Many reporters and bloggers have already weighed in on Alliance of American Football Chairman Tom Dundon’s threat to end the league’s season prematurely if the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA, AKA the players’ union) doesn’t agree to allow players signed to “futures” contracts with National Football League (NFL) teams to play in the AAF. This is similar to what the National Basketball Association does with players being transferred back and forth to the NBA G League. I’ll provide details on why this is a bad idea, but I’ll state first and last that this is a bad bluff and if Dundon carries it out, it will be a colossal blunder. Just because Dundon has provided a massive infusion of money doesn’t mean he’s automatically in charge of negotiations with the NFL and NFLPA. Co-founder & CEO Charlie Ebersol, along with co-founder Bill Polian, should be telling him to find a way to walk the bluff back, and quickly.
Full Disclosure: I’m a San Antonio Commanders fan and season ticket holder. The upcoming game Mar. 31 between my team and the Arizona Hotshots is crucial for both teams and their fans. A Commanders win clinches home field for the Western Conference Championship. Even if San Antonio loses their last two games and Arizona wins their last two, the Commanders have the tiebreaker. A Hotshots win ties them, and anything’s possible. To end the season even after this Sunday will break players and fans’ hearts; not just for the Commanders and Hotshots. The Orlando Apollos have clinched an Eastern Conference playoff berth, and the Birmingham Iron will probably clinch soon. To dash the hopes of four teams and fan bases to win the inaugural Alliance Championship just to look tough and refuse to back down will be an idiotic move on Dundon’s part. Plus, all the naysayers will be rolling on the floor laughing and yelling “I Told You So!” To General Manager Daryl “Moose” Johnston’s credit, he’s been captured on video saying “Today’s a gift from God, we’re going to focus on what we can control today. I don’t want you to worry about the rumors from yesterday; I don’t want you to worry about speculation about tomorrow, let’s just stay in the day today.” (Cc @GregLuca, link: https://twitter.com/GregLuca/status/1111344877399392256) Now, my breakdown on Dundon’s Folly (if it happens).
Get a Seat at the Table First
The issue in Dundon’s eyes is that the NFLPA should allow players signed to “futures” contracts after the NFL season to play in the AAF. For a developmental league, that makes some sense. Dundon’s mistake is demanding the NFLPA to “make it so.” Who does Tom think he is, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard? The players’ union has stated their concerns about NFL players sent to the AAF getting injured. Their real concern, however, is if any change modifies the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) currently in place. Dundon also doesn’t realize that the Alliance for now only has a “handshake agreement” with the NFL. The AAF at the beginning was
designed to be complimentary without being an official developmental league, like Minor League Baseball, the G League, and various minor hockey leagues, including the American Hockey League (AHL).
Without a formal connection to the NFL, the AAF doesn’t even have a seat at the negotiating table, and no ability to request, let alone demand, that the NFLPA listen to their ideas. The NFL is definitely interested in the AAF’s potential and enjoys watching players that they passed on or cut show what they can do in game situations. Especially without paying them yet. USA Today is not on the AAF’s side, but they are right in saying that the NFLPA doesn’t need the AAF. The AAF doesn’t need the NFLPA either; their first-year plan of allocating college and former NFL/CFL players to teams is working fine in my opinion.
The suggestion of AAF teams using NFL practice squad players is a good idea, and the NFL seems to be open to it. However, unless there is a formal link between the NFL and AAF, nothing can or should happen between the AAF and NFLPA. Dundon should “defer” any decisions to after the Alliance Championship, then seek a minor league relationship with the NFL; that will ensure a seat at the table.
A Possible Duel Between Dundon and Polian?
With credit to the “frat bros” at @TheShipyardSD, Hotshots coach (and former QB for the USFL San Antonio Gunslingers back in the day) Rick Neuheisel seems to have a handle on what Dundon’s threat is really about. Quotes from azcentral.com; Rick Neuheisel, Arizona Hotshots not buying chatter about AAF’s demise:
The coach and other members of the Hotshots’ organization said the dispute is not between the AAF and the NFLPA. It’s between the league’s majority owner and its co-founder, Bill Polian.
“I got word from (Polian’s) camp about this particular issue saying, ‘do not worry about what is being said in the paper. Business is going on as usual'”, Neuheisel said. “They assured all of us to press on.”
The parties disagree, however, on the speed with which that dream should become a reality.
“The parties” obviously being Tom Dundon and Bill Polian. Finally:
Allowing practice squad players to join the AAF in the offseason would require an amendment to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. While preliminary talks are underway to allow the approximately 300 NFL practice squad members to play in the AAF, Polian’s camp believes that the easiest time to negotiate the rule change is when the CBA expires in two years.
Dundon, the owner of a private investment firm and the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, wants [to] tap into the practice-squad reserves as soon as possible.
The AAF recently submitted the first draft of its proposal to the NFLPA. The proposal was rejected, which might have sparked Dundon’s comments.
And there you have it. Polian is an NFL insider; former General Manager for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts, former ESPN NFL analyst, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Polian submitted a first draft to the NFLPA, knowing there’s no rush since the CBA expires in 2021. The players’ union stated their concerns and rejected the first draft; the union knows there’s no rush either.
Dundon runs Dundon Capital Partners, which he started in September 2015. He bought the office building that houses DCP; the firm owns a majority stake in Employer Direct, a health services company, and a minority stake in Carvana. Sports-related investments Dundon owns are Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, a substantial stake in Topgolf (a sports/entertainment company), and the NHL Carolina Hurricanes. From the Dallas News article in 2015, the last few paragraphs sum up Dundon:
In the end, Dundon’s golf partner and friend Jonas Woods might best sum up Dallas’ newest billionaire.
“He’s very competitive, whether in sports or business,” Woods said. “Probably in anything, for that matter.
