CEO of the AAF, Charlie Ebersol, stops by the USA TODAY studio to discuss the start of the new football league. USA TODAY
SAN DIEGO — The longtime agent for NFL quarterback Tom Brady is starting a new pro football league next year in Southern California called Pacific Pro Football.
His name is Don Yee. And it might not be long before his league and other new pro football ventures disrupt and influence the lucrative worlds of college and pro football.
Take the case of Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The rising sophomore is not eligible to play in the NFL until 2021, according to NFL rules that require first-year players to be at least three years removed from high school. But Yee’s new league won’t be bound by such rules.
Asked how much his league would be able to offer Lawrence, Yee told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday that “it would be a compelling and significant proposal.”
“He is a unique talent, and we'd simply want to give him a choice."
This is new territory for the elite levels of American football, and it’s about to open up even wider. Several new pro leagues are set to open shop this year and next, starting Saturday, six days after the Super Bowl. That's when the eight-team Alliance of American Football (AAF) will try to fill the NFL void, with plans to spend $500 million to $750 million in the next five years to get rolling.
Similar gambles previously have ended in failure. Virtually all prior attempts to launch new pro football leagues in the U.S have collapsed in the shadow of the mighty NFL, usually because of big expenses, lack of capital and lack of interest.
The difference now might be timing. A number of big-name supporters and partners with deep pockets believes the market is finally ripe for more football as the game continues to pull in huge live audiences for media partners and advertisers.
Part of the attraction stems from the expected growth of legalized sports gambling, which can drive viewer interest on even the most meaningless games. Another reason is the proliferation and evolution of digital media platforms and technology. Some believe it’s simply a matter of commitment, and they plan to shake up the system in the process.
“If you launch a pro football league, you’re going to lose hundreds of millions of dollars before you get to profitability,” AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol told USA TODAY Sports. “What we looked at is, 'How do you chip away at that? And how do you build something that’s sustainable?’ ”
It starts with having investment money to give it a long runway. Then there’s the matter of getting enough exposure to gain market traction. That can require television, big names and big moves. Ask the XFL, an eight-team league set to debut after next year’s Super Bowl.
The XFL splash factor
Pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon has committed to spend at least $500 million on his newest version of the XFL after failing with his first edition after one season in 2001.
On Thursday, his league appeared to upstage the looming debut of the AAF by announcing the hiring of legendary former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops as the new coach of the XFL team in Dallas. It’s likely to be one of many splashy announcements and pursuits by the league under McMahon, who built a business empire out of dramatic storylines and big stars.
Lawrence, 19, could be one of them. XFL commissioner Oliver Luck confirmed to USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday that his league also would consider signing younger players not yet eligible for the NFL.
This alone would be a huge disruption to the college game, in which NCAA rules generally restrict player compensation to the cost of attending college. Soon a bidding war could break out for elite high school or early college players. Before this, the only real option for elite amateur players in the U.S. after high school was college, then the NFL.
“Our league isn’t subject to the NFL’s three-year rule,” said Luck, a former NCAA executive and father of NFL quarterback Andrew Luck. “We could do it. We want to be smart about it. I’m a big believer in college athletics and college football. I also realize there are lots of different situations for young people. Some are academically ineligible. Some need to earn money, quite honestly. Some transferred and have to sit out a year and may not want to do that. Everybody’s got a somewhat unique circumstance, and there are players like Trevor Lawrence, who is an incredibly gifted kid. ... Who knows if he’d be interested?”
WHERE OTHER LEAGUES FAILED: The AAF thinks it will succeed
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The AAF is taking a different approach and will stick to the NFL’s three-year rule. Its rosters are filled with players with some NFL experience, and the league has positioned itself as a platform for players to get back into the NFL or gain the NFL’s attention.
“We’re not taking players out of high school or out of college (before three years),” Ebersol said. “I do not want to see a 19-year-old boy getting hit by a 26-year-old man.”
This is in step with the AAF’s NFL heritage. Numerous AAF coaches and executives have NFL experience, led by league co-founder Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame former NFL general manager. Such NFL chops also give the AAF immediate credibility with players, who are set to earn a minimum of $250,000 over a three-year contract, plus benefits.
The AAF will debut on Saturday with games on CBS. The NFL Network also will televise two AAF games every weekend in prime time through April 14.
“I think that kind of shows the NFL is interested in it,” said wide receiver Nelson Spruce, who plays for the AAF’s San Diego Fleet under coach Mike Martz, the former head coach of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. “It’s not some league put together by wannabes.”
Name recognition helps. Another league, the Fan Controlled Football League, has NFL great Joe Montana as an investor and adviser and is scheduled to begin play in June in a production studio in Las Vegas. Fans will be in charge of play calls, relayed to the quarterback and live-streamed on digital video platform Twitch.
Yee’s four-team league is designed to develop younger players for the NFL, including high school graduates. It plans to start play in July 2020 and has partnered with sports apparel titan Adidas. It is led by former NFL Network executive Jamie Hemann as CEO.
Though each new league is in a lane of its own, there’s still some jockeying in this suddenly crowded space.
'Much bigger than just football'
The XFL, for one, doesn’t consider itself a developmental league. Luck says his league will take “what we believe are the best available players.”
“We don’t plan on having games broadcast on the NFL Network,” Luck said. “We think we’ve got, quite honestly, more powerful broadcasters in terms of their reach.”
Luck said two XFL games per weekend next year will be carried by a major over-the-air network, with the other two games being carried by a major cable channel. He didn’t name them, but SportsBusiness Journal reported the XFL has been in talks with FOX and ESPN.
Such a broadcast package, he said, “is quite honestly much stronger than what any spring league has ever had.”
And he doesn’t see the AAF as a competitor even though both will compete for attention next year at the same time. Noting that NFL rosters fluctuate from 90 before the season to 53 during the season, he said there are hundreds of quality players without jobs, in addition to other top college players. Meanwhile, 34 of the top 50 most-watched broadcasts last year in the U.S. were NFL games, according to Nielsen data. Various digital platforms and cable networks want similar programming.
“If not now, when?” Luck said about the prospect for other pro leagues. At the same time, as the former president of the defunct NFL Europe league, he said he knows “the graveyard is full of headstones of past failed spring leagues.”
Ebersol knows this history, too. He recently directed a film for ESPN on the previous failed version of the XFL. His father, Dick, the former NBC Sports executive, helped McMahon launch it in 2001. The younger Ebersol is now skeptical that the old business models will work – the kind that rely primarily on ticket sales, sponsorships and any media revenue they can get.
“The ultimate business model is much bigger than just the football league,” Ebersol said of the AAF.
The AAF is backed by an array of investors, including NBA great Shaquille O’Neal and the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Founders Fund. And it’s not so much of a football league as it is a football league tied with a larger business that aims to innovate with technology in sports gambling and other data-driven fields.
The football product will be a big way to test that and drive interest. It will also be a big testing ground for new rules and a game designed to be faster and shorter in duration.
There are no kickoffs or extra-point kicks in the AAF. Teams get the ball at the 25-yard line to start drives, and teams are required to go for two-point conversions after touchdowns. Some of these ideas could catch on in the NFL, as could some of the league's players.
"People are definitely going to write stories on Monday on how there were empty seats in the stadiums, and our ratings weren't what we expected them to be," Ebersol said. His investors are in for a longer, larger play. "They’ve all invested in the parent company, which among other things, owns the football league and the technology."