The Alliance of American Football (AAF) shut down on April 2, but it will leave behind a legacy of advanced sport tech.
The AAF invested heavily in developing proprietary advanced technology:
“One of the things we’re building is a football league, but on the other side, we’re building a technology company that allows direct and, for the first time ever, fully real-time data streaming out of the game for what we call Stats 2.0.” —Charlie Ebersol
Early Signs of a Strong Start
The AAF showed a lot of promise early on. Recognizable players and coaches like Steve Spurrier, Trent Richardson, and, later in the season, Johnny Manziel signed on to participate in the league. The AAF debuted on CBS the week after the Super Bowl and showed strong ratings, averaging 3.25 million viewers.
This was a higher rating than that night’s NBA game between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder on ABC. Social media was abuzz with AAF chatter. While the numbers tailed off after the first week, the league still had a solid base of followers.
In contrast to previous failed secondary football leagues like the XFL and USFL, the AAF was marketed from the beginning as a complement to the NFL, instead of a rival. The league never competed directly with the NFL for viewers. Contracts allowed players to leave if they were signed by an NFL team. The NFL itself responded positively to the league, even airing games on the NFL Network.
But Where Is Tech Taking Us?
The AAF outfitted players with wearables that transmitted real-time data to the league.
The league used this data to develop a live fantasy app, where users could predict what type of play would come next. They could predict if it would be a run or pass, where it would go, and if it would be a first down or touchdown.
The app calculated live probabilities for each option, and gave users points for their predictions based on the odds of each event happening. There was very little latency. This separated the AAF from the NBA, which is trying a similar enhanced viewing experience.
There were some complaints that the AAF app was actually ahead of the broadcast on the television, thus spoiling the game for fans. Users also complained that the points they could accrue did not mean anything. While at the time of the first game, there were no rewards for high scores in the app’s fantasy game, the league was working with MGM on developing in-app gambling options.
The app also had an interactive scoreboard where fans could choose what stats were shown to them during a game. Plus, the league invested heavily in video technology to provide clear feeds through its app without latency. The AAF laid new video wiring in all of the stadiums it was using, and built new streaming hardware.
All this technology was very advanced for the sports world. The AAF hired talented developers from prestigious tech companies like BitTorrent and Tesla. They had an open GraphQL API that processed information from players’ wearable technology. The API was honed using data from practices and flag football games before the season started.
The potential for predictive analytics out of this data was immense. Ebersol described the league’s tech as “a couple of generations ahead of where everybody else is.”
“We really were in it for the technology,” Scott Butera, MGM Resort president of interactive games, stated.
“They have a technology that’s eliminated latency. If you actually watch the game in the app, you see the play before it happens on TV.”
Hot Water for the League?
Unfortunately, there was trouble for the AAF from the beginning. It turned out the league did not have enough cash to get by when it started. The league missed payroll in the first week of the season, claiming it was due to a glitch in its system.
With 53 man traveling rosters and a high risk of injury for players, football teams are incredibly expensive to maintain. The league was not profitable from the start.
Just ten days into the season, the AAF needed a massive cash infusion to stay afloat. Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon came in with a pledge of up to $250 million to keep the league running, but began to clash with the league’s founders almost immediately.
Eventually, Dundon made a statement that he would shut down the league unless NFL Players Association agreed to allow players under NFL contract to play in the AAF. The league had planned on an eventual partnership with the NFL and NFLPA, but not until two or three years down the road. The AAF needed to build on its own first. The NFLPA did not agree and the league was in trouble.
Dundon shut down the league on April 2 after investing $70 million. Other members of league management cried out that they wanted to keep going. Apparently the decision to suspend the league was Dundon’s, and Dundon’s alone.
MMQB’s Albert Breer reported that Dundon may have only invested in the league to gain access to its technology. But according to Darren Rovell, stripping down the league to just control its technology would not be legal. When MGM invested in the league, the contract included language that gave MGM ownership of the AAF’s technology if the league went out of business.
But regardless of who ends up with ownership, this technology could be revolutionary for sports, if it can be developed upon. Some former AAF engineers thought that it could not be, comparing buying the league’s technology to buying a playbook without hiring the coach or players.
The AAF may live on in other ways as well. Several players have since signed on to NFL rosters. Plus, some rule changes may carry over to the NFL.
The league experimented with eliminating kickoffs, and replacing onside kicks with an opportunity to convert a long fourth down to keep the ball. Subsequently, the Denver Broncos proposed making that rule change to the NFL. Although they were shut down this time, maybe that idea will take hold as more and more players get injured on kickoffs.
The league also had a “sky judge.” This was a mechanism for resolving officiating mistakes without taking the time to go to a replay review. Replay reviews can be interminable in NFL games. The NFL could look to utilize the “sky judge” in the future.
There have been many alternative football leagues in history, but none have been successful enough to last. The AAF showed promise, but it soon fizzled out. Maybe it can leave a legacy on the sports world through its technology.