Doug Curlee | Editor at Large
The Alliance of American Football is an idea whose time may have come — if the owners can make it through its 10-game season and survive until next year.
If March 9 was an indication, they have a chance. Sixteen thousand people showed for a game that hadn’t been all that well publicized.
San Diego’s team is called the San Diego Fleet — an homage to our city’s Navy history, right down to wearing battleship gray game jerseys.
Many of the players wearing those jerseys are local products — eight of them played their college ball as San Diego State Aztecs, and many of them have at least had a cup of coffee in the National Football League. Some Fleet players, like tight end Gavin Escobar, had more than coffee. Escobar spent five years in the NFL, with Dallas, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cleveland and Miami.
“I’d like to get back to the NFL. I need to get heavier and better at blocking — this may be the way to do that,” Escobar said on signing with the Fleet.
Many of the 52 players on the Fleet roster have at least some NFL experience, if only to have been cut during training camps. But the desire is there, and the machinery to make it happen for them is available.
So what makes this league different? How did it come into being in the first place?
Television producer extraordinaire Charlie Ebersole and NFL Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian came up with the idea, and started putting it together last year.
In doing so, they planned to provide pro football to cities and regions that don’t have NFL teams.
Of the eight teams in the AAF, only Arizona and Atlanta have NFL teams. Six cities don’t but some of them — Memphis, San Antonio and Birmingham, have been thought of as possible NFL expansion cities someday. (Salt Lake City and Orlando, not so much … but who knows?)
Basically, here’s the plan.
Unlike the NFL, which is composed of separate owners who sometimes don’t even talk to each other, all eight teams in the AAF are owned by the league, with home offices in San Francisco. All financial decisions are made by the league.
East coast billionaire Tom Dundon, owner of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, says he’s good for 250 million dollars, as needed.
The pay scales are set by the league — even the coaches’ pay, and it’s the same for everyone.
Players who make the roster get three-year, $250,000 contracts, with this year’s $70,000 guaranteed.
The games themselves are set up to move quickly. There are no kickoffs. Instead, the ball is placed on the receiving team’s 25-yard line, and played from there. There are no point-after kicks. Teams must go for two-point conversions. Timeouts are limited to one minute — for now. The hope is that television advertising may force longer timeouts. Some games are telecast already by CBS and the NFL Network. Halftime is only 13 minutes.
You notice the NFL broadcasting connection. Bill Polian thinks it should be a much closer connection. What he has in mind is something like what most every other sport has in America — a feeder league for the big teams.
No one wants to call it “minor” leagues, but that’s what it would be. There are more minor leagues, or development leagues, than anyone can count. Baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer — name one, and there are lower division teams.
No one is pushing that hard for now, but Polian has apparently been sounding out the NFL about the possibility.
As it stands now, any AAF player who gets a bonafide offer from the NFL is free to leave and accept it with no penalties.
So, what’s a good indication that people will show up in increasing numbers for this product? Well, there’s tailgating — which is almost a religious experience at the stadium.
Leslie Castillo and a whole bunch of her friends and family were there at the March 9 game, just as they used to for that other team that used to play here.
“We really miss football. We miss that bunch that left town. When we heard about the Fleet, and how cheap the tickets are, we decided it was time to tailgate again — and see football.”
Matt Gruber, a transplant from London, England, got hooked on American football over there and wanted more when he came here.
“The games are good and the players are good. I’m impressed,” he said.
Attendance went from 9,000 at the week three home game against the San Antonio Commanders to 16,000 for last the March 9 game against the Salt Lake Stallions. For the record, the Fleet beat the Salt Lake Stallions 27-25 on a last-second field goal by former Aztecs kicker Donny Hageman as time ran out. The win was set up by two pass interceptions by former Aztec cornerback Kameron Kelly.
We’ll see what happens when Birmingham comes to town March 17 at 5 p.m.
Tailgates start much earlier.
—Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.