New pro league to be built on college football ties
By Steve Wieberg, USA TODAY
They come. They go. The World Football League, the USFL, the XFL. Some entrepreneur has a vision there's room in a football-obsessed nation for another professional league that invariably drowns in red ink and dissolves.
Organizers of the new All American Football League acknowledge the trail of failures. But theirs, they say, is a different approach: pro ball with a college sensibility.
The league takes a first step onto the public stage today and Tuesday, days after the NFL pulled the plug on NFL Europa, when some 400 prospective players try out at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Additional tryouts are planned in September.
Six or eight teams based in Florida, Alabama and other college football hotbeds, pooling graduated talent from nearby colleges and playing mostly by college rules, are scheduled for the AAFL's inaugural spring season next April.
"Done right," says former NCAA President Cedric Dempsey, who heads the league's advisory board, "I think it's got an opportunity."
The birth has been fitful. A 2007 launch was put off a year until financing was firmed up. Dempsey's board once oversaw operations; power now is ceded to league CEO and primary financier Marcus Katz, a retired education loan mogul living in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
The search for a TV home has been slow with networks loathe to bite if they ever do before teams are established and coaches and players secured.
Still, Dempsey says, "I feel more positive about it now than I think I did a year ago. We're putting the money into what was necessary to put into it. There seems to be a need at this time for development of a spring league, and I think this concept may be the best of any I've seen so far."
Katz adds: "The XFL had a chance to make it. They got people to come to the games, to watch the games. They just didn't like what they saw and quit coming. If we can come up with something that people have a good time with, I think we can continue.
"My intuition's usually pretty good, and I've had a very positive feeling about this."
The AAFL hopes to tap into college loyalties and rivalries. A Florida team will play some games at The Swamp in Gainesville, others at the Citrus Bowl, Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium or Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. In Alabama, the league has lined up Birmingham's Legion Field. Other teams tentatively are set to play at Tennessee, North Carolina State and Purdue, and Katz says contracts are "ready to sign" for venues in Mississippi and Little Rock.
Texas is another target. Teams will be announced by month's end, Dempsey says. Ex-college coaches Jackie Sherrill and Bob Pruett are among the possible coaches.
As for players, the league will be content with those undrafted by the NFL or cut once NFL teams near the start of their season in September. Hence, the fall tryouts. Where the players played in college or as close as is feasible they'll play in the AAFL. The Florida team, for example, will feature former Gators, and the Tennessee team will pool former Volunteers. Team colors will correspond with the colleges'.
Rosters will go 40 deep with six-man taxi squads. Salaries, once projected at around $100,000, probably will be closer to $70,000 to $75,000, Dempsey says.
Players must have earned four-year degrees and exhausted their college eligibility, which Dempsey and other former college officials on the AAFL board see as an incentive for graduation. Among those expected in Orlando this week, the league says, are former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews, receiver Travis McGriff and cornerback Vernell Brown.
The dismantling of NFL Europe widens the pool of prospects.
Stephen Austin, who runs the NFL scouting combine, will oversee the tryouts today and Tuesday.
"It seems to be getting some wings," says former Notre Dame athletics director and Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Gene Corrigan, an AAFL board member. "We're moving ahead and doing some stuff. We hadn't really done anything but talk before. Now there's action."
Outside the league, there's still skepticism.
"Obviously, if they're going ahead with tryouts and announcing schools, they may feel they have enough economic support to launch," says former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, now a media consultant. "But they have to put people in seats. They need some form of television exposure. And they need sponsors and advertisers who see this as an opportunity to reach their target audience. None of that's a mystery.
"I think anybody who looks at it has to say, at this time, it's a long shot. It's not impossible. But you look at the history of start-up outdoor professional football leagues and with the exception really of the first one in the modern era, the American Football League, none of them have succeeded."
As to the NFL, according to nfl.com, the league's website, league executives are exploring potential expansion in China. According to the website, the NFL already is sponsoring a school-age flag league involving 5,000 players. An NFL game is shown weekly on China's state-run CCTV. Gordon Smeaton, an NFL vice president, said the league plans to announce greater distribution of games in China country, including live telecasts. Smeaton said the annual Super Bowl telecast drew up to 10 million viewers.