If you visited the Alliance of American Football (AAF) website at any point last week, you were still greeted with the league’s Week 8 Power Rankings. Click on the AAF app and enter a bizarro world, one where four “upcoming” Week 9 (and now Week 10) games that will never be played are still advertised to air on CBS, NFL Network, and Bleacher Report Live.
It’s fitting, in a way. The last week has been something out of the Twilight Zone for AAF players and personnel But in reality, the here-today-gone-tomorrow league actually fell victim to a Tom Dundon-authored ending. It saw the closing credits roll at one of the strangest possible junctures of the story: two weeks shy of the conclusion of the AAF’s inaugural season.
AAF attempted to lure bettors, fantasy players early
One of the many confounding aspects of the AAF’s sudden demise is that, on the surface, the league actually seemed to be both well organized and cutting edge in the early stages. That was especially true when it came to betting.
Evidently planned for some time under a shroud of secrecy, the AAF’s existence suddenly became public courtesy of co-founder Charlie Ebersol’s announcement on March 20 of last year. There were plenty of big names already lined up in the starting blocks at that point, too. They came at us in dizzying fashion over the next several weeks:
- The likes of Steve Spurrier, Mike Singletary, Dennis Erickson, and Mike Martz were set to coach.
- Michael Vick was hired as offensive coordinator by the Atlanta Legends.
- Potential future NFL Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu, Jared Allen, and Hines Ward would hold key administrative positions.
- CBS and its secondary networks were confirmed as broadcast partners.
And there was the embrace of sports betting and fantasy sports as an important component of the league’s long-term sustainability and visibility:
- Almost from the onset, Ebersol talked up the “integrated fantasy experience” the league was preparing ahead of its first season.
- Approximately six months later, the AAF was putting pen to paper on a partnership with MGM Resorts that made the industry heavyweight an exclusive in-game gambling partner. In conjunction, the AAF touted forthcoming in-game sports betting options in legal states.
- The league revealed wearable technology for the players would help generate odds for those wagers. They were to be integrated directly into player uniforms, designed to continuously collect biometric data from each athlete.
For the pro football fan who likes a bit of a sweat alongside his or her enjoyment of the sport, the AAF tossed out more red meat than your local burger joint.
AAF never fully meshed with sports bettors
But for all the hype, the league mostly left sports bettors at the altar.
Initially, even finding a legal, regulated sportsbook offering anything beyond AAF futures bets was a bit of a scavenger hunt. Naturally, MGM, as an official partner of the league, offered Week 1 lines. However, for the first two weeks, they did so only in Nevada.
Meanwhile, the likes of DraftKings Sportsbook, FanDuel Sportsbook, 888 Sport and BetStars NJ were nowhere to be found with respect to actual game lines during the first two weeks of the season. DK, FD, BetStars, and PointsBet eventually jumped into the AAF market beginning in Week 3. MGM began offering game lines that week to its New Jersey customers as well.
Ironically, given their initial hesitation, all of the books would end up refunding AAF futures bets just over five weeks later. DK voided all AAF futures wagers earlier this week and offered its users a free bet of the corresponding amount. FD actually opted to pay out all futures wagers on the league-leading 7-1 Orlando Apollos to win what would have been the first AAF championship.
DK Sportsbook reported to PlayPicks.com via e-mail that handle was about “as expected” for the short-lived league but declined to provide specific numbers. Meanwhile, a PointsBet representative confirmed that AAF handle was relatively sparse; the league didn’t seem to resonate much with the operator’s customers.
Lack of DFS market penetration
The terrain was a bit rough on the daily fantasy sports (DFS) side of the equation.
While impossible to gauge on exactly how large a scale, there seemed to be a clamoring in social media circles for DFS’s Big Two — DraftKings and FanDuel — to offer AAF-themed contests as the season kicked off the week following the Super Bowl. In fact, there was enough that both sites eventually issued official statements regarding the matter. Alas, their communications confirmed they would take hands-off approaches to the league for its first season.
