The AAF: a professional sports league or an ambitious data venture?

The AAF: a professional sports league or an ambitious data venture?

This past weekend, a new American football league called the Alliance of American Football (AAF) kicked off with a 15-6 victory for the San Antonio Commanders over the San Diego Fleet followed by a thrashing of the Atlanta Legends courtesy of the Orlando Pirates.

“What the hell is the AAF?”, you might ask. At first glance, it might seem like just another potential competitor to the NFL or a new developmental league that’s destined to fail like so many previous attempts across American sports history (think XFL, USFL, UFL, FXFL or countless other acronyms).

Indeed, with AAF franchises mostly located in non-NFL markets (eg. the Birmingham Iron, the Salt Lake Stallions and the San Diego Fleet) and with teams consisting of players who didn’t quite make it in the NFL (quarterbacks include former NY Jet Christian Hackenberg and ex-San Diego Charger Mike Bercovici) the AAF doesn’t look all that different from previous attempts to establish a developmental league for the NFL.

Look slightly below the surface, however, and the AAF appears to be a different and potentially far more successful proposition.

Firstly, it’s clear the US is still obsessed with football. A quick look at the US’ top ten TV shows in terms of ratings during 2018 shows six of the top ten, including the entire top four, were American football games (the only other sporting event to register in the top ten was the Winter Olympics opening ceremony). The States absolutely love football and, with the NFL season only taking up six months of the calendar, there is surely space for more of it.

Early appetite for the AAF amongst broadcasters certainly reflects this. TV channels crave live action in the quiet months after the Super Bowl and the AAF has registered broadcast deals with CBS (whose audience figures for the opening game of three million was promising) and, perhaps more notably, with the NFL’s own media arm – NFL Network – who will air 19 live games.

A successful developmental league would only be a good thing for the NFL (not least as it provides more jobs for coaches, players and team staff to hone their skills before joining the ‘big leagues’) and the AAF’s strategy to style itself as an addition to the NFL rather than a direct challenger has seen early success.

A Technology Business

Dive even deeper, however, and what is most interesting about the AAF is its flexibility to innovate and the wider impact it could have on how we consume sport beyond just American football.

In a recent interview with Variety, AAF Founder and CEO (and erstwhile partner of Britney Spears) Charlie Ebersol stated “our business started as a technology business” and it appears he’s not just talking the talk.

The league reportedly spent 18 months building the technology behind their mobile app and it flew straight to the top of the Apple and Android app stores in the league’s opening weekend.

This app is the best example of the AAF’s supposed ambition to be both a pro-football league and a data venture.

Described by Ebersol as “Madden” meets “Angry Birds”, the app goes far beyond the typical sports app and features animated helmets representing each player moving across a virtual field to reflect the live football action in real-time as closely as possible (the app is reportedly capable of receiving data points with a delay of 200 milliseconds or less).

This real-time data not only brings a gamification element to the consumer experience as it allows fans to ‘pick’ the next play and earn ‘points’ (which will undoubtedly become increasingly important as the professional sports leagues not only have to compete amongst themselves but with the ever more popular e-sports such as Fortnite too) but also creates an asset that the AAF hopes will eventually become an extremely profitable one.

In his interview with Variety, Ebersol is clear that he aims to follow the MLB’s Advanced Media model but with a focus on data instead of video. MLB built its own video streaming infrastructure and licensed it out to other companies including HBO and ESPN bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars.

That’s “100% our model” said Ebersol, as he outlined the AAF plans to license their data tech to a wide range of companies including other sports leagues, non-sports businesses and, perhaps most importantly, sports betting outlets…

A Safe Bet

Last year, I wrote a blog on the legalisation of sports betting in the US and its potential impact. It’s safe to say the AAF is a direct result of this legislation.

The AAF’s investors include the Las Vegas giant MGM Resorts International and Chernin Group, the majority owner of Barstool Sports, and it’s clear they were both enticed to invest heavily due to the potentially lucrative profits from sports betting and how the industry will play an integral part in any success the AAF has in the coming years.

It’s easy to see how the model of a real-time fantasy sports platform, such as the app the AAF is aiming to develop, can give the league a significant head-start with the type of in-game betting that dominates the ‘soccer’ market in Europe.

Indeed, AAF players all wear electronic sensory devices worn to track and analyse player biometrics, which will then be collated to produce real-time odds for in-game betting.

To both be able to license this data out to sports betting companies and potentially reap the profits from any future commercial partnerships with these betting companies (don’t be surprised to see betting brands appearing as official sponsors of the AAF soon) may well prove to be hugely profitable.

No Guaranteed Success

For fans who downloaded and experimented with the app over the weekend, the most important thing was, of course, the game itself. The best compliment one can pay to the AAF at this stage was that the professional broadcast presentation, the insightful commentators, the talented players and the big hits meant it looked and felt like professional football.

NFL fans across the world are keen to see it succeed. The NFL has not had a real developmental league since the days of NFL Europe and rags-to-riches stories such as that of Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who initially didn’t make the cut in the NFL and plied his trade with the Amsterdam Admirals before going on to win a Super Bowl, can only be good for the sport.

There have been plenty of previous attempts to set up another football league, however, and there will be more to come (Vince McMahon is relaunching his XFL in 2020). It is far too early to tell whether the AAF can buck the trend and survive (as a sports league) for more than a few years.

The benefits of the AAF being “a start-up” as founder Ebersol put it, however, and the innovations they can experiment with, could have far greater implications than just American football.

Whether or not the AAF is still on our screens in a couple of years’ time, Ebersol and his co-founders may well have reaped the rewards of a successful data venture.

Thinking by Nicolaas Heemskerk.