A closer look at the Alliance of American Football
TSN Football Insider Dave Naylor tackles questions about the upstart league that is already having a dramatic effect on player recruitment in the Canadian Football League.
What is the Alliance of American Football (AAF)?
The AAF is an eight-team professional football league slated to begin play in February of 2019, founded by former National Football League executive Bill Polian and Charlie Ebersol, a Los Angeles television and film producer who is the son of Dick Ebersol, the former chairman of NBC Sports.
Its teams – located in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Birmingham, Orlando, Phoenix, San Antonio and San Diego – will play a 10-game season ending in May, after which its players would be free to sign contracts for the coming NFL season.
How will this league be different from past spring league adventures like the UFL or XFL?
In many ways it won’t be that different, since the formula of playing games at a time there is no other football taking place and using players who’ve been shut out of the NFL is the same. But the AAF has a few twists to make it more appealing.
For instance, players are being allocated based on the geography of where they played college football, meaning fans in those areas will be able to see familiar faces in uniform on game days.
As well, the AAF is promising an app that will allow fans to watch games while betting on everything from touchdowns and tackles to the speed at which a quarterback throws a football and other game data, tracked by sensors the players will wear.
How will this affect the CFL?
The AAF is already having a dramatic effect on player recruitment in the CFL, as many players released by NFL teams are choosing to sign with the AAF rather than come to Canada.
The AAF has signed more than 500 players, including 47 quarterbacks, which represents a significant bite out of the available talent pool. CFL general managers claim they’ve never had such a tough time trying to recruit players to come north of the border.
The CFL’s no. 1 draft pick this past spring, receiver Mark Chapman out of Central Michigan, opted to sign an AAF deal rather than join the Tiger-Cats after being released in early September by the NFL’s Denver Broncos.
Why would players prefer a start-up like the AAF over an established league like the CFL?
For a lot of reasons – starting with the money.
Most rookie American players in the CFL earn little more than the league minimum, which is $54,000, with only a small raise in the second or third years of a contract.
The AAF is offering players three-year contracts for $250,000 (U.S.), broken down as $70,000 for the first year, $80,000 for the second, and $100,000 for the third.
However, the true earning potential of some players is unclear as the AAF plans to compensate players in part based on the amount of prop bet action they attract.
“In our system there’s really a limitless cap on what a player can make,” Charlie Ebersol told ESPN.
In addition to being paid more money in U.S. dollars to play four-down football, AAF players are required only to play 10 games a season, as opposed to 18 in the CFL, a strong factor in an age with so much concern about the wear and tear of playing the game.
Playing in the AAF also means avoiding issues like immigration and employment opportunities for family of players. In addition, AAF teams are loaded with former NFL personnel, which could mean better connections to earn an NFL contract.
How will this affect the CFL’s level of talent and play?
Throughout most of its existence, the CFL has always been the second-best option for players after the NFL.
With the AAF scooping up so many players, it seems inevitable that the quality of play will slip, as CFL teams will no longer have their choice of talent beyond the NFL.
The league won’t lose any of its current crop of star players, since the AAF isn’t going to be competitive with what top veteran CFL players earn, which can range from about $150,000 to $550,000 for marquee quarterbacks.
The big question is: Will the future Mike Reillys and Bo Levi Mitchells ever get to the CFL in the first place?
What’s the relationship between the CFL and the AAF?
Representatives of the two leagues have been in contact and agreed to respect existing contracts, meaning that no player will be allowed to go from one league to the other without finishing-up their existing deals.
This means that any current CFL players cannot sign AAF deals until after they become free agents on Feb. 12, which would be a after the start of the AAF season. The league has stated it will instruct its teams not to release players from their contracts to go to the AAF.
How concerned are CFL general managers about the AAF?
Very. There is significant concern among CFL general managers about what the AAF means to their ability to recruit players and what it will mean to the product on the field.
It’s been a hot topic among them for months, long before the AAF started signing players during the summer.
Could the AAF result in a coaching drain from the CFL?
Yes. That’s another big concern among CFL general managers, many of whom are already aware of members of their staff being offered AAF jobs for the coming season.
The timing of the CFL introducing a salary cap for coaching staffs and football administration means coaches who will be asked to take less will have options to consider.
What can the CFL do to protect itself?
There isn’t a lot the CFL can do to overcome the factors that have players choosing to play in the AAF.
The most obvious to address would be money, but matching minimum salaries in the AAF would mean boosting the CFL’s minimum salary by roughly two-thirds.
The league’s approach appears to be to focus on its own business and weather the storm, understanding that leagues have come and gone in the past while the CFL has always endured.
What about the XFL? Is it still planning to re-start in 2020?
It is indeed, although it’s hard to see how the football world is going to go from having no spring leagues to two spring leagues.
All that means is that, at least for a while, players who in the past had no options beyond the CFL will have two other places where they can continue their careers.