Peter J. Kaplan
8 min readMay 22, 2020

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BILL POLIAN AND THE AAF

The Alliance of American Football (AAF) lasted just over one year from its inception to its cessation and fewer than two months with respect to on-the-field play, closing shop eight weeks into a scheduled 10-week inaugural regular season slate.

Six days after Super Bowl LIII on February 9, 2019 the league kicked off and on April 2nd football operations were suspended by controlling owner Thomas Dundon who purchased his stake in the enterprise shortly after play had begun.

This nugget reveals plenty: the league was founded in March of 2018 and was still looking for vast infusions of capital after it had opened for business eleven months later.

The handwriting on the wall was never more legible.

Surely it was clear to Dundon, Chairman and Managing Partner of Dundon Capital Partners in Dallas, TX.; Owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes; Majority Owner of TopGolf; and the primary landowner of Portland, Michigan (pop. 3,883–2010 Census).

League co-founder and NFL Hall-of-Fame GM Bill Polian, speaking for members of the circuit’s supervisory committee was not happy.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn that Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football. When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all. The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”

Players found out about the plug-pulling over the Internet even before their coaches were able to confirm the news. They were evicted from the hotels housing their teams, personally charged for unpaid hotel bills and medical costs and forced to pay their way home.

League employees were notified courtesy of an April 2nd letter from the AAF Board which not only failed to specify a reason for ending the season, but informed them that their jobs would be terminated the next day without a severance package of any sort offered.

No formal public statement or press release was issued until April 5th when in an unsigned document the AAF weakly acknowledged the havoc they had wreaked.

“This week, we made the difficult decision to suspend all football operations for the Alliance of American Football. We understand the difficulty that this decision has caused for many people and for that we are very sorry. This is not the way we wanted it to end, but we are also committed to working on solutions for all outstanding issues to the best of our ability. Due to ongoing legal processes, we are unable to comment further or share details about the decision. We are grateful to our players, who delivered quality football and may now exercise their NFL-out clauses in our contract. We encourage them to continue pursuing their dreams and wish them the best. We are grateful to our fans, who have been true believers from the beginning, and to our world-class partners. And to the Alliance coaches and employees who devoted their valuable time and considerable talent to this venture, we are forever grateful.”

“…we are very sorry…”

Who is?

Dundon?

And what difference does it make anyway?

Polian has said he’s no longer involved with the league and Ebersol has said nothing publicly since the AAF folded.

“Solutions for all outstanding issues?” What does that even mean?

With one benevolent stroke of the pen billionaire Dundon could take care of the players and employees, but will he?

And what “ongoing legal processes?” Where exactly is the litigation? Is the league being sued or does it anticipate such an action?

Apologizing is admirable but it really doesn’t cut it. This whole thing was an abomination from the get-go for one main reason. Money.

That is lack of funding and poor fiscal planning.

And for what it’s worth the vultures are circling aiming to tear apart whatever is left of the carcass.

(See the newest rendition of Vince McMahon’s XFL coming to a venue hopefully near you in February 2020).

Dundon reportedly lost $70 million and Polian and Ebersol need something more substantial than a dainty serviette to wipe the egg from their faces.

Said the venerable Polian in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio last week, “We had a lot of hiccups. It came so quickly — some of it was a little bit expected but a lot of it was unacceptable. But we’ve rectified that and I’m glad to see that’s been done. [What?] Myself and many of the GMs, even though we’re not on the payroll, we’ve been working all day to try and rectify those problems.” [What?]

This really doesn’t sound like Polian to me.

Not one bit.

According to Ben Volin, football scribe for the Boston Globe, the AAF and all developmental football leagues — the World League, the USFL, the World League of American Football, the original XFL, NFL Europe, the UFL, the Arena League, The Spring League and yes even in all likelihood McMahon’s XFL redux — are doomed to failure if the investors want to turn a profit because the economics don’t work and probably won’t work.

Never mind that football is the costliest of all sports shackled by the largest rosters, most equipment, endless injury reality and most expensive insurance.

For Volin, “to make money, you need a compelling product. Americans don’t love football — they love good football. They won’t just blindly turn on any old game and watch it for three hours. Division 2 college games don’t draw 50,000 fans. Even NFL games can be boring — just ask the 98.2 million people who watched Super Bowl LIII. And there simply aren’t enough good quarterbacks on the planet to deliver entertaining football to a [professional] league other than the NFL.”

