Were three weeks into the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football, the latest in a long series of leagues that have tried to fill the gap between the Super Bowl and college football spring games and slake fans thirst for spring football. My team, the Birmingham Iron, is sitting pretty with a 3-0 record and a pair of convincing wins over the Memphis Express and the Atlanta Legends to go with a come-from-behind victory against the Salt Lake Stallions, a team that avenged its opening-week loss to the Arizona Hotshots on Saturday. Here are a few thoughts from where I sit as an economist and a consumer of entertainment.
The Product Is Unique. The biggest differences come from the rule changes. There are no kickoffs and no extra points: every touchdown is followed by a two-point conversion attempt, then the other team gets the ball starting at their own 25-yard line. In NCAA and NFL games, a team scores a touchdown, fans celebrate, an extra point is kicked, fans celebrate again, and then theres a crescendo leading up to the kickoff. Theres none of that in the AAF. A team scores, fans celebrate, then they line up for the two-point conversion, and the fans stop celebrating and focus on the conversion play. Then the other team is in business at the 25-yard line. As they gather data, it will be interesting to see whether or not this changesand perhaps interruptsthe emotional flow of the game. But that might take some getting used to as, according to AAF founder Charlie Ebersol, studies suggest that fans are bored by kickoffs.
The Pace Is Quick. There are some big differences between NFL/NCAA football and the AAF. The AAF is designed to move quickly with a 30-second play clock and no TV timeouts. I like how they ran short commercials side-by-side with the game between plays during the first weeks broadcast instead of stopping everything for a few minutes like they do in the NFL and the NCAA. Going to an AAF gameand weve been to twois less of a commitment than (for example) going to an Alabama or Auburn game. Replays, in particular, dont bog down, and this is definitely one way the AAF has improved on the NFL and NCAA. During the broadcast of the first game, it was interesting to hear the sky judge work through whether or not a play should be overturned.
The AAF Raw Livestreams make it easy to watch from anywhere. I dont have cable, so most of the time Ive watched the live streams at AAF.com. Theres no commentary, which actually makes it easy to keep one eye on while youre doing something else, like organizing receipts and tax documents. Unfortunately, the live data, the video stream, and the app are out of sync with the video stream usually being something like a minute or so behind the data. Ive tried to position the feed on my screen so this doesnt happen, but its amusing a bit anticlimactic to see the score change a minute before the scoring play.
The Stadiums Are Nearly Empty. The big question has been will people watch? The TV ratings have been decent, but this was true of the first incarnation of the XFL. The Iron has drawn announced crowds of about 17,000 for the first couple of games, which is respectable. There have been a few announced crowds of 20,000+, but from watching the games on TV and from the Iron games Ive been to, there have been far more empty seats than fans. At this pace, the Iron might draw as many fans during their entire five-game home season as Alabama or Auburn would have drawn to a single gamea couple of stadium expansions ago.
The Schedules are Strangely Lopsided. Birmingham plays four of its first five games at home. Atlanta was 0-2 before they played a home game, which likely affected attendance at that first home game (a loss to Birmingham). Arizona and Salt Lake have played each other twice in the first three weeks, as have San Diego and San Antonio. Both times, the losers of the Week 1 game have come back and avenged their losses. It is too early to tell, but it will be interesting to see how this affects attendance and fan engagement. I doubt Atlanta having two convincing road losses on their resume helped create a lot of buzz for their opening home gamewhich, from the live feed, sounded a lot like an Iron home game. Thats not entirely surprising: even though the crowds have been small in Birmingham they have been enthusiastic, and Atlanta is a pretty short drive. I almost made the trip myself.
The Fan Experience Via the App Is Interesting in Theory but...Iffy In Practice. Youre basically supposed to be able to follow along, predict plays, and earn points for play-predicting success an immersive environment with the Alliance App. From my experience, it hasnt really worked. The AAF has an official gaming partner in MGM, and the possibility of real-time in-game wagering could be what ultimately sets the league apart. The AAF seems aware of the tech issues, and theyre looking to hire a lot of peopleincluding a Site Reliability Engineerto change this.
Local Economic Impact Will Be Limited. City boosters shouldnt expect AAF-related infusions of economic development. Just like with virtually every other sport, the money is coming from the local area and moving economic activity from one part of town to another. The case for major league sports subsidies is pretty weak. The case for minor league sports subsidiesis even weaker. Sports are great fun, but teams and leagues should rise and fall on their own merits.
Its Cheap Family Fun, But Its Struggling Just Like Its Predecessors. Its definitely minor leaguebut of course, minor leagues thrive in the other sports. Football, perhaps because NCAA FBS football is a de facto minor league, has been different. If the league is going to thrive, its probably going to require some help from the NFL. Assuming the league makes it out of its first season, it will be especially interesting to see how it competes with the XFL when that new league begins playing in 2020.