The Alliance of American Football is off to a decent start in its inaugural season.
There has been some good, some bad, and some mixed. There was the need for an emergency infusion of cash in Week Two. Cash flow issues are not unexpected in a new venture, but the $250 million much-needed infusion was a PR hit to the league. Still, that did have an upside: the involvement of a competent professional owner. Tom Dundon of the Carolina Hurricanes has now been appointed as the AAF commissioner and has been given a tremendous stake in the league. A steady hand familiar with niche interest sports and his deep pocketbook may be what helps the league weather the storm for a few seasons.
The attendance has been decent. On average, AAF games are drawing about 12,000 per contest. Birmingham has been one of the lower draws of the season, only registering 17,000+ twice. To be sure, weather has played a part in that. It has been an aberrant early-spring, with inclement weather falling largely on weekends — and this weekend was particularly rough for the league, as snow and rain and inclement conditions were responsible for halving attendance from San Diego all the way to Birmingham: even Arizona saw crappy weather.
But, in terms of television, the league is drawing fairly well and the AAF is attracting viewers. How many, you ask? Through the first two weeks, it outpaced the NBA. And, through four weeks, it is now outdrawing MLS and the NHL as well, resulting in ad hoc expanded coverage:
The Alliance of American Football is continuing to find some TV success, as Turner Sports announced Tuesday that they’ve picked up two further AAF games for TNT. Their deal was initially just for one regular-season and one playoff game there on that network each year, with other games on B/R Live, but they’ve now added two further regular-season games to TNT. And those games will also feature a Skycam feed on B/R Live.
We are a football-loving nation, and the early viewership returns indicate there is a market for spring football. In fact, talks have begun between the league and the NFL to integrate the AAF as an official minor league.
But, if the league is to ultimately succeed, it must do a few things that other niche sports also do to survive: It must improve play; it must have some bona fide stars; and it must market those storylines and players that engage viewers. The NBA, for instance, has historically done a great job with this.
For a developmental league, nailing down two out of three of these of these should not be hard. But the league must be more than a companion, it must also sell itself as a second chance. And, to that end, the AAF may very well have a genuine superstar or two that it can sell out of the gate.
Of course, we mean Heisman finalist and Tide legend Trent Richardson. And is No. 3 ever off to a tear:
The Trent Richardson comeback story is continuing, although his Alliance of American Football team lost its first game today.
Richardson scored yet another rushing touchdown, giving him seven through four games this season. No one else in the AAF has more than three.
It could be huge for the AAF to have the Iron’s local legend devour the rest of the league. That Richardson is doing so with a team that epitomizes the Tide’s historic brand of play is an added bonus — it’s really easy to sell people around here on defense and power running.
Richardson is not the only one benefiting from a second chance, however. While TR3 leads the AAF in touchdowns, he is not the rushing leader. That honor belonged to his opposite number on Sunday, the San Antonio Commanders’ Kenneth Farrow. On Sunday, as Richardson was tacking on his 7th score of the year, Farrow — formerly of the San Diego Chargers — was toting the ball 30 times and gaining a league-record 142 rushing yards.
This is something the AAF can sell, indeed it should sell: NFL castaways trying to earn a second chance. Both Farrow and Richardson may be extended camp offers when their seasons end. The league is desperately trying to become affiliated with the NFL, and has begun informal talks to become an official minor league for the Shield. These kinds of stats and pivotal games and head-to-head match-ups can make for compelling storytelling. We need to hear more of them.
The second chances don’t end with the players, however. The AAF can not only be a refuge for those who washed out or never got a proper look. It can also be an innovator, as we saw in the Birmingham Iron - San Antonio Commanders game:
As the NFL contemplates whether to add a video official who would be responsible for correcting certain obvious blunders in real time, the Alliance of American Football already is using this approach. And, for the first time during the AAF’s inaugural season, the Sky Judge made a call that the officials on the field had missed.
It happened in the third quarter of Sunday’s game between the San Antonio Commanders and the Birmingham Iron. Commanders defensive back Duke Thomas applied a big hit to Birmingham receiver Tobias Palmer on a pass that fell incomplete. No flag was thrown on the field, but the Sky Judge intervened, ordering a penalty of Thomas for targeting a defenseless receiver.
It was not just a smart use of innovative rules, taking risks with the rules also becomes a selling point in a sport that has grown increasingly safety-conscious:
“The Alliance added the Sky Judge to correct obvious and egregious officiating errors without going to replay and unnecessarily delaying the game,” AAF officiating consultant Dean Blandino said in a statement. “We place an emphasis on player safety, and want to ensure a win or loss doesn’t come down to a missed call.
“In this instance, the Sky Judge observed the hit on . . . Palmer and determined it was a violation of the defenseless player rule and put him at risk, so the decision was made to enforce a penalty. It was the first time the Sky Judge has come into play this season, and player safety is certainly a trigger for such a ruling.”
Sky Judge is outstanding. Feel free to expand on that forward thinking, and by all means, promote the hell out of its successes. Fans want to see a safe game that is officiated correctly. What that happens, shout if from the mountaintop.
So, what would be a perfect world for the AAF and narrative spin to propel the league into a second season? A championship game featuring two star running backs it has heavily promoted, in a packed Legion Field...and then a Sky Judge call that goes in favor of the home team with thousands of cheering ‘Bama fans in attendance.
The AAF can make a few of these things happen, but overall play must improve and fans must show up. Until then, the AAF must sell faces and it must sell stories. Because, just like Richardson and Farrow and the Sky Judge, the league too is on its second chance.