He may have something with the quarterback thing reasoning, “The top 96 or so quarterbacks are signed with NFL teams. Of those, only about 20 can really play. Have you seen the sorry state of backup quarterbacking in the NFL? Now consider that every one of those players is better than the quarterbacks in the AAF.”

And if there aren’t enough good quarterbacks, the play isn’t entertaining and money dries up.

Conceding that the league generated enormous publicity during the past year — largely through NFL-owned and partnered outlets such as NFL Network, CBS, CBS Sports Network, TNT and ESPN, lending an air of legitimacy to it — Volin and many others saw trouble on the horizon in February.

Reports that the league needed an angel investor (Dundon) with piles of cash just to meet payroll in the season’s second week were corroborated and that spelled disaster.

Jarrett Bell writing for USA Today opines that the concept of developing players for the NFL so as to augment the long-standing college ‘farm system’ is necessary and still can be viable.

It’s not so much a matter of threatening the NFL — a fool’s errand if there ever was one — but rather helping improve the quality of the NFL roster, specifically the bottom third of the 53-man squad which typically has less than a two-year football life span.

Salary-cap management with all of its attendant shuffling and maneuvering has helped eliminate the middle-class segment of player. All the more reason to re-develop that sector through potential pipelines.

Observes Bell, “It is what football (uh, the NFL) needs beyond the college game, a place to groom quarterbacks, O-linemen and then some, just like the NBA, NHL and MLB have their developmental leagues.”

The new XFL is next up with among many new twists its 9-point touchdowns, 3-point conversions and 2-point conversion shootouts as opposed to regular OT (with 44 players on the field).

Following that re-launch the Pacific Pro Football league (PPF) is scheduled to begin play in the summer of 2020.

Founded by Don Yee (better known as Tom Brady’s agent) the PPF, composed of four Southern California-based teams will stock its rosters with players who are not yet eligible for the NFL, i.e. 18–21-year-olds who may or may not have played collegiately.

The goal is to train and acclimate elite talents to a pro football culture.

Says Yee, “We’re designing a professional finishing school,” adding, “Think of the Senior Bowl for eight weeks.”

Sincerely disappointed that the AAF couldn’t complete its first season, Yee recognizes the need for legitimate development streams. “We’re rooting for the XFL to succeed,” he stated matter-of-factly. “We will be very complimentary to their efforts. Like the NFL, they will also be a potential destination for our players.”

Good luck. Another long-shot perhaps, but stranger things…

Which circuitously brings us back to Bill Polian.

We are hardly talking about a greenhorn or a rube here, far from it.

A widely respected football executive, he rose to prominence as the General Manager of the Buffalo Bills, the chief architect of a team which reached four straight Super Bowls (1990–1993). Promoted to GM on December 30, 1985 he took the reins of a club suffering from consecutive 2–14 seasons and saddled with an apathetic fan base.

While with the Bills he won the NFL Executive of the Year Award twice (1988; 1991). He would go on to win the award four more times, in 1995 and ’96 as GM of the Carolina Panthers and in 1999 and 2009 as GM of the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2012 Polian was honored as the 28th inductee of the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame and in 2017 he was similarly feted when he was inducted into the Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor. He was a 2015 inductee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

How could Polian co-found an off-season alternative football league which would topple like a house of cards in a summer breeze?

How could he attach himself, his good name and become inextricably linked to a money-starved endeavor destined to fail, doomed from the jump?

Was it ego? Was he the victim of financial misinformation?

It just doesn’t add up.

Short of all the facts perhaps, it remains a mystery just the same.

In the aftermath of the shutdown Polian was no longer being paid by Dundon but was still trying to help players and coaches with their respective lots. “I’m no longer employed, like most of the football people — we’re all out of work,” he said. “I’ve been doing what I can over the last couple days to help everybody get situated as best I can.”

Intimating that Dundon dropped the ball is grossly unfair.

What is fair would be to wonder why Polian and co-founder Ebersol didn’t have a better plan in place for the AAF which needed Dundon’s lifeline early in an aborted first season and then vanished into thin air when he decided to stop the bleeding.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in April 2019.]

ADDENDA: The XFL suspended operations and declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2020 before their first season could be completed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Don Yee has abandoned his plans for the Pacific Pro Football League scheduled to launch this summer (2020).

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