The lack of engagement, which seems prescient in hindsight, was particularly interesting coming from DK. The company has typically practiced an “open arms” approach with alternative leagues and niche sports. That’s led to some innovative, multi-faceted working agreements with entities such as Euroleague Basketball, the CFL, and the Arena Football League.
Ultimately, Fanball proved a bit of an oasis in the desert on this front. The long-tenured fantasy sports operator stepped up in each of the AAF’s eight weeks with a full array of cash games and tournaments. A request for specifics on what type of entry-fee handle the contests garnered week to week was pending a response at the time of this writing.
Overestimation of sports betting’s impact?
In the wake of a death almost as sudden as its birth, the AAF, and more specifically, co-founders Ebersol and Bill Polian, have been accused of placing too much stock in sports betting.
Perhaps both men privately entertained a fleeting idea that being the first pro football league to launch in a legalized sports betting environment would catapult them to near-instant popularity. But the thought of them fully adopting that as an operational philosophy seems unlikely. Granted, there’s no shortage of national buzz surrounding sports betting. As expected, many state legislatures are actively deliberating bills that would legalize and regulate the activity.
Yet the reality is that as the kickoff-less AAF played its initial 1st-and-10 from the 25-yard line back on Feb. 9, legalized sports betting was available in just eight states. That’s hardly the type of market penetration the AAF dreamed of.
League never delivered on self-generated sports betting hype
And if that was the co-founders’ thinking, they had a funny way of showing it. Most telling is the fact that exactly none of the aforementioned money-based gaming bells and whistles ever came to fruition during the AAF’s eight-week existence. Furthermore, their absence was accompanied by a corresponding lack of explanation or follow-up.
Ebersol and company seemingly had the right idea in signing with a major name in the gaming industry and preparing to offer in-game betting options. The ability to place wagers based on detailed information about the player’s physical state at any given point in the game would have been beyond groundbreaking as well.
Unfortunately, the AAF may have been long on innovation, but short on timely follow-through.
The gambling function would have still only been accessible to fans in a limited number of states. However, it certainly would have drawn some positive press for the league, offered bettors an intriguing new product, and potentially laid the groundwork for even more innovation in the space.
Its failure to surface chipped away, to some degree, at the league’s credibility. While sports betting was likely never envisioned as a savior, the wagering platform as originally presented would have undoubtedly made for an appealing complementary piece in Year 1. It at least would have set the league apart in a burgeoning market.
Fantasy players also left wanting
To an extent, the same applies to the AAF’s swing-and-miss with the fantasy industry. Initially, Ebersol once again seemed on the same wavelength as today’s tech-savvy sports consumers.
There was talk of a real-time, AAF-developed fantasy product. And yet in this aspect, the league also failed to deliver its would-be revolutionary in-house offering. Then, there was the inability to pique the interest of the DFS industry’s two heavyweights. AAF DFS contests on DK, FD, or both would have undoubtedly brought enhanced awareness of the league.
We’ll never know how much the needle would have moved in that case. But some positive net effect would have ensued. Both operators have managed to at least modestly raise the profile of several secondary sports leagues by offering contests.
Not all for naught with sports betting?
From a sports-betting perspective, the AAF was a colossal letdown. However, the silver lining remains its original bright ideas.
While it never delivered, the AAF presumably retains intellectual property rights to the technology for their in-game betting ambitions. Therefore, the chances of those innovations eventually surfacing through licensing to other leagues still exist.
And the AAF’s decision to form a partnership with a major name such as MGM for a would-be in-game betting platform is noteworthy in its own right. Major casinos, pro leagues, and even individual teams appear to be headed for plenty of trips down the aisle together over the coming years as legalized sports betting spreads. The AAF essentially broke the ice with its MGM arrangement.
While many pro leagues present awkwardly with regard to betting, each one seems destined to eventually embrace it in the same way the AAF intended.