The Alliance of American Football came into existence with what appeared to be sound financial backing. The league, co-founded by television and film producer Charlie Ebersol and longtime NFL personnel executive Bill Polian, received funding from a number of high-profile venture capital firms, including the Founders Fund backed by billionaire Peter Thiel and the Chernin Group, which also owns a majority stake in Barstool Sports. Salaries would be kept low, at least compared with the NFL: Each AAF player signs a three-year, non-guaranteed contract worth $250,000. The league has TV deals with CBS Sports, Turner Sports and the NFL Network.
In other words, the AAF seemed to be going out of its way to avoid the financial imprudence that doomed previous challengers to the NFL, such as the XFL (which itself is set for a revival next year) and the USFL before that. Apparently, it wasn’t enough.
According to David Glenn of the Athletic (subscription required), the AAF needed a $250 million investment from Carolina Hurricanes majority owner Tom Dundon simply to make payroll after its first weekend of games Feb. 9-10. In return, Dundon will be introduced as the league’s new chairman Tuesday, Glenn reports.
“Without a new, nine-figure investor, nobody is sure what would have happened,” an unnamed source told Glenn. “You can always tell people their checks are going to be a little late, but how many are going to show up on the weekend for games when they don’t see anything hit their bank accounts on Friday?”
The Action Network’s Darren Rovell went even further, reporting that the AAF actually missed payroll in Week 1, with the league telling player agents that it was because of a “glitch with switching to a new administrator." Rovell added later Tuesday that the players whose paychecks didn’t arrive have now been paid.
The Hurricanes confirmed Dundon’s AAF investment and his appointment as AAF chairman in a news released issued Tuesday morning.
“This was a terrific opportunity for Tom to expand his investment in the sports world,” Hurricanes President and General Manager Don Waddell said in the statement. “The AAF is off to an exciting start as a league and was founded on some truly unique and groundbreaking concepts.
“Tom is excited about the direction of the Carolina Hurricanes and remains fully committed to this franchise’s current and future success in Raleigh.”
According to Luke DeCock of the News & Observer, Dundon is in essence buying the AAF, as he is now the league’s primary investor.
“The play here is to have a great football league in the offseason that gives opportunity to players, coaches, referees and technology and innovation,” Dundon told DeCock. “To me, our job is to give an opportunity to people to work on their craft. Obviously football is pretty popular. This keeps football around for the people who want more football. It’s not replacing the NFL.”
As recounted by author Jeff Pearlman in his recently released book about the USFL called “Football for a Buck,” a number of teams in that briefly ascendant 1980s league had trouble paying their players, mainly because a number of the team owners were not on as financially sound ground as they let on when they joined the league. The same problem plagued the World Football League during its brief run in the 1970s, when several teams didn’t even make it through the first season before running out of money.
On paper, the AAF shouldn’t have this problem: All of the teams are owned by the league itself and not individual owners. But if the AAF blew through its initial funding before the second weekend of its regular season, it could be a sign of future problems down the road.
Otherwise, the initial returns were promising. TV ratings on CBS for the league’s inaugural games were better than expected and exceeded an NBA game broadcast on ABC at the same time. The league’s noted rule changes — no kickoffs, no extra points, no onside kicks, teams must go for two following touchdowns — were seen as worthy. And though a few games were sparsely attended, the San Antonio Commanders have averaged nearly 30,000 fans over their first two games.
“The hope and belief now is that years from now, [the AAF] can look back and consider these some scary growing pains, because this league clearly has a chance to become incredibly successful,” a source told Glenn. “The opening weekend provided a lot of excitement and hope, even beyond the TV numbers. Obviously, though, the original plan did not include a financial crisis in Week 2.”
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