Looking out across the intersection of sports and commerce, we see the Alliance of American Football, one fledgling spring professional football league, scuffling for money, and another, the XFL 2.0, waiting for the AAF to fold.
For some time, we’ve been wanting to tell the story of yet another attempted spring league. It had well-connected industry names at the helm but still couldn’t get off the ground. Fortunately, the group had enough combined intelligence and experience to acquiesce and fold before pouring money down a hole. So, call this a cautionary tale for anyone looking to launch spring pro football.
Houston businessman Mark Singleton has been trying to launch a spring league for at least eight years. His vision of the Spring Professional Football League was for a single-entity ownership developmental circuit, in which players would last three years — either dropping out or making it to the next level. There would be no possibility of bidding wars against the NFL.
Over the past few years, things got more serious. Sources involved at the time tell us that Fox and NBC had committed to share the SPFL as a TV property, with a projected launch date of 2020. Industry veterans in on the project, sources tell us, included TV sports veterans Eric Shanks of Fox; former NBC sales, production and programming exec Mike Trager; and Dennis Mannion, who’d signed a term sheet as CEO after senior marketing and management roles with Palace Sports & Entertainment, the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Dodgers, among others.
“I was pretty fired up about it,” said Mannion, the only person connected with the SPFL who agreed to talk on the record, “and it was clear to me that Fox and NBC really thought it was strong. … I liked the model because it replicated the exact rules of the NFL and it truly set itself up as developmental. The founder [Singleton] had a really strong financial and operating plan.”
The SPFL was looking at some smaller towns and facilities, and perhaps optimistically projecting an average attendance of 20,000. All of that seems similar to the AAF — except for one supposition. “This idea that people are dying for football as soon as the Super Bowl ends is just not true,” said a senior executive for one of the networks involved. “People need a break from football then. Summer is the right time for a developmental league. … Selling tickets in cold-weather cities in February and March is just not a good bet.” So the league was to play from mid-April and finish by early July.
The AAF started this year the week after the Super Bowl. The new XFL will kick off Feb. 8, 2020.
Even with optimism from the prospective TV networks, which were set to televise every SPFL game, there was consensus among the parties that it would take a minimum of $200 million in cash (not just a line of credit) to fund the startup for its first two seasons. They raised around $75 million by late last summer before funding dried up, at least partly because of the AAF and the XFL, in the opinion of one involved party.
“We had some initial traction, but [when] both other leagues announced, that muddied the waters for investors and we couldn’t get any more,” said a senior industry source who worked on the proposed league. After a monthlong extension of an original deadline, the two networks pulled out last September. “The smart money turned out to be ‘Let’s not do it without the $200 million in the bank.’
“It may not be feasible for anyone because football is such an expensive sport. The workmen’s comp and insurance issues are enough to derail a league by themselves.”
The XFL is backed with funding from Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment. Still, we remain convinced that the expense of tackle football is enough to crush even the most substantial of heavyweights, and that while there’s an appetite and ample talent to supply a “G League for football,” that won’t be successful unless and until the NFL lends dollars, IP and associated credibility.
Still, that siren song about replicating the American Football League’s success in the 1960s seems more compelling than ever, even though there’s a junkyard of failed football startups since the AFL was founded 60 years ago.
“Everybody thinks they’ll be sport’s next entrepreneurial genius, but it’s hard work and it takes a long time to establish any league,” said the network senior executive, “because football is still the single most expensive sport to run and maintain.”
■ LONG DRIVE: WME-IMG Consulting has quietly won an agency shootout to activate Audi’s U.S. sports properties, which include one of Major League Soccer’s largest sponsorship deals; a title sponsorship for the home stadium of D.C. United; and 90 Audi quattro Cup amateur golf tournaments, which feed into a national final. The Audi business had been under review since early last year. It was last with CSM LeadDog.
Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com.