Are You Ready for Some (More) Football? – The New Yorker


Not long ago, it was possible, watching the N.F.L.’s ratings decline, to imagine that the country’s most popular form of entertainment was in the process of collapsing under the weight of moral umbrage and fatigue. There was the ugly toll of unending concussions, and the occasionally obtuse leadership of the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, and the apparent conspiracy among the league’s owners to deprive Colin Kaepernick, one of the sport’s more marketable players, of a job, for craven political reasons. And then there was the President of the United States stirring up crowds—at rallies, not football games—with his complaints that the game had gone “soft,” and even encouraging coaches to fire the predominantly African-American players whom he accused of being insufficiently patriotic and deferential. “Notwithstanding the N.F.L.’s year-round ability to be compelling, something was happening to this sport,” Mark Leibovich wrote in his best-selling “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times,” which came out at the start of this past season. “Football felt less confident and more precarious, at least from the outside.”

From the inside, however, those “distractions,” as they were often called, were always seen as a kind of Times reader’s fantasy. The real problem, according to a theory that circulated among professional football minds, was not cultural or political but developmental: the quality of play was slipping. (And this was before the recent, abysmal Super Bowl.) Specifically, the problem could be traced to two positions: quarterback and offensive line. There weren’t enough good QBs, and there weren’t enough overfed men who could adequately protect what few Aaron Rodgerses and Tom Bradys there were. The lack of pocket protection made it harder for mediocre passers to impress, and increased the likelihood of injuries that would in turn deprive fans of the sport’s most recognizable personalities. Why the shortfall? The theory offered an explanation, however speculative and unlikely-sounding to an outsider. It involved the demise, in 2007, of the N.F.L. Europe League. N.F.L. Europe may have been intended to spread the global brand of a distinctly American pastime, but its real value, the idea went, lay in serving as a training ground for American college stars who weren’t yet ready to adjust to the pro-style game played at home. It was the minor league we never knew we needed, and its absence was being felt, years later, in the television-watching households of Indianapolis and San Diego and Cleveland.

I heard this theory recently from Charlie Ebersol, the founder of the Alliance of American Football, a professional “spring” league that will open its inaugural season this weekend—“so that the saddest Sunday in America”—i.e., the Sunday after the Super Bowl—“doesn’t have to be spent at the flea market,” as Ebersol put it. Instead, “you can spend it on your couch, watching football.” The Memphis Express, coached by the Chicago Bears legend Mike Singletary, will be playing the Birmingham Iron at 4 P.M. Eastern. And, at 8 P.M., the Salt Lake Stallions will take on the Arizona Hotshots. (There are also two Saturday-night games, with the San Diego Fleet playing the San Antonio Commanders and the Atlanta Legends playing the Orlando Apollos.) There are eight teams, all told, stocked with players who, for the most part, have made cameos on N.F.L. rosters in recent years. The season runs until late April, with a championship to be held in Las Vegas. There will be no kickoffs, “because the kickoff is the least popular play among fans,” Ebersol said. “Also, the highest likelihood of a concussion.” The play clock will be thirty-five seconds instead of the usual forty. They are aiming for games that finish in two and a half hours, tops. Otherwise, it ought to look pretty familiar.

Ebersol and I were watching Monday Night Football at a bar in Manhattan, and he was describing his experience raising money for the new venture, which is backed by, among others, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and the Chernin Group, the majority owner of the proudly obnoxious blog network Barstool Sports. “Everybody would say to me, in my pitches, ‘Well, what are you going to do about the fact that N.F.L. ratings are down?’ ” he recalled. In other words, if the flagship is in decline, is that really the best time to be launching a spinoff? “I’d point to Andrew Luck being injured as the primary reason A.F.C. ratings were off,” Ebersol said, alluding to 2017, when the Indianapolis Colts QB was sidelined while rehabbing his shoulder. “All of a sudden, the interest level of Colts fans shifts down. And you can track that number—depending on how high profile the person is that gets injured, you see the whole rating for that network dive.” He went on, “The N.F.L. is so fun to grave-dance on that nobody wanted to look at that kind of granularity. But, look, players aren’t hurt this year, and ratings are up, what, twelve per cent?” The lesson seemed to be that football is indomitable—“People like American football,” he said—and we could certainly use another league, which, if nothing else, would only help improve the quality of the premier product.

“If you were designing a sport for television, this is what would come out of the laboratory ninety-nine times out of a hundred,” he said, gesturing at one of the giant screens overhead in the bar, where Seahawks and Vikings players were piled on top of one another. “The field is literally the shape of a television. They literally move from the left side of a wide-screen TV to the right side. They stop every seven to twelve seconds and completely reset on a measured amount of time, in which I can give you all the drama, and then they have high action for a period of time, and then they reset. And then they move in the opposite direction.” When he put it that way, it didn’t sound all that obviously compelling; I’d been thinking about the riveting violence, and the gladiatorial pageantry, and the fact that there just aren’t very many games, which lends a sense of dramatic urgency to every fourth-down call. But I took his point. “Your average N.F.L. rating is six times the rating of the next four sports combined,” he said, exaggerating only slightly. In an ever-fragmenting entertainment market, surely the lone ratings behemoth could be cloned for spillover benefits.

“I look at myself as water in the desert,” Ebersol continued. “I’m not going to the ocean and trying to sell fish. I look at it, like, for some reason that still, to me, exceeds understanding, there’s no football six months of the year!”

The last spring football league to generate any attention involved Ebersol’s father, Dick, the former chairman of NBC Sports, who worked with Vince McMahon, of the W.W.E., to create the X.F.L., which McMahon once described as the “Xtra Fun League.” It placed an emphasis on cheerleaders, “smash-mouth” play, and wrestling-style promotion. “This will not be a league for pantywaists and sissies,” McMahon said; the players wore nicknames, such as “He Hate Me,” on the backs of their jerseys. The X.F.L. launched in 2001 and was laughed out of existence before 2002. Charlie Ebersol directed a documentary about the failed experiment, called “This Was the XFL,” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, which premièred in February, 2017. In its final scene, Dick Ebersol and McMahon meet for dinner and reminisce, over red wine and a white tablecloth, about their old misadventures. Ebersol asks, “Do you ever have any thoughts about trying again?”

“Yes, I do,” McMahon replies.

In January, 2018, McMahon announced his intention to revive the X.F.L., seeming to position his would-be league as an answer to President Trump’s critiques of the N.F.L. “We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time,” he said, adding that players with criminal records would be forbidden. He mentioned that he was willing to spend a hundred million dollars of his own money to make it happen, and announced a launch date of February, 2020. The commissioner and C.E.O. of the rebooted X.F.L., Oliver Luck (Andrew’s dad), told me that McMahon has assured him that the real commitment is closer to five hundred million.

Meanwhile, in December, a press release from an organization called the Freedom Football League revealed that still another spring league is in the works—a looming flood in Ebersol’s desert. Where the X.F.L.’s early branding was #MAGA-friendly, the F.F.L. was emphatically taking the other side: its Web site proclaims, “Billionaires not welcome,” and talks about “fighting institutionalized racism.” The founders include a group of retired N.F.L. players, among them Terrell Owens and Ricky Williams—who told me, when we spoke recently, that, although he’d always “loved the game of football,” he’d had “a troubled relationship with the structure of the league, and the public perception of professional athletes.” Williams, a brilliant running back, was suspended repeatedly during his career for his use of marijuana. He called the new project “a movement,” geared toward improving the lives of the men who play the sport. The teams would be owned in part by the players and in part by the fans, through their investment in season tickets, eliminating the “plantation system” in which owners are, incredibly, still referred to as Mr. Johnson and Mr. Rooney. (Williams said that they had reached out to Colin Kaepernick, to see if he wanted to get involved. “His response was it would threaten his case against the N.F.L., so he’s going to pass for now,” he said.)

Where might the players for all these new leagues come from? Ebersol was eager to tell me that he had locked up much of the talent pool. “Look, here’s the thing,” he said. “There’s a limited number of viable players in the marketplace, and we have seven hundred and fifteen of them under three-year contracts with noncompetes.” (There is a carve-out in A.A.F. contracts for the N.F.L., but not for rival upstarts.)

Oliver Luck, the X.F.L. commissioner, said, of the A.A.F., “It’s not clear whether the noncompete clause in their contract would be enforceable in certain states.” He also reminded me that they weren’t bound by the N.F.L.’s collective-bargaining agreement, which limits eligibility to players who have completed three years of college. “So there’s the opportunity, as well, to look at kids in college that have played a year, maybe two years, and would like to play professional football,” he said. Ebersol, for his part, is planning to honor the N.F.L.’s arrangement, as a point of pride: a reflection of values. “The story people don’t ever tell about football, which I find interesting, is that it’s the single biggest social mover there is in the United States,” he said. “Since World War Two, more guys have gone through four years of paid education on football than they did with the G.I. bond.”

The Freedom Football League is also considering allowing young men who haven’t spent several years in college to play, and Ricky Williams characterized this less as an opportunity for the league than as a means of addressing a social concern. “We watch the N.C.A.A. closely,” he said, alluding to the growing sentiment that big-time college athletics are a form of exploitation. “There’s a lot of talk about opening our league to players right out of high school. The idea that everyone that’s good at football is really meant for a four-year university, you know, it’s not true.” He recalled his own experience going back to school, after retiring from the N.F.L., and sitting in classes with some of the current football players, who weren’t able to “compete at all in the classroom. Think what that does to someone’s confidence in their ability to do things away from football. It’s not good.”

