Early AAF Interest Shows an Actual Good Spring League with Young College Stars Could Succeed

By Jason Lisk

The Alliance of American Football debuted this last weekend. People watched. At least enough people watched the opening to compare to other sports that aren’t the behemoth draw of the NFL. The Saturday night opening broadcast on CBS drew 3.25 million viewers, similar to Duke-Virginia on Saturday night and slightly more than the PGA event on CBS and the NBA Thunder-Rockets broadcast on ABC.

That interest also manifest itself in what we saw on our site with traffic, where two different posts on the AAF were among our largest-trafficked items over the last few days.

That interest will wane and we will ultimately see where the AAF settles. Games won’t be on broadcast television on CBS again (until the final). They will generally appear on the NFL Network, CBS Sports Network, and B/R Live, with a couple of broadcasts on TNT.

Just as importantly, it’s not a particularly compelling product. It’s made up entirely of players who never got a chance in the NFL, have aged out of the NFL after being role players, or failed out of the NFL, sometimes spectacularly.

The league was offensively challenged in week 1, largely because it does not have the players to generate the excitement. We witnessed a NFL season with a lot of offensive innovation, and college football is also full of offensive excitement. Here were the average numbers from the four AAF games, which seems like they exist in a football time warp:

54.7% completion percentage, 211.8 passing yards a game, 6.56 yards per attempt, 9 total passing TDs, 12 interceptions, 228 rush attempts for 867 yards (3.80 yards per carry).

Yes, the league overall had more interceptions than passing touchdowns. That’s a nightmarish version of watching an entire league of the Jets’ offense, but one not operating against NFL-caliber defenses. It’s offensive football numbers from the 1970’s, when defensive backs could legally assault receivers.

So I’m dubious that this model will generate longterm interest once the novelty wears out. But the NFL is so much more popular than any other sport in this country that the initial numbers do show there is a market for an actual good league with some young stars, and such a league could find good footing compared to all other non-NFL sports leagues.

I am also dubious that the XFL is the league to pull that off, after the initial launch positions.

I’m not sure they have the right approach, because any such spring league that wants to make an impact has the current environment to do it. The NFL prohibits players from entering the NFL until after three years out of high school, and then the NFL artificially suppresses young player wages with the rookie wage scale, which means plenty of stars drafted in the late first round, second round, and third round are underpaid for awhile.

That leaves a situation where a league could come in and poach some young stars, while not having to come close to competing on overall wages.

Let’s lay out how that would work. First, you would have to get a television deal or deals. Live sports rights are hot right now. Never mind the astronomical billions that the NFL gets. The Pac-12 gets $250 million per year for 44 college football games, and the Big 12 gets $230 million for 50 broadcasts. Yes, those are pie-in-the-sky numbers right away, but they are achievable in short order if you lay the groundwork for success. The Pac-12 touted the Stanford-Oregon game as having the highest ratings in nearly four years for an ESPN conference game, and it drew just over 4 million. If you can start consistently delivering 2 million you will get a boatload of money.

If you want to look smaller, the American Athletic Conference has a 7-year, $126 million deal with ESPN that expires next year, and the next deal is expected to bring in three to four times that number. I think a spring league with actual draws could exceed what the American is worth. Heck, if we want to cross sports, FS1 paid the Big East $500 million over 12 years starting in 2013, and get audiences in the low six figures for many broadcasts.

So I don’t think it’s unreasonable that a new league with a plan to get young talent could get a television deal in the $50 to $90 million range. Now, they would need to be visionary and be willing to operate at no profit for first few years and invest in some young players as loss leaders to the second television contract. With gate income, concessions, merchandise, and other income in addition to the television money, though, I think they could set a team salary cap at around $12 million, and then do this with rosters:

45 players at $100,000 each = $4.5 million. These would be your players who have not made the NFL or want a second chance, and players who could not go pro yet but wanted to make money (sophomores and juniors) but weren’t clear stars.

5 players at $7.5 million total. This could be distributed however each team wanted. $1.5 million for each. $5 million for one, $1 million for another and $500,000 for three.

With those five allocated spots, teams would then try to compete and attract star young players. You could go after a Trevor Lawrence with two years of eligibility before going to the NFL, and give him a sweetheart deal of a couple of million to entice him to be the face of your league for a few years before moving on. You could approach a Lamar Jackson, before he was drafted and when some were making noise about him being a receiver, and offer him an attractive deal to join your league for a couple of million (he is making $2.5 million as a late first round pick now). You can try to pick off some of the other star college QBs who slip to the 2nd/3rd/4th rounds, like Dak Prescott or Mason Rudolph, and pay them more than the NFL does (Prescott has averaged making $680,000 a year in the NFL). You can also give them the promise they will get paid in a few years if they choose to go to the NFL, without being subject to the rookie wage scale rules and franchise tags and tenders, and with the ability to pick their teams.

And it’s not just at quarterback. The NFL is littered with guys drafted in the second and third rounds who are stars and are getting paid less than $1.5 million on their first deal, including Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Kenny Golladay, Kenyan Drake, and Juju Smith-Schuster. You can credibly outbid the NFL for some of those players before they sign. You can also round it out with a veteran acquisition of some huge names, for a little more than the veteran minimum. You might get some guys like Dez Bryant, Adrian Peterson, and Frank Gore to give it another go.

The conditions are there for this to work, because it fills that void where college football does not pay its top stars, the NFL doesn’t take them yet, or if it does take them after three years, it underpays them to the point you could match or exceed what they get from the NFL with some attractive, competitive offers.

I don’t think the AAF is all that attractive, and I’m not sure I trust Vince McMahon either, but the path is there.