The Alliance of American Football was supposed to be different.
Announced in March 2018, the eight-team developmental spring league was pitched as faster, rougher, and more action-packed than the NFL. What it lacked in marquee talent, it would make up for in excitement: no kickoffs, no one-point conversions, a shorter play clock, no bullshit rules to protect the quarterback. It would live somewhere between Sunday football and the arena variety, but not be as schlocky as the short-lived, wrestling-inspired XFL spectacle of the early aughts.
To be sure, the XFL was an inspiration. One of the AAF’s founders, Charlie Ebersol—the son of former NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol—had directed a documentary on and was fascinated by WWE executive Vince McMahon’s 2001 gridiron stunt, which his father had also helped run. But the other founder, Bill Polian, was a former general manager for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The AAF had also picked up some NFL greats as advisers, including future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu.
The AAF was designed to eventually serve as a pipeline to the NFL. Unlike in college football, the players would be paid: They’d all get the same three-year, $250,000 deal, which would come with an exit clause in case the NFL called. Players would be signed to teams based on the geographic regions in which they played in college, too, so there was also a hometown aesthetic to lure crowds.
The idea was enticing enough to attract some big names. The brand Starter inked a deal to be the official apparel provider. Heisman winner (and NFL flunky) Johnny Manziel signed on to quarterback the Memphis Express, a team coached by Chicago Bears Hall of Famer (and former 49ers head coach) Mike Singletary. One of the biggest gets was Steve Spurrier, the legendary former University of Florida and University of South Carolina coach, who agreed to helm the Orlando Apollos.
More than twenty thousand people packed into the University of Central Florida’s Spectrum Stadium on Saturday, February 9, for the Apollos’ debut. CBS broadcast that game, a 40–6 shellacking in which Apollos QB Garrett Gilbert threw for 227 yards. Through the first eight weeks of the ten-week regular season, Spurrier’s Apollos dominated, going a league-best 7–1 and clinching a playoff berth.
Week nine never happened. On April 2, fifty-three days after the league’s first snap, and twenty-five days before its champion was supposed to be crowned, the AAF suddenly collapsed. By April 17, facing lawsuits, the league filed for bankruptcy. Players had to pay for their own travel back home.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see the AAF for what it was: a financial game of Jenga teetering on the brink of disaster from the outset. But at the time, its sudden demise took everyone—players, coaches, even the league’s growing fan base—completely by surprise.
A month later, one question remains: Who’s to blame?
One potential culprit: Tom Dundon, a forty-eight-year-old Texas billionaire whose upstart Carolina Hurricanes are currently the toast of the Triangle’s sports world.
In February, Dundon acquired a majority stake in the AAF, pledging to pump $250 million into the league. Less than two months later—over Ebersol and Polian’s objections—he abruptly shut it down, leaving players and coaches in the lurch and vendors owed millions of dollars they’ll likely never see.
“When Mr. Dundon took over,” Polian said in a statement that day, “it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all. The momentum generated by our players, coaches, and football staff had us well-positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”
Thomas Dundon made his mint as the CEO of Santander Consumer USA, a company that sells subprime auto loans to people with poor credit. He left the company in 2015 amid heightened scrutiny from federal regulators—and following a $9.35 million settlement with the Department of Justice over claims that Santander had illegally seized cars from members of the military—pocketing more than $900 million on his way out. (Dundon told The Dallas Morning News that subprime auto loans are different than the subprime mortgages that helped spark the Great Recession because no one expects cars to gain value over their lifetimes.)
After that, he founded Dundon Capital Partners LLC and purchased a thirty-three-story building in downtown Dallas. He’d also acquired a minority stake in Topgolf, a fast-growing, Texas-based chain of what Sports Illustrated describes as “tricked-out recreational driving ranges.”
The Carolina Hurricanes marked Dundon’s first foray into professional sports. The decision, he says, wasn’t because he loved hockey or had any affinity for North Carolina. Rather, he says, he wanted to own a sports team, he had the means, and the Hurricanes were on the market.
In January 2018, he bought a 61 percent stake in the team—then valued at about $370 million, according to Forbes—from Peter Karmanos Jr., who had purchased the then-Hartford Whalers in 1994 and relocated the franchise three years later, giving Raleigh its first major-league sports team.
The deal requires Dundon to keep the Hurricanes in Raleigh for at least seven years. Even so, he had to immediately beat back rumors that he wanted to relocate the team to Texas.
After all, the Hurricanes were struggling, and there were legitimate questions about whether Raleigh, a midsize city in a region where hockey isn’t a pastime, could support a franchise. The team had the league’s worst attendance, just 11,776 fans a game. Not coincidentally, they’d gone eight years, soon to be nine, without making the playoffs.
Dundon quickly overhauled the Hurricanes’ front office. Within five months, he had a new general manager and head coach—Rod Brind’Amour, a former Canes center who was a team captain on the 2006 championship squad.
“When you start off, you want to be relevant,” Dundon told the INDY Monday. “Plenty of teams—the Golden State Warriors a decade ago, the [New England] Patriots when I was growing up—were not a top brand. The goal was to make the Hurricanes’ brand relevant, something people want to watch.”
The 2018–19 Canes were better. As the season wore on, they strung together enough wins to stay in the playoff hunt. Average attendance ticked up, too, by more than two thousand fans per game, helped along in February when a curmudgeonly Canadian commentator labeled the Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks” because he didn’t like their choreographed victory celebrations. The Canes’ marketing department quickly turned that line into a slogan and t-shirt.
In April, the Hurricanes sneaked into the postseason, then defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in a double-overtime Game 7 thriller on April 24. After that, the Jerks pasted the New York Islanders in a four-game sweep. Next up: the Eastern Conference Finals, where they’ll face the Boston Bruins, then maybe a chance at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 2006.
“I think you have the right coach and the right players,” Dundon says. “With the kind of effort and preparation—I think you had a chance. We knew we had a chance.”
Regardless of how the season ends, the turnaround has been remarkable. For the first time in recent memory, Raleigh is palpably excited about hockey—and a team much of the city barely knew existed just a few months ago.
Dundon says that, despite the lingering relocation talk, he’s committed to the Triangle: “It’s nothing. I don’t even know where it comes from. The world we live in—people can say what they want to say.”
Of course, the AAF thought he was in it for the long haul, too.
Dundon purchased a majority stake in the AAF in February after an early league funder bailed out. He committed $250 million to the venture, giving the league the appearance of a strong foundation on which to grow.
“There’s a difference between commitment and funding,” Dundon told the media when he took over. “They had the commitments to last a long time, but maybe not the money in the bank. My money is in my bank. I’m sure of it. … That’s enough money to run this league for a long time. We’re good for many years to come with what I just did.”
As it turns out, however, Dundon had only agreed to float the AAF week to week. By the end of March, the league had burned through $70 million of his cash, according to media reports—almost all of it on payroll. Even with him footing that bill, the AAF couldn’t pay its vendors, including at least one stadium it rented for games.
Dundon made a desperation play. He asked the NFL Players Association to let his league share younger NFL players. The NFLPA declined, and Dundon evidently gave up. As is appropriate in 2019, players learned of his decision on Twitter a few hours before it was official.
Dundon declined to talk about the AAF due to ongoing litigation. So it remains a mystery why he—by all accounts, a savvy investor—didn’t see the league for the train wreck it was from the get-go.
Case in point: Three weeks into the season, the Orlando Apollos had to move their practices to a high school in southern Georgia, about a three-hour drive. This happened because Florida’s workers’ compensation law does not cover athletes, and the AAF hadn’t found an insurance company to cover the entire league. Having the Apollos spend 51 percent of their practice days on Georgia soil allowed the players to claims under Georgia law.
Football, of course, is a violent sport. Launching a league without an insurer does not seem like a well-considered decision.
It’s possible the AAF made ill-considered decisions—and lacked a viable business plan—because it rushed to get on the field. In January 2018, two months before Ebersol and Polian made their announcement, WWE honcho Vince McMahon said he was going to take another stab at the XFL in 2020. Perhaps they wanted to beat him to the punch.
That’s speculation. But some of these questions might get answered as lawsuits move through the courts. Already, two potentially class-action claims have been filed against the defunct league.
John Swope and Jay Roberson, who worked for the AAF’s Birmingham Iron franchise, filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the league failed to follow the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act when it issued the nationwide layoffs in April.
In another case, Birmingham punter Colton Schmidt and Orlando linebacker Reggie Northrup argue that they wouldn’t have subjected themselves to “serious risk of physical or damage to [their] health” or “forgone other financial opportunities” had they been aware of the AAF’s shaky financial standing. Their lawsuit also alleges that, by not paying its players for the last two regular season games, the AAF demonstrated that it had entered into contracts in bad faith.
In addition, at least seven creditors have sought more than $1.2 million from the league. In a bankruptcy filing in late April, AAF parent company Legendary Field Exhibitions told its creditors—to whom it owes more than $48 million—not to bother.
“No property appears to be available to pay creditors,” the filing said, according to a report on the NBC Sports website ProFootballTalk. “Therefore, please do not file a proof of claim now.”
In August, as the NFL preseason wore on, Steve Spurrier was excited.
“I think we can put a really good product on the field,” the then newly minted Apollos coach said. “I’m watching all these NFL games right now and half the guys are playin’ in the preseason, they’re gonna get cut, and they’re gonna be wantin’ to play in our league.”
He did put a good product on the field. The Apollos went undefeated through the first five weeks of the season. Gilbert was the AAF’s best passer, wide receiver Charles Johnson accumulated 45 catches for 687 yards and five touchdowns, and defensive back Keith Reaser recorded three interceptions.
That was good enough to parlay their eight weeks in the AAF into NFL contracts: Gilbert signed with the Cleveland Browns. Johnson and Reaser have gone to the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively. Several other AAF players made a similar jump. The developmental league offered them a second chance to show their stuff.
That wasn’t the case for Apollos tight end Sean Price, who moved his girlfriend and child to Florida from Colorado Springs, where he was an intramural sports director at a military base, to play in the AAF.
“I mean, I just felt betrayed,” Price says. “It was a great league. I loved the way the league was set up and all the opportunities that had been given to us. But just to take it away seems very disrespectful, very childish. It seems that they had the funds in place. They just had some upper management issues that nothing to do with the players.”
Price is keeping an eye on the next iteration of the XFL. He’s also considering taking legal action against the AAF.
“To just have [the league] dismantled while we’re at a practice like that, it’s crazy,” Price says. “So hopefully this lawsuit, or whoever else, can see it through that what they did was wrong and they should pay out these athletes and coaches for the time, for the contract that they had.”
A version of this story originally appeared in Orlando Weekly. Additional reporting by Jeffrey C. Billman and Cliff Jenkins. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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