Shortly after I sent e-mails to representatives of the X.F.L. and the F.F.L., requesting interviews, I received an unsolicited message from someone on behalf of the American Flag Football League, saying that they were eager to be “included in the conversation.” Soon, I was on the phone with Jeff Lewis, a libertarian and former hedge-fund manager who quit his job in 2016 to found his own sports organization, which he likened to a combination of “American Ninja Warrior”—i.e., a thrilling display of athleticism by anonymous people in a nontraditional setting—and English soccer’s F.A. Cup (an open tournament that, each year, features the whole spectrum of British clubs, from, say, Manchester United to Didcot Town F.C.). Last summer, the A.F.F.L. hosted the “U.S. Open of Football” exhibition, featuring teams of seven players apiece, with thirty-minute halves and a game clock that runs continuously—until the final minutes, when the clock is stopped after each play, to draw out the suspense. There was a million-dollar cash prize, which went to a team of amateurs quarterbacked by a baggage handler for Delta Airlines.

“Let’s be clear,” Lewis said, of the new leagues that, unlike his, involve tackling, and the costly insurance that comes with it. “There will not be more than one—if one survives. I wonder whether there’s enough talent for one, but there’s certainly not enough for more than one.” He added, “My sense as an N.F.L. fan—and I’m a very fervent and dedicated N.F.L. fan—is that there aren’t enough offensive linemen or quarterbacks for thirty-two N.F.L. teams. So where are all these extra ones hiding out there?”

By contrast, Lewis said, “We get to pick from two other pools of talent that these other leagues will never get to use.” There are former tackle-football players who “just don’t want to get hit again,” he said, citing, as an example, Jahvid Best, an Olympic sprinter who played two seasons for the Detroit Lions and retired after suffering numerous concussions. “The guy’s a world-class special athlete,” Lewis said. “He can play our game, and put on an amazing show.” The second untapped pool, he said, consisted of “everybody else,” meaning gifted athletes who don’t weigh two or three hundred pounds, which is a necessity at many positions in an N.F.L.-style game. The Delta baggage handler, for instance, is five feet eight and weighs a hundred and forty pounds. He outplayed former N.F.L. stars. “I think finally we’re at a point where, inside the world of football, flag is not viewed as a criticism or a rebuke or a breakaway republic,” Lewis said. “Flag is a part of football.”

Though Charlie Ebersol believes that American football is the Platonic ideal of a televised sport, he spent a fair amount of time, when we were together, critiquing the Monday Night Football telecast, both for its excessive commercial breaks, which try the patience of modern media consumers, and for the absence of information that is critical to a certain kind of fan. “Look at this shot,” he said at one point, referring to an overhead of the line of scrimmage. “Tell me who the twenty-two players on the field are right now, so I can make a logical bet about what kind of play is coming.” Gambling, Ebersol noted, is “only legal in, like, seventy-six buildings in the United States right now,” but it is coming to dominate the way executives imagine the future of American sports. Though he insisted that he was not running “a gambling company,” Ebersol established a partnership last September with MGM Resorts International, which, through a mobile app, will offer exclusive in-game betting on A.A.F. contests in states that have legalized sports betting. In a recent interview with the Sports Business Journal, Ebersol noted that the decision to host the A.A.F. championship in Las Vegas was “not by mistake.”

Part of why Ebersol resists the “gambling company” designation is that he finds it limiting in what he called the “Mom, Dad, Billy, and Sue” context. Children can’t bet on sports, and women tend not to. But, according to Ebersol, the A.A.F.’s technology group—fifty-some engineers based in San Francisco, with backgrounds at Lockheed Martin, Tesla, and BitTorrent Live—has developed an interactive fantasy game that will, in a sense, simulate a betting experience, with points (instead of dollars) allotted for predicting the outcomes of individual plays and of individual players’ contributions. Ebersol believes they have solved the problem of latency: the lag time between when the events on the field are witnessed live and when the relevant information can be transmitted actionably to people’s screens. “Everyone else has natural latency: five seconds, seven seconds,” he said. “We have none.” He has even talked about paying bonuses to players on the basis of their performance in the fantasy game, as a way of rewarding the kind of play that stimulates increased fan engagement. (No 13–3 snoozefests, please.)

The interactive possibilities afforded by gaming and digital technology are on everyone’s mind, not just Ebersol’s. Ricky Williams referred to “the potential of gaming coming onboard, the introduction of, you know, greater advances in blockchain and cryptocurrency.” Jeff Lewis said, “We’ve designed a fantasy scoring system that we’ve been working on for a year, that we think tells a really good story of people’s contributions to the game.” But he added a cautionary note, based on his observation of British soccer gambling. “People in England who don’t like soccer don’t walk into the betting parlor to start betting on soccer because there’s a soccer game. Only the people who care about soccer bet on soccer.”

Will Americans learn to care about spring football? Ebersol stressed that we shouldn’t expect it to happen quickly. “I guarantee you that there’ll be people grave-dancing after our first game, regardless of how many people are in the stadium,” he said. The “distractions”— ratings concerns, unforeseen politics, head injuries—are likely to creep back in, as they often do. In January, the Sports Business Journal reported that insurers were increasingly “hesitant to write policies because of the risks of concussions and other injuries,” and that the A.A.F. was incurring higher costs through so-called last-resort workers’-compensation policies as a result. Think of it as a different kind of gamble.


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