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Red Zone Play: New Year, New Leagues

Something new in a sea of no new news.

While we sit here in the valley of football fandom, in those long, semi-newsless days between mini-camps and training camps where legit NFL news is sparse and more often than not the op/ed pieces take up the majority of NFL related site space, a lot of folks wish there was more football to fill the calendar.

Once again, a new entity is trying to fulfill that wish.

In 1983, the United State Football League made a small splash, with teams like the Houston Gamblers, San Antonio Gunslingers, New Jersey Generals and L.A. Express. Players like Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker helped executives and owners like Bill Polian and Donald Trump carve out a niche in the history of pro football before collapsing under financial strain after the 1985 season.

While many think of the USFL as a failed endeavor, the innovations brought to the field were almost entirely adopted by the NFL over time, including replay review, two-point conversions, the salary cap, and more.

Roughly fifteen years later, pro wrestling entrepreneur Vince McMahon, the guy who built the sports spectacle known as the World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) launched another professional football league, the XFL. While many viewed this new league as far less legitimate than the USFL, it did manage to make a small splash in the pro football world before folding after only one season.

Recently, McMahon’s new Alpha Entertainment announced plans to revive the XFL for the 2020 season, returning to spring football and, possibly, debuting He Hate Me, Jr. (many may recall that the XFL allowed players to put whatever they wanted on their jersey name plates, resulting in Rod Smart using the notorious name “He Hate Me” and becoming one of the most famous players in XFL lore).

Yet once again, it will be hard for a guy known for creating what many perceive as “fake” sports to put a legitimate product on the field that serious fans will take, well, seriously.

Amidst all that noise, another group has quietly risen up, one full of legitimate names, faces and legacies, including the aforementioned Bill Polian. The Alliance of American Football recently announced its inaugural eight teams, including Alliance San Antonio, as well as teams in Atlanta, San Diego, Phoenix, Memphis, Birmingham, Orlando and Salt Lake City.

When I first stumbled across the press release announcing the San Antonio team, I was mildly curious. Once I realized who was running this new endeavor, it sort of forced me to take it a little more seriously. The who’s who of AAF leadership reads like a Pro football Hall of Fame induction class: Charlie Ebersol (son of Dick Ebersol and co-founder of the league with Polian), Troy Polamalu (Head of Player Relations), Jared Allen (Player Relations Executive), Hines Ward (Player Relations Executive) and Justin Tuck (Player Engagement Advisor) to name a few.

After that, the coaching roster for the eight teams reads like a list of folks the Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns and New York Jets should have already hired to teach their teams based on recent (lack of) success. Names like Steve Spurrier, Mike Singletary, Brad Childress, Rick Neuheisel, Dennis Erickson, and Mike Martz should ensure these teams are all coached by highly competent staffs.

While I found that involvement intriguing, seeing that all the teams are owned by the league itself, just like the XFL, seemed like a solid (yet boring) way to control the product. As of right now, the uniforms on display on the website are all very generic, simply mixing a variety of different color combinations and slapping the same AAF logo on every helmet. Since the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL have all proven that selling merchandise is a huge revenue stream, the AAF would be well advised to give the teams more of a unique, regional identity fans can embrace.

Much like their current appearance, the team names are also generic and lack any sense of creativity: Alliance San Antonio, Alliance Orlando, Alliance Phoenix, etc. Hardly the sort of thing that’s going to spur the types of passion we see when the Texans and Patriots or Raiders and Broncos clash. Hopefully there’s a plan to give the teams more flair to help fans connect on a more personal level. I’m sure there are actual research studies proving how the distinct identities of sports franchises raises the buy-in from the fanbase, but that’s a topic for another day.

The AAF will also bring innovations like the USFL and XFL, but things that seem more geared to what actual NFL fans want to see from pro ball, not what wrestling entertainment fans want from football.

  • Rosters of 50 players each primarily picked through a regional draft, with each team “owning” the region around their home city.
  • No TV timeouts to slow down the action.
  • Only 40% of the commercials NFL games currently force us to endure.
  • No kickoffs
  • No onside kicks (obviously), opting to allow the trailing team to start on their own 35-yard line with 4th and 10, instead of four guaranteed downs.
  • 30-second play clock
  • No point after touchdown kicks; each team must go for two every time.

With a fresh take, featuring heavy fan interaction, steaming broadcasts, more modern ways to keep the fans plugged in, and a CBS TV contract that’ll televise one game a week for the full twelve-week season, the AAF seems to be much more than just the latest NFL competitor destined to crumble shortly after launch.

Based on the information available, the AAF certainly seems to be closer to the USFL than the XFL in terms of having a successful path ahead. But it’s a long road from here to being anywhere near the AFL, the only real competitor to take on the NFL and truly hold its own.

If nothing else, the AAF and XFL give us something marginally more interesting than the latest “hawt take” from the mainstream NFL talking heads or yet another mindless NFL Channel Top Ten list show.

Will you give either of these startup leagues a chance?


On the AAF’s official Facebook fan page, they recently announced that the individual teams will have their own names and logos/merch to go with those names, but they want the input of the fans before deciding which teams get what names. They’ve requested that fans log on to Facebook, like their fan page and offer up suggestions for team names there.