With the Super Bowl wrapped up, sports bettors and fans are now moving on to basketball and hockey, and gearing up for March Madness and the start of baseball season. However, a large percentage of gamblers only wager on football, and now they have another opportunity when the Alliance of American Football (AAF) debuts this weekend.
The league not only offers added games for sports betting, but it’s the on-field action that the league is hoping brings viewers and fans coming back. CEO and co-founder Charlie Ebersol talked to TheLines.com this week about the future of the league and what gamblers can expect to find.
The app and betting
Sports betting has always been part of the plan for the AAF. With a new legalized environment and more fans betting on football than ever, embracing that dynamic seemed like not only a natural move.
The league has even partnered with MGM as an investor and official gaming partner. Lines for the league’s Week 1 matchups are available on the PlayMGM app as well as its casinos. The hope is that bettors and fans will still be interested in football a week after the Super Bowl.
“We’re continuing football, which is the biggest bet in sports in the U.S. outside of horse racing, and we see it as an opportunity to expand that season,” Ebersol says. “Obviously, MGM becoming an investor early on was really crucial because it helped people understand that what we built is real: the football is all real, and the fact that all the sportsbooks have taken lines on our games.”
The Alliance hosted several sportsbook directors at its training camps last week in San Antonio.
While the league’s planned app, set to be released this week, has promised up-to-the-second stats and information, it won’t offer sports betting, per se. That information will be available to bettors and casinos alike to branch out beyond traditional betting options.
“We’re a technology business and our technology is that we built a data capture manifestation device that allows the data to get off the field instantaneously in under 400 milliseconds and delivered to users,” Ebersol says. “That’s either through a sportsbook or a mobile device, which will ultimately allow in-game betting, play-to-play betting.”
Getting in the game
Fans who download the app for Week 1 cannot only watch the games, but interact as plays happen. That includes using technology to track the action on the field as exactly as possible.
“You can turn on a cellphone or any other device, and see what’s going on in real time,” Ebersol says. “We created a fully animated version of the game. We have all these trackers on the players, the ball, et cetera. It looks like a combination of Madden meets Angry Birds, and you see exactly what’s going on in real time with the data.”
While traditional fantasy football may not be offered yet, the league is hoping fans will engage in other ways. That includes wagering and using its new PreCast (predictive casting) offering.
“PreCast uses all the historical data as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence to give you predictive odds on what each play is going to be,” he says. “So in our game, if you guessed run right for a first down and the combined likelihood of that happening is 13 percent, you win more points than if you guessed run left for two yards, which was 30 percent.”
In essence, decision making makes use of the data for odds and percentages. Users can play in large pools and against friends. Wagering looks to be a part of that in the future.
“When we showed the technology to MGM nine months ago, that is immediately where their heads were,” he says.
Certainly one of the biggest drivers of the popularity of pro football over the last two decades is fantasy football. That includes more than 60 million Americans who play fantasy sports each year, and a huge chunk of those play fantasy football.
Ebersol said those options won’t be available on the Alliance app to start the season, but hopes to have fantasy games soon.
“One of the things we discovered with our app is we had way features on day one,” he says. “We’ve cut back the features that are coming out on Saturday. You’ll be able to get the PreCast play. Over the course of the season, we’ll introduce something called In-Game Fan, where you can play fantasy play to play, which has never been available before.”
Players would challenge other players during the game as part of that offering, but the league doesn’t currently have a traditional fantasy football partner. That could change during the season or another partner brought on board next season.
“As of right now, we do not have plans to have markets up for AAF,” FanDuel spokesman Kevin Hennessy said. “That could change, but nothing is scheduled for this weekend’s kick off.”
On the field
While bettors and fantasy players may have some limited options initially, Ebersol believes football fans will be pleased with play on the field. All eight teams conducted training camps in San Antonio and went through scrimmage games over the last month. He believes solid play will help engage fans in the long run.
“One of the things we’ve held close to our chest is the football because it’s important to us that ‘football is football’ on the field on Day 1,” Ebersol says. “Ultimately, we believe as fans get more familiar with our games and more familiar with our players, we’ll be able to roll out those products like daily and season-wide fantasy.”
So what can fans expect on the field? The Alliance so far has made use of social media to build buzz. Ebersol has brought in NFL talent like Bill Polian (co-founder and head of football) to ensure the product is the best it can be on the field. In 2001, Vince McMahon’s XFL was hampered by sloppy play due to short practice periods. Ebersol believes the Alliance has figured this out.
“Unlike all previous attempts of [alternate football leagues] over the last 25 years, we’ve brought in actual football experts, actual general managers from the NFL,” he says. “The combined level of NFL experience among my executives, coaches, and GMs is over 500 years. We focused as heavily as we could in putting the highest quality at the top of the league to create better football.”
Hall of Fame cast
The league is not shying away from a link to the NFL and much of its leadership and coaching come from the NFL including league leaders like Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward as well as coaches and general managers like Mike Singletary and Daryl Johnston.
All 794 players also have an out in their contracts to play in the NFL if that opportunity comes up, something that sets them apart from previous attempts at alternate leagues and attracts a higher level of player. Ebersol also notes that 70 percent of the players in the league have played in the NFL in the last 18 months.
Viewing the AAF
Along with the ability to view on the league app, those who long for more pro football will have an easy time finding games on television. The league has deals in place with CBS and the CBS Sports Network, NFL Network, and TNT and promises shorter games with fewer commercials and a faster pace (only a 30-second game clock).
“You’re going to experience something that comes very close to the NFL experience,” he says. “Previous leagues all wanted gimmicks. What you will see on the field will be actual football broadcast by actual football broadcasters. Our broadcast teams are going to be very traditional and you’re going to see things that you’re used to seeing on Sundays, which is by design.”
Playing the long game
Ebersol says the league’s backers are patient. His goal is to gain traction with a good brand of football and then grow from there.
“One of the mistakes that the other leagues have made is that they’ve been so reliant on media deals and ticket sales out of the gate that they could never survive,” he says. “Our long-term business is funded based on the technology we’ve built. We raised money around the idea of losing a lot of money on football for quite some time because we’re going to earn our fans.
“We’re going to go into stadiums where the fans are going to sample us and if they like us they’re going to come back. What we’re focused on is how it grows over the course of the season. I’m excited. I think this weekend’s going to be very interesting to see how the world accepts us, and we’ll go from there.”
Image courtesy of AAF