Last week, Seth Wickersham of ESPN published a thorough and damning tick-tock of the conception and near-instant immolation of the Alliance of American Football, a spring football league founded by Charlie Ebersol. If Ebersol’s last name rings a bell, it’s with good reason. He’s the son of former NBC Sports honcho Dick Ebersol, and he directed ESPN’s 30 for 30 “This Is The XFL,” about the elder Ebersol teaming up with head WWE goon Vince McMahon to usher the XFL into the world. This was NOT a good 30 for 30. Both ESPN and Charlie Ebersol failed to disclose the latter’s close relationship to the subject matter at hand, and the doc went right ahead and offered numerous glowing tributes to Charlie’s old man. A giant of the television industry, etc. According to Wickersham, it was during the filming of that doc that Charlie began to ruminate on the idea of booting up a spring league of his own. By the end, he was convinced he could pull it off.
One day during production, Ebersol had asked Tom Veit, the former vice president and general manager of the XFL’s Orlando Rage: If we learn from the XFL’s mistakes, could spring football work?
“Spring football will work when people learn not to screw it up,” Veit replied.
The younger Ebersol then went on to screw it up.
It’s worth reading the entire exposé, especially for the part where Ebersol attempts to explain The Voice to AAF head of football operations and Stock Cantankerous Football Knower Bill Polian. Bringing Polian into the fold is emblematic of Ebersol’s naiveté throughout the entire debacle: selling a new football league to people with airy, futuristic brandspeak and doodads (in-game gambling!) and then entrusting football operations to a fossil who thinks Lamar Jackson is too short.
As you may remember, the AAF shut down in the middle of its inaugural season despite having a TV contract with CBS and favorable ratings out of the gate. This happened shortly after late-coming angel investor Tom Dundon bailed the league out after the money from initial backer Reggie Fowler—a man who once tried to buy the Minnesota Vikings and declared to the press, “I’m 6-foot-1 and tons of fun,” at his opening presser before the NFL deemed his finances to be lacking and current owner Zygi Wilf took over as point man for the sale—came late and “at weird times.” Once Dundon realized he had a lemon on his hands, he shuttered the league virtually overnight, firing everyone en masse and leaving several players physically stranded, to the point where Trent Richardson(!) texted Ebersol asking for clarity on behalf of his colleagues.
“We just got told that we are all fired,” Richardson said.
“I don’t know if that’s true,” Ebersol said. “Hang tight.”
The story of the AAF is the story of a failson failing over and over again, and about a culture of rich steakheads and Serious Football Men who happily let him. It’s not a new story. Charlie Ebersol came from money. He knew other people with money. He had enough plucky charm to get those people excited about something HE was excited about, and he clearly hoped that general, unfocused enthusiasm would be enough to will a successful minor-league football operation into being when he had no vital experience to make that happen, and when every other attempt has failed.
Wickersham reports that Ebersol sunk millions of his own money (how’d he get that dough, one wonders) into the league, but managed to grab $14,000 from the cookie jar just before the league went belly-up. Those losses do not appear have rendered him destitute. Charlie Ebersol is the kind of fella who can flush hundreds of millions of dollars of other people’s cash down the toilet, lose some of his own, and still end up hanging out in private social clubs, mostly sad that he didn’t get the dream he believed he was entitled to. Oh, but does he have regrets?
“Would I do it all over again, knowing exactly how it was going to end?” he said. “Yes. A thousand times over.”
Of course. You can afford to never have regrets when you’re Charlie Ebersol. You can afford to learn nothing.
I’m 42 years old and in my time a zillion secondary football leagues have come and gone: the USFL, the UFL, the WLAF, the XFL. The last of that bunch is coming back, and the mere specter of it spooked Ebersol when it came to overseeing his own league. I promise you that the second XFL will fail, if it even comes to be in the first place. The NFL is insanely popular but its season is relatively short compared to other major sports league seasons, and so time and again would-be captains of industry see a market opportunity where history has proven there is not one. I’m no different. When the Super Bowl ends, I go, WAHHHHHHH FOOTBALL IS OVER NOW I WANT MORE! Then I check in on the opening salvo of an AAF-like product and realize that I do not. I have all the football I require. There is no making spring football work. The NFL Draft already scratches that particular itch anyway.
That will never stop the Charlie Ebersols of the world from deluding themselves into believing that they can nail the idea and sail easily between Scylla and Charybdis. In fact, a spring football league is the perfect boondoggle, because it’s so highly visible, and because the daydream of its success is so lucrative and prestigious, and because the sport of football itself celebrates ownership in such a way that many, many other rich assholes want in on the action. Any rich person can be rich. Not every rich person can be GLORIOUS. Not every rich person can have his own stable of de facto gladiators that he can glower over from a luxury box. Not every rich person gets to hoist a gaudy sports trophy and pretend like they deserve it. The manliest endeavor for manly men. That’s the cheese, and it will keep this particular racket operating in perpetuity even as the wreckage piles up. As Charlie Ebersol has proven, every moneyman comes into that game thinking they’ll be the star, only to end up the tackling dummy.