For the past 50 years, every attempt to start a new professional football league has faced the same problem. Though football is far and away America’s most popular sport, there is simply no evidence that enough people want to spend enough time watching a minor-league version to make it financially viable over the long-term.
That’s why it was curious Tuesday when the startup Alliance of American Football announced that billionaire entrepreneur and Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon laid down $250 million to become the league’s chairman amid reports it was already in danger of running out of money after just two weeks of play.
The league nearly missed its first week’s payroll, according to Darren Rovell of the Action Network, although co-founder Charlie Ebersol refuted the reports in remarks to The Orlando Sentinel.
Dundon’s emergency bailout of the league comes with a pretty important question: What, exactly, is he getting for his $250 million?
Far be it from anyone to tell Dundon how to spend his money, but this seems like buying at the top of the market for the notion that America doesn’t have enough football when, in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that the amount we get from August through the first week in February is exactly right.
Isn’t a huge part of what makes the NFL and the top-level of college football so popular, and so valuable, is its scarcity? For a good five months, a significant chunk of America invests three or four hours (and often considerably more) every weekend watching football.
Then the season ends, allowing anticipation to build to the point where there’s genuine excitement when it returns. The ability to miss football, which you don’t get as much during a nine-month NBA season or baseball’s never-ending slog, is actually a great luxury for its fans.
Yet there’s been this unrelenting theory that football’s traditional offseason leaves a void that’s begging to be filled, which is why every few years you’ll see an aspirant like the AAF or XFL pop up, promising the proper funding, exposure and expectations to build something that lasts.
But it never works because the calculus doesn’t change: While there may be an audience for this kind of league, it just isn’t very big.
While Dundon’s emergency investment is potentially good news for the AAF in the short term – $250 million will probably buy a lot of mediocre football – it can’t be a great sign that his cash infusion was so badly needed this early.
While the league has been relatively well-received in the early going for its quality of play and generated 2.9 million viewers on CBS for its opening game, beating the NBA game on ABC in the same time slot, it was always going to be easier for a big television network to generate an initial burst of curiosity than for the league to draw in viewers on lower-profile cable stations like the CBS Sports Network or NFL Network.
Meanwhile, the announced paid attendance for Week 2 games was 17,319 in Birmingham, 11,980 in Memphis, 29,176 in San Antonio and 20,019 in San Diego. Those are not embarrassing numbers for minor-league football, which ironically explains why the long-term future of the league seems so in doubt.
If the AAF needed a big bailout to pay its bills despite decent attendance and a good first week television pop, what’s the threshold this thing needs to actually make the numbers work?
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Perhaps the AAF’s audience will grow as its first season continues, but common sense suggests it will fall off a bit as the novelty factor fades and attention turns to the NFL combine and the NCAA basketball tournament.
Which is exactly why it’s so difficult to make a new football league work. There are millions upon millions of football fans in America, but the sports calendar has always given them plenty of options when the last touchdown for the season is scored.
Dundon’s early financial rescue of the AAF is a big bet that football played by guys who aren’t quite good enough for the NFL isn’t merely going to sustain what it has done through two weeks but will actually grow while competing against far more established sports properties.
Time will tell whether the AAF was worth saving, but $250 million is an awful lot to spend just to keep minor-league football afloat.