A Look Into a Modern Sports League Debacle
By Michael Santos
The Alliance of American Football was a promising amateur football league that was supposed to complement the NFL during the NFL offseason. It instead turned into “the Fyre Festival” of spring football leagues as it would fold before its first season ended. This is a story of a failed secret tech company, the hazards of trusting in shady investors, and a white-knight investor that went rogue. This is the story of what happened to the Alliance of American Football.
In order to understand the true nature of the AAF, it’s important for us to rewind 20 years to the year 2000, when the formation of a new spring football league was announced to run during the NFL offseason and not only serve as more sports-fodder for football-craving fans, but also to compete with the NFL. They would call this new league the “XFL” and it was co founded by the World Wrestling Entertainment’s own Vince McMahon and Chairman (at the time) of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol.
The XFL was promised to be a unique league that would revolutionize the sport compared to the NFL, that Vince McMahon had snubbed as the “No Fun League.” Instead, during its inaugural season in 2001, football fans got a spectacle of the sport they knew and loved.
- The rules were different
- The sportscasters (much like the WWE) behaved more like scripted characters
- Players, coaches, cheerleaders, and even game officials had complex (or not-complex) story lines.
- Scantily-clad cheerleaders were encouraged to date players for reality-show-like content.
- Most importantly, the football sucked.
Because XFL rosters were limited to about 38 players per team, as opposed to the NFL’s 53-man rosters, teams lacked depth at key positions, which led to fatigued players offering up poor play with many suffering injuries as a result. All of these factors led to the complete ridicule of the league by sports critics and fans, resulting in the complete folding of the league after only its first season. This brings us to March 20, 2018 when the launch of a spring football league was announced that would rival the NFL, and revolutionize the sport. This time around, the league would be called the Alliance of American Football.
The AAF was the brainchild of filmmaker Charlie Ebersol. Does the name sound familiar? He’s the son of XFL co-founder, Dick Ebersol. In 2016, ESPN aired a short documentary Episode of 30-for-30 titled ‘This was the XFL’ written and directed by Charlie Ebersol. The film broke down the creation of the XFL, as well as it’s eventual collapse. One of the main themes of the film was the question “could spring football work,” to which much of the mistakes of the XFL were listed as warnings.
Around this time, it was rumored that Vince McMahon was going to take another shot at spring football. Meanwhile, Charlie Ebersol also wanted to create a successful spring league. The problem was that Ebersol knew McMahon had the advantage in funding. The only way for him to compete was to beat McMahon to the punch, so he set out to do just that.
Working with former Buffalo Bill’s hall-of-fame GM Bill Polian, Ebersol created an idea for spring football that had so much promise for fans, players, and the game itself. The overall dream was not to compete with the NFL, but to complement it. The league would serve as a way to develop players into NFL-ready stars, and provide an interactive app for fans that would provide up-to-the-minute stats on players and give transparency to game-calls and coaching decisions. This app would ultimately be used for a never-before-seen platform for sports betting. The initial investment goal was for $300 million to get through the first three years, and provide return on investment after three years. They now needed to attract the investors.
“Look, you can’t raise money to launch a football league. Anyone who tells you they can is lying, unless you’ve got a quixotic billionaire who just wanted to spend all of his money,” -Charlie EbersolThe Philadelphia Inquirer Feb. 2019
To attract investors, Ebersol concentrated on his interactive sports app, first raising funds as a tech start-up that ran an entire football league. He gained the backing of Silicon Valley giants like Founders Fund, Keith Rabois, and Peter Chernin. Eventually, Ebersol would get in contact with Reggie Fowler, an investor and former minority owner of the Minnesota Vikings who offered $25 million to be the league’s initial investor through year one of operations. With the cash in hand (for at least the first year), Ebersol announced the formation of the AAF on March 20, 2018 with the first game to air on CBS on Feb. 9, 2019, the weekend after the Super Bowl, and more importantly in less-than a year. The start-up was ready to launch, though it was already on weak footing.
To build the app, Ebersol spared no expense and hired engineers from tech giants like Tesla, Google, Intel and Bitcoin to name a few. The initial intent was promising. During a demo, a smart phone was displayed to the new engineers via video conference. It showed a football game in the center of the screen with tiles on the side of it that zoomed in on a different player on the field. Touching that player’s tile would display that player’s stats, fatigue level, and also allow a user to bet on if that player might be crucial to the next play. From this demonstration, newly hired employees knew the scope of the project ahead, and it needed to be ready before the first game aired in less than six months.
Their challenge was building machine-learning programs from historical football data, that would encapsulate the app’s predictive capabilities; a feature Ebersol coined as “Stats 2.0.” They also needed to develop wearable sensors that players could wear in-game so the app could send biometric data to users so they can track a player’s heart rate in real time.
The end-product, however, was a shadow of what was initially demonstrated to the early-hire employees. The majority of the features originally demonstrated were missing, including the player-tracker feature. The player fatigue tracker was also missing because the sensors they wore kept breaking. There was also no way for the programmers to synchronize the app feed, which ran an impