We can’t all be winners. The Alliance of American Football found that out the hard way after traveling a long, lonesome road lined with the corpses of failed leagues of the past.
Three weeks shy of the conclusion to the league’s inaugural season, the AAF — like the USFL, XFL and United Football League, among a host of others — was served a platter of dust and took a hearty bite. Rest in peace, AAF: 2019-2019.
Eight games into its debut season, the AAF is done. League Chair Tom Dundon, who rode in on his white stallion to save the AAF from an earlier closing by committing $250 million to the league, closed his checkbook this week.
In an era when legalized sports betting continues to expand, the first example of how limited an influence regulated wagering can have certainly shines through.
Sports betting part of AAF DNA from the start
Within the first few months of AAF existence, the league landed a TV deal with CBS Sports Network and an ensuing gambling partnership with MGM.
Last fall, the league began developing an in-game wagering app that would allow viewers to watch their desired AAF game while betting on the same screen.
Charlie Ebersol, the league’s CEO and co-founder, noted in February that bringing in MGM as an investor and official gaming partner might attract viewers and bettors even after the NFL season ended. He emphasized how the AAF is “continuing football” and that “the football is all real.” He hammered that point home by adding “the fact that all the sportsbooks have taken lines on our games.”
That AAF app and data is reportedly what drew the interest of Dundon, who owns the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL. Albert Breer of The Monday Morning Quarterback tweeted Tuesday how Dundon took the reins of the AAF “simply for the gambling app being developed.” Now, as reported by Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Daily, Dundon “owns all the IP, including app and data.”
NJ sports betting jumped on board
The league started strong, to be fair. Its opening games on CBS averaged some 3.25 million viewers, outranking the ABC broadcast of an NBA showdown between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder.
After the first few games, New Jersey took notice. Football, after all, has long been the revenue-driver of betting. DraftKings Sportsbook, FanDuel Sportsbook, BetStars, PointsBet and playMGM all offered lines on AAF games within the NJ sports betting landscape.
What kind of impact AAF betting had has yet to be seen. What is clear, however, is there won’t be any more AAF odds. (Too soon?) “Multiple books” confirmed to ESPN that all futures wagers will be refunded to bettors.
What went wrong, AAF?
Short answer: The league made the wrong bet on the influence of legalized wagering.
Appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Tuesday, Kaplan recalled how the AAF planned to “ride the wave of gambling.”
“That’s all well and good,” he added, “but at the end of the day, when you’re starting a football league, the product has to be football. Everything else is ancillary.”
“When they started talking to me about this is a technology company … the alarm bells went off. I did a lot of reporting: They had not secured all the insurance they needed to get this league off the ground. The team in Florida, half its practices had to be in Georgia so they could be eligible for worker’s compensation in Georgia because they weren’t eligible in Florida. It was a complete mess.”
Indeed it was. Still is. After all, Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated reported that the AAF couldn’t even finance plane tickets for players to go home.
But sports betting is supposed to save leagues, right?
Since the US Supreme Court struck down PASPA, even well before, the majority of people believed one of two things: Legalized sports betting will be terrible for leagues, or legalized sports betting will create more fans and, thus, help leagues.
Ebersol and AAF co-founder Bill Polian clearly fell into the latter category.
In their defense (that is, a defense that is state-appointed and only to the intern because the 58 guys above him didn’t want the case), a number of studies led these two knuckleheads in that direction.
A Seton Hall University poll from earlier this year, for example, showed that 71% of respondents would be more likely to watch a game on which they wagered. Similarly, Bleacher Report conducted a study in December that showed 63% of respondents would pay more attention to games if legal sports betting existed in their respective states.
Legalized sports betting does not create fandom. It heightens it, at best. It does not save leagues. It bolsters them.
Now, Dundon walks away after investing $70 million to fund the league week-to-week. Under his arm, a $70 million app that is as useful as the AAF is now.