“He doesn’t like to lose.”
There is talk now that Dundon didn’t fully invest $250 million in the Alliance, but extended a line of credit to the league. The quicker expansion happens, the quicker agreements can be made with the NFL and NFLPA on changes, the quicker and easier money will be made available to the AAF. Tom Dundon seeks to bully Polian, the players’ union, and the whole Alliance. However, it’s a foolish and empty bluff. He should let the season, playoffs and championship continue as normal.
After the inaugural season is in the books, then Ebersol, Polian, and Dundon can fight it out; hopefully behind closed doors. While all of them keep in mind that 2019 is the only year they have spring football all to themselves. Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment revives the XFL next year, and it starts the same time as the AAF’s second season. Also, the XFL’s teams will be competing with the AAF’s teams for players that weren’t drafted or were cut by NFL teams.
Who Wants the AAF to Succeed?
The next two sections are a slight detour from the main road, but with distractions coming from inside the league as well as outside, let’s see who benefits from the Alliance being a boom or a bust. The obvious beneficiary of a successful season this year is the AAF itself, so who else wants it to work?
- CBS. The broadcast network, as well as its cable sibling CBS Sports Network, have been committed to the new league from the beginning. CBSSN shows the Game of the Week almost every Sunday afternoon. CBS showed both opening games in primetime regionally on Feb. 9 and will broadcast a conference championship game on Apr. 21 (originally scheduled for CBSSN) as well as the Alliance Championship on Apr. 27. TV ratings are good enough that the Apr. 6 game between the Memphis Express and San Antonio Commanders was flexed from B/R Live to CBS. This will lead into CBS’ NCAA Final Four coverage.
- WarnerMedia News & Sports. TNT and B/R Live (Bleacher Report’s streaming service), jumped in quickly with their NCAA partner CBS. TNT used their AAF coverage on Feb. 16 to lead into NBA All-Star Saturday Night. Their ratings probably convinced CBS to air the game on Apr. 6. TNT also committed to a conference championship game in the beginning. Again, with TV ratings doing well on all platforms, TNT expanded regular season coverage to Mar. 16 and Mar. 30. B/R Live has done a good job of streaming Saturday afternoon games for free. With CBS broadcasting the Apr. 6 game, B/R Live gets the Sunday afternoon game that is normally on CBSSN.
- NFL. The league jumped in quickly with televising night games on Saturdays & Sundays after CBS’ premiere. Why wouldn’t they?! NFL Network has live football on the weekend instead of game reruns or other filler programming. Plus, all television partners aren’t paying the AAF for rights (they should be, but maybe it happens next year); hopefully, the league isn’t paying for broadcasts.
- Sports bars. Since CBS Sports Network and NFL Network are carried on higher tiers on cable and satellite systems, fans who don’t pay extra have only one option if they want to watch AAF games. Most sports bars are offering specials during games & it’s always more fun to attend watch parties with others than not to watch at all.
- Local radio and TV stations. All teams made arrangements early with a local radio station to broadcast games. It’s unknown whether the station is paying the league or vice versa. Also, if a game isn’t televised nationally, a local station can broadcast games (ones streamed on B/R Live, I assume). If TNT doesn’t flex the Commanders’ rematch at Salt Lake on Friday night, Apr. 12, then KMYS (CW35 in San Antonio) will carry the game while it’s streamed on B/R Live.
Who Wants the AAF to Fail?
- XFL. Vince McMahon announced the reboot in January 2018, with the league starting on February 2020. Two months later, Charlie Ebersol announced that the AAF would start on February 2019. McMahon cannot be happy that Ebersol’s league jumped ahead of his, so he would be ecstatic if the AAF did not return to compete. With the XFL basically alone again, the spring football scene would be as he intended. Also, he would have his choice of television outlets.
- NBC Sports (and probably ESPN). NBC Sports has been very critical of the AAF via its Pro Football Talk (PFT) sub-website and any postings on Yahoo Sports. ESPN has been just as critical on its website. Both outlets will post anything negative to get clicks… but have they been as critical of the XFL? I searched both websites and saw no XFL stories that criticized that league like they have criticized the Alliance. Maybe they want to air XFL games? NBC has no sports on Sundays unless it’s the NHL and golf… nothing in primetime but Ellen DeGeneres and dancing for now. ESPN now has MLB on Monday nights… but what did they have before Women’s March Madness started? Men’s NCAA Basketball?! Both networks would like to have football on Saturdays, Sundays or even Mondays if they could, in my opinion.
- USA Today. All their negative stories are there to generate clicks and sell papers. By the way, does anybody subscribe to or buy USA Today in print… except for hotels to give copies to customers? Interestingly, two newspapers that are part of the USA Today Network cover AAF teams… and positively. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis (commercialappeal.com), and the Arizona Republic (www.azcentral.com) in Phoenix; the Hotshots play in Tempe.
Finally, Don’t Kill the Goose Laying the Golden (or Silver) Eggs
The point I stated at the beginning is still true at the end. Tom Dundon is trying to bluff the players’ union to change something that doesn’t need to be changed for two more years. If he carries out his threat to prematurely shut down the AAF’s inaugural season (that’s done pretty good for eight weeks, thank you very much), it will go down in history as Dundon’s Folly. Keep quiet and keep funding the league, and let the co-founders, especially Bill Polian, keep doing their jobs.
Let coaches coach, players play, officials… hopefully, officiate, SkyJudges judge live, and fans buy tickets and merchandise, then root for their teams… and boo the officials and SkyJudges. Let the season finish, let the conference and league championships play to their conclusions, let Jerry Jones make his money at Cowboys HQ in Frisco, TX… then find a way to do it all over again, this time with competition from the XFL and other TV networks as well.