As I write this, there are three new football leagues that will be operational in 2020 in addition to the NFL. They are the Pacific Pro Football League, scheduled to kick off in the summer of ’19; the XFL, which is back for another run in 2020 after a one-year run in 2001; and the Alliance of American Football, which was announced today and which will kick off in 2019.
When these new leagues are announced, it always makes me reminisce about the endless number of launches and attempted launches just since ITL came into existence in Fall 2002. It’s amazing how regularly they arrive and depart, almost like a train schedule. They include:
AAFL (2007-2008): This league hired several big-name former college administrators (including former Navy and Missouri AD Jack Lengyel of We Are Marshall fame) and even got as far as holding a draft in 2007. However, when the economy cratered in ’08, so did plans for the league.
UFL (2009-12): This is probably the most successful recent attempt at an alternative league. It employed multiple former and current NFL executives and scouts and even players. The league eventually ran out of money, with its commissioner resigning in 2012 after it was reported he funneled cash to Miami Hurricanes for his sports agency during his tenure.
New USFL (2012-13): A continuation of the last league with a lengthy TV deal and a decent following was planned for launch in the spring of 2014. However, plans collapsed when its founder, Jamie Cuadra, was found guilty of embezzling $1 million to launch the league. Incidentally, jurisprudence and criminal prosecutions have been a running theme in alternative football leagues.
FXFL (2014-15): The FXFL hung around for two seasons under the leadership of Brian Woods, who had previously run the (now-defunct) Medal of Honor Bowl in Charleston, S.C. The league got a lot of media exposure but was eventually felled by a lack of a TV deal and other factors. Woods learned from it enough to launch The Spring League, which kicks off its second season in a matter of days (March 28).
MLFB (2014-17): This league took more of a business-like approach as the league brought in several ex-NFL players (former NFL WO Wes Chandler was its President) and even agents to run the league, then went to great pains to come across as an investor-driven property that would be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The league’s website is even still active, but a planned April 2017 kickoff never happened.
North American Football League (2015-16): I remember Chris White approaching me at the 2015 Senior Bowl with an elaborate plan for simultaneously developing a new football league and an online streaming service that would rival ESPN and carry NAFL games as its linchpin (here’s the post I wrote about the league at the time). The next time I saw Chris’ face it was in this story a year later after they’d been charged with scamming investors.
There are others that I’ve either forgotten or that never made it to my web browser, I’m sure. The Spring League of American Football was scheduled to kick off in 2018, but never launched. Here’s a Fall 2016 story about it. And this list doesn’t even include the aforementioned Spring League as well as Your Call Football, which isn’t a league as much as it’s a live simulation of Madden Football. It kicks off in May.
So why do they all fail? There are four reasons I can think of. No. 1, everyone wants to play real-life fantasy football and put together teams. It’s the ticket and sponsorship sales that usually bog them down. No. 2, without a bona fide TV deal, selling the sponsorships that are so critical to success is nearly impossible. Maybe some day streaming will rival TV as a sponsorship vehicle, but we’re not there yet. No. 3, there’s more football on TV than ever now, and I’m not sure there’s an interest in more of it played by (a) inferior players with (b) no built-in audience. And finally, No. 4, the NFL already has the best minor league of any of the major sports and it doesn’t have to spend a penny on it.
Like anyone who works in football, I’m hopeful that all three leagues succeed. More opportunities just means more chances for people to live their dreams, both players and people who aspire to work on the business side of the game. But I’m not optimistic, I’m sorry to say.