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A new football league kicks off on CBS — and no one is talking about it

Daniel Roberts

American professional football on TV doesn’t have to end with the Super Bowl.

That was the thinking behind the Alliance of American Football (AAF), a new league co-founded by NFL Hall of Famer Bill Polian and TV producer Charlie Ebersol, son of NBC executive Dick Ebersol.

The league has big football names involved (Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Dean Blandino, Mike Pereira), big financial backing (Keith Rabois, Peter Thiel, Chernin Group, and MGM), and big television partners. It kicks off on CBS on Saturday night, and from there its games go to CBS Sports Network, NFL Network, and TNT.

But as of Saturday morning, the average NFL fan is still completely unaware of it.

Luckily, Ebersol tells Yahoo Finance, “Our business model doesn’t require Day 1 success.”

Christian Hackenberg (No. 14), quarterback for the Memphis Express, throws it in an AAF preseason game against the Salt Lake Stallions at the Alamodome on January 27, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas. (courtesy: Alliance of American Football)
Christian Hackenberg (No. 14), quarterback for the Memphis Express, throws it in an AAF preseason game against the Salt Lake Stallions at the Alamodome on January 27, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas. (courtesy: Alliance of American Football)

Not trying to compete with the NFL

Super Bowl 53 was the lowest-rated Super Bowl since 2009, with around 98 million viewers. But a disappointment for the NFL is a ratings bonanza for any other live television event. 98 million people is a massive number. And Ebersol has a stat he likes to cite in every single media appearance he does: an estimated 80 million people stop watching live sports on TV entirely after the Super Bowl.

If the AAF can get even a small piece of that pie, it’s a start. Ebersol talks like he’d rather the numbers not be massive right off the bat. CBS announcers have given brief verbal promos for the AAF during NFL broadcasts in the playoffs, but otherwise the AAF has not done aggressive marketing of any kind.

“The thing we didn’t want to do is what my dad and Vince [McMahon] did 17 years ago [with the XFL], which was start hammering promos seven months before the XFL,” Ebersol said on this week’s episode of the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast. “You pound people with it too much and at a certain point in time their expectation is so out of whack... My dad’s favorite story to tell about the XFL is they did testing the week of the first game, and something like 60% of people answered that they thought defensive players would be allowed to bring folding chairs on the field to hit the offense with, based on the promos.”

Of course, past attempts at alternate football leagues have failed again and again. The USFL lasted just three seasons, from 1983 to 1985. The XFL lasted one season, in 2001.

But those leagues tried to take on the NFL. “The nuance between us and everyone who’s attempted to do this before, and who’s talking about doing it now, is that we’re doing this largely in partnership with the NFL,” Ebersol says. When the NFL season ends, the AAF begins—and the NFL Network is a broadcasting partner.

The AAF will encourage its players to shoot for the NFL—just not when the AAF is in season, from Dec. 29 to April 29. Players sign a three-year, $250,000 contract with the AAF, but they can leave to play for the NFL when the AAF season is over.

That said, the AAF is not an NFL development league, and it’s not the minor leagues, where a pro team can call up a player any time. “We call it symbiotic or complementary” to the NFL, Ebersol says.

The AAF has eight teams at launch, in small-market cities including Memphis, Orlando, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and San Diego. The teams are all owned by the league—no individual franchise owners yet. All of the AAF players are full-time employees with full medical coverage, and most interestingly, can earn bonuses for activities and community engagement off the field. “More Twitter followers, more charity work, all of those things lead to bonuses,” Ebersol says. That is a rather different tack than the NFL has taken with its players on social media.

And 70% of AAF players at kickoff of its inaugural season have played in the NFL in the last 18 months. NFL fans will recognize quarterbacks Zach Mettenberger, Christian Hackenberg, and Aaron Murray, running back Trent Richardson, kickers Nick Folk and Nick Novak, and coaches Steve Spurrier, Mike Singletary, and Rick Neuheisel.

A few twists on NFL rules

After the controversy of the blown pass interference call in this year’s NFC Championship game between the L.A. Rams and New Orleans Saints, the AAF is wisely touting an extra officiating feature of their games: a ninth referee, called the “sky judge,” who sits in a sky box watching all the bird’s-eye-view camera angles and can call a penalty if there’s an egregious miss.

Ebersol also says that the AAF, at launch, has six female referees (the NFL had its first this season) and three female coaches, including Jen Welter (defensive coach for the Atlanta Legends), who in 2015 became the first female NFL coach.

The AAF has nine rule changes from the NFL, and three of them in particular will raise eyebrows with NFL fans.

AAF games will have no kickoffs. “It’s the least popular play and also the most dangerous play,” Ebersol says. AAF games will have no onside kicks. Instead, the kicking team gets the ball on its own 28-yard line, facing 4th down and 12. “If you convert it,” Ebersol says, “you get to keep it.” The idea is to bring quarterbacks onto the field for exciting pass attempts, rather than the traditional longshot NFL onside kick attempt. And in the same spirit of keeping games exciting, AAF games will have no point-after kicks. After a touchdown, teams must always go for a 2-point conversion.

The AAF is not the only upstart football league in the works right now. Vince McMahon is relaunching the XFL in 2020, and former NFL star running back Ricky Williams is working to launch the “Freedom Football League.”

But the AAF beat those leagues to market. It’s real, and it’s kicking off tonight on CBS. Will people watch?

Listen to Charlie Ebersol on this week’s Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast:

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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