According to TV guy Charlie Ebersol and former NFL GM Bill Polian, the two men hatched the idea for the Alliance of American Football in March 2017, a year before announcing the formation of the league and two years before games began this winter. According to L.A. businessman Robert Vanech, he actually dreamed up the idea and was in position to build the AAF until Ebersol stole it from him after a fateful meeting with Vince McMahon.
Vanech filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday alleging that Ebersol stiffed him out of a 50-percent ownership stake in the AAF. Vanech claims he and Ebersol made a handshake agreement on February 16, 2017 to start a spring football league, of which they would each own half. According to his suit, Vanech not only came up with the idea for what would become the AAF before approaching Ebersol, he also invented all the league’s proprietary innovations.
The suit claims Ebersol and Vanech began working together shortly after Ebersol’s 30 for 30 episode This Was The XFL aired on ESPN. The pair initially planned to revive the XFL, and a presentation shown to potential investors referred to the league as “XFL 2.0” and “Project Phoenix.” The suit recounts several text messages from Ebersol in the early stages, most of which express a vague excitement for some future project, though Vanech was clearly more gung-ho about things, once texting Ebersol, “Love it. Each morning I try to write down [my] new ideas that will allow us to innovate, pioneer, and amaze. This canvas is so blank that it deserves a masterpiece.”
The men continued to meet over the next few months. They agreed that Ebersol “would have final authority on day-to-day decision-making of operations,” and Ebersol had Vanech draw up a cap table that would dictate how they would dilute their ownership stakes for potential future investors. Ebersol and Vanech met with Ebersol’s father, legendary TV executive Dick Ebersol, in March 2017. The suit says Dick Ebersol advised them and promised them access to Vince McMahon, but the elder Ebersol declined to invest in the project or serve on its board of directors.
The suit points towards several communications where Charlie Ebersol or potential investors refer to Vanech and Ebersol as a unit, perhaps an attempt to show evidence of partnership between the two in the absence of anything stronger than a handshake deal.
In April 2017, Ebersol arranged a meeting with Vince McMahon through his father, and he introduced Vanech as his business partner at a dinner party he hosted. But one month later, after a meeting with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Keith Rabois, Vanech says Ebersol began icing him out. Rabois allegedly wanted some of Vanech’s equity in the league, and Vanech claims Ebersol knew this and yet “mislead Vanech in furtherance of the conspiracy to purloin Vanech’s equity, keep him working for no compensation, and inducing him to front expenses for the AAF endeavors.”
Ebersol’s plans allegedly moved forward after he met with Vince McMahon on May 18, 2017. Ebersol didn’t reply to Vanech when he asked him about the meeting, and the next day, he told Vanech he should not be COO for Project Phoenix. For almost two months after that, Ebersol ignored Vanech’s increasingly urgent pleas and refused to talk to him until July 5, when he allegedly iced him out for good. Vanech provided a text message exchange where Ebersol denied ever having an agreement with him.
After that, Ebersol allegedly stopped answering Vanech’s calls for good, and Bill Polian eventually claimed that he joined up with Ebersol to found the league after Ebersol pitched him in March 2017. Vanech claims that he was hoodwinked out of his 50 percent ownership stake in the project that would become the AAF, and that he was erased from the official narrative and replaced by Polian.
Deadspin reached out to Ebersol and the AAF with specific questions regarding the suit; an assistant for Ebersol did not return an email, while an AAF flack sent along the following statement.
“Mr. Vanech’s claim is without merit. There was never any agreement, oral or written, between Mr. Vanech and Mr. Ebersol relating to The Alliance.”
The full suit is below: