’re playing in the Chargers’ old digs and don’t have full control over prices. I can’t find anyone talking about prices one way or another for the other teams.
The team names feel a little strange right now, but I suspect that’s familiarity as much as anything. ‘Orlando Apollos’ may not be very poetic, but then, I come from a town with Steelers and Penguins, neither of which is much of an exemplar of the beauty of English.
Already, the league’s financials seem shaky—they needed an emergency infusion of cash to the tune of $250 million, which is half again as much as they’ve raised to date. $750 million in total is a big initial investment to recoup. For comparison, in 2015, the Packers’ total revenue was $376 million, between their share of the league pool and their own tickets, merchandising, and concessions income, of which $40 million was profit. If the AAF as a whole is as big as the Packers, which I doubt, that’s a lot of years before they make their money back.
Which is why it seems the AAF is going all in on gambling. They’re already part owned by some casino or another, and there’s been talk of next-play betting and daily fantasy built in to the AAF’s mobile apps. I understand that move, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it for reasons I can’t quite articulate.
Maybe it’s because the league, teams, and future gambling operations are all one organization. Look at last Sunday’s San Diego Fleet game. They were up 21-12 with 30 seconds to go in the game, and were 9.5-point favorites. They kicked a field goal. If I were a gambling man and I had money on an NFL game with that outcome, I would grouse, but not seriously. It’s a little more suspicious when my bookie also employs the players and coaches.
That’s awfully conspiracy-minded of me, isn’t it? Let me be clear: I don’t honestly believe that the AAF will get into the game-fixing business when they can already print money with above-board gambling. In the final reckoning, I like the AAF so far. Will it have staying power? Only time will tell. The football is half decent, though, and for the fan who’s already itching for the NFL preseason, it’s good Sunday afternoon comfort food.