Going to the mat for football talent
The XFL won’t start play for more than a year, but the competition for football talent between Vince McMahon’s relaunched league and the new Alliance of American Football is happening now.
On Aug. 31, the day before NFL clubs made their final roster cuts, XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck sent a mass email to NFL agents warning them of issues “that may inhibit your client’s freedom in choosing to join our league when we launch in 2020.”
One of those issues, multiple sources said, was an 18-month non-compete clause inserted into the standard AAF contract that prohibits playing in a competing league with regular-season games between February and July. Both the XFL and AAF are spring leagues; the AAF is set to launch Feb. 9, 2019, while the XFL plans to launch a year later.
Asked about his letter to agents, Luck said this month, “I can tell you it is our plan over the next 13 to 15 months to engage in a series of letters from me to the agent community informing them of issues we believe are pertinent to their clients: potential players for us.” Luck added that he planned to write to NFL agents as often as every two to three weeks, and that the XFL would begin signing players as early as January even though the league had not, as of last week, set its start date for 2020.
The AAF, meanwhile, has signed 335 players, 75 percent of whom have some kind of NFL experience, according to co-founder Bill Polian. The AAF is offering three-year, $250,000 contracts, but players who hit performance goals can make more than $100,000 a year, the league says.
“We’re real,” Polian said. “We are signing players and we will be ready to go on the fourth of January with training camps.”
The XFL has not revealed details of how much players will be paid, but Luck has told agents in a letter that “exceptional players” can make more than $200,000 a year.
Polian said he had not read Luck’s letter to agents but he’d heard about it. Both the XFL and AAF will allow players out of contracts to pursue an opportunity in the NFL. The 18-month clause in the AAF contract pertains to players who, after getting a job in the NFL, are then cut.
“If we are voluntarily releasing a guy to go — and we are not under obligation to do so — all we ask is that once his NFL playing days are over, whenever that may be, that if he is going to play in the spring that he return to play with us,” Polian said. “That’s only fair.”
The XFL was the first new league announcement out of the gate this year. McMahon, owner and chairman of WWE, announced Jan. 25 that the XFL, which had a previous incarnation for one season in 2001, would relaunch in 2020. Polian, along with film and television producer Charlie Ebersol, the son of former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol, announced the creation of the AAF on March 20.
But the AAF may be getting the jump on the XFL, not just by hiring players first but also by locking down front-office talent with NFL experience, such as former Rams GM Billy Devaney, former Browns GM Phil Savage and former NFL coach Mike Martz, to name a few.
“I’m tremendously pleased with the people who are affiliated with, coaching-wise and front office-wise, the AAF,” said David Canter, a veteran NFL agent. “They have a very legitimate front office. … These are real-deal guys. They are as real as any NFL organization’s front office.”
David Dunn, CEO of Athletes First, which represents more than 100 NFL players, said he has seen alternative football leagues come and go over the last 25 years, but he thinks the AAF may be different because of the personnel involved. “While I have been skeptical of these leagues in the past, this has the people to make it a success,” Dunn said.
NFL agent Harold Lewis said he has sent 25 player clients to the AAF and may send some to the XFL when it gets up and running. “Both of these new leagues are a dream come true for so many people,” Lewis said.
Prior to the two startups, the Canadian Football League essentially was the last chance to play pro football for the roughly 1,000 players who are cut from NFL teams each year. A standard deal in the CFL is for two years, but CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie said the league has started offering contracts for incoming players that allow them to join the NFL after one season. The “NFL option,” as it is called, had been offered in the past, but not for years.
“It has been closed for a number of years and we just decided to re-open it this year,” Ambrosie said. “It’s in response in part to the AAF. It is also a response, in part, to some of the feedback we got from our players this past offseason.”
The talent side of the NFL is a small community where GMs and agents talk frequently and have known each other for years. The juxtaposition of Polian and Luck as rivals has agents interested — and somewhat entertained. For his part, Polian doesn’t find it strange at all.
“Everybody competes with everybody else in this business,” he said. “I have a lot of friends in the NFL that I competed against for a long time, too. That’s what this business is about.”