The AAF’s Relationship with The NFL Was Built to Fail

On Tuesday, the AAF officially suspended operations for the 2019 season. Notwithstanding profitability concerns, the palpable unwillingness of the NFL to support the organization was leaked as a reason for the league’s uncertain future. But AAF’s aspirations of becoming a developmental league were doomed from the start.

Every few years a wealthy investor attempts to take on the NFL and enter the professional football market. Historically, the most successful attempt was the USFL, a league that was operational from 1982-86 and boasted future NFL Hall of Fame member Jim Kelly. A more recent attempt to enter the professional football market was the AAF, founded, in part, by NFL Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian. The design of the league was sleek, the rules were tailored to speed up the game, and the league integrated innovative technology that allowed fans unprecedented access, thereby creating opportunities to bet

Potential profits existed, but the league had cash flow issues from week one on. The immediate financial future was so uncertain that investors attempted to raise capital, resulting in NHL Owner Tom Dundon investing upwards of 100 million dollars to help keep the lights on and pay the players. Notably, to this point, due to the NFL’s dominance, no other rival leagues has been able to secure high profile players. The lynchpin to secure Mr. Dundon’s investment was the AAF aimed to be an ally rather than compete with the NFL. The business was modeled to grow into a developmental league similar to the NBA’s G league, where players from major league clubs can be sent to gain experience.

Creating a developmental league in a unionized professional sport, from the outside, requires the consent of both management and labor. Consent is required because the structure of the league including safety rules and playing time are terms and conditions of employment, thereby making them mandatory topics of collective bargaining. Neither the players nor league management can uniformly implement changes. Fears of additional game time which would violate the collective bargaining agreement limit were a major factor in the NFLPA’s decision to withhold support for a developmental league. The current collective bargaining agreement will expire in 2020.  

Unfortunately, the AAF launched its inaugural season before obtaining the NFLPA’s consent to lend active NFL athletes to the league. This is critical, as lending athletes is necessary for the AAF to maintain a talented and high-quality product. Without marquee young players to “develop”, the AAF product will slowly erode over time, as will fan interest. Recognizing this problem and the NFL’s unwillingness to restructure to accommodate a developmental league, Dundon suspended the league, taking a loss of over $70 million dollars. 

A developmental football league raises thorny issues for the NFL. First, from a player safety standpoint, both labor and management have a vested interest in players being available to play on game days—as one anonymous NFL trainer remarked, “remember you can’t make the club in the tub!” Similar to recent concerns about safety risks from adding additional games to the regular season, creating a developmental league for young players undeniably increases the risk of injuries. Young professional football players, who arguably give their primes to NCAA programs significantly below market value (but not to worry they get free snacks), face more game time opening themselves up to additional injuries. Although more live game exposure may positively impact their development, in its current form the risk of career-altering injuries simply outweighs development.

The second issue for the NFL is player compensation and employee benefits that undermines labor relations. Since suspending operations there have been horror stories of players who must pay their own remaining medical bills from injuries incurred during AAF games and practices. To be clear, employee health and welfare plans governed under ERISA can be amended or terminated by an employer at any time; employers are not required to afford welfare plans at all. Although the AAF’s actions seem arbitrary, they are legal and common practice. But the threat of the league ceasing operations while current NFL athletes are rehabbing injuries can create liability for the league and unstable labor relations. Additionally, how players in the AAF are compensated can create issues because AAF teams are not affiliated with individual NFL clubs, and it is unclear if they can collect salaries from more than one league at a time. At the very least, this can lead to issues because some young players are making more money from playing in the AAF during the NFL offseason, while some are not.

As is the case with most investments, it is better to look before you leap. It goes without saying, the AAF—feeling competition from rival upstart leagues like the XFL, attempted to get a jump on the market. But the violence of football and relatively unstable relationship between the NFLPA and the NFL make a developmental league untenable in the short term. Careers are too short to make a few additional snaps of glorified spring football worth it. As negotiations begin for the next collective bargaining agreement in the NFL, player safety will (rightfully) take center stage and until the game is safer, less game time is more for all NFL athletes.

By Tony DiPerna

Photo Credit: Jason Decrow/AP

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