So what do we know about the Alliance of American Football five weeks into its 10-week regular season?
First off, there’s apparently an appetite for spring professional football. Although the quality of play, particularly on offense, doesn’t approach the NFL — nobody said it would, of course — this has not been an amateurish effort. Indeed, as Alliance co-founder Bill Polian stressed from the outset, “These guys are men playing professional football.”
Every player on the eight teams is getting an opportunity to display his skills, and lack thereof, to the regular turnout of NFL scouts at AAF games. There’s a longstanding truism in football that whatever you do on a field is on film, and that’s the window into your abilities. “Film doesn’t lie” is how most scouts put it.
Those talent evaluators should be most impressed by the performances of the front sevens pretty much throughout the league. If there are Alliance standouts who will quickly catch on with NFL clubs in May and thereafter, look for most of them to come from defenses.
And they are allowed to head back to the big league.
“There is an official policy, once the regular season begins and ostensibly once training camp begins, we expect the players to stay here for the completion of the Alliance season,” Polian says. “If their team doesn’t make the playoffs, we’d be happy to let him go, other than that they have got to make the commitment throughout the season.
“One of the reasons we can do that is our season ends just before OTAs begin (in the NFL), so a player can go back to the NFL and not miss significant OTA time and he is in shape because he has been playing.”
That defensive performances have so outshined the offenses shouldn’t be a stunner. Certainly, Polian isn’t surprised.
“It is always easier to put together a defense because it’s reactionary,” he explains. “An offense requires choreography and difficult and complicated movements and requires synchronization.”
The area the Alliance’s offensive woes have been most pronounced has been the red zone, which often has resembled a dead zone for teams trespassing there. There have been 65 field goals compared to 75 offensive TDs. Five teams aren’t averaging 20 points an outing.
Most obvious is the level of performance at quarterback and receiver. To get a full appreciation of how good NFL passers are — even the mediocre ones — an examination of Alliance QBs is educational. For the most part, there are enough off-target throws, even if by a foot or less, to cause interceptions. Plus, the wideouts in general don’t have the hands or agility to make the adjustments we see from, say, Julio Jones or Larry Fitzgerald.
Dropped passes have plagued virtually every AAF team, something that will prove worrisome for those receiving invitations to NFL workouts, minicamps and training camps. There will be a significant number of players getting those invites.
Off the field, the Alliance has shown staying power — isn’t that what it’s all about? — with good TV ratings, digital participation and solid enough attendance.
Weather has been a factor in some cities, including blizzard-like conditions for one game in Salt Lake City. Spring isn’t really sprung in several AAF locales, but the league reports that San Antonio is averaging about 28,000 fans and San Diego has had two crowds of more than 20,000. Generally, attendance has been 10,000 or above, though Birmingham (6,539), Salt Lake (9,302) and Arizona (9,531) have had fewer fans for a game.
League co-founders Polian and Charlie Ebersol and chairman Tom Dundon — the major backer who is pouring $250 million into the Alliance — speak glowingly about how many eyeballs are watching. One of the broadcast partners, CBS, even is switching two games from its cable outlet to its main network, including a regular-season contest on April 7, NCAA Final Four weekend.
CBS televised the league opener from San Antonio on Feb. 9 and got a 2.1 rating that beat the NBA on ABC.
Turner Sports originally signed up for one in-season game and a playoff. It has added two Saturday afternoon matches.
NFL Network, the other main AAF broadcaster, has averaged 502,000 viewers, the Alliance says, and saw a rise in audience on a night its game went up against the Academy Awards.
“We experienced a 15 percent rise in viewership on NFL Network from Week2 to Week 3, even with our Sunday prime-time game taking place during the Oscars,” Ebersol says. “Our business plan from the beginning was to earn our viewers. We didn’t spend millions on marketing and promotion; we bet the farm that we would earn the attention of fans by putting top-flight football on the field each week and we are thrilled that it paid off. Millions of people have tuned in each week on TV and our platforms and engaged with our product 100 percent organically.”
The league also has added sponsors as the schedule progressed, which Ebersol and Dundon point to as evidence the Alliance is addressing the thirst for football in the advertising community once the NFL’s season concludes. Those sponsors include MGM Resorts, New Era, STARTER and TurboTax, with sponsors from the automotive, food and beverage categories in the works.
Most of all, the Alliance isn’t losing sight of what it was established to be: a developmental league.
“When we started this journey, one thing we wanted it to be is complementary to the NFL and what they are doing,” says San Antonio’s general manager, former Cowboys star fullback Daryl Johnston. “Talking to coaches, one of the things they are frustrated by in this current CBA is the reduction in practice and meeting time. This is what the Alliance would be perfect for, and hopefully at some point in the future for us to bring in some of those (NFL) guys at the back end of the roster … and address some of the areas where the coaches feel there is a need for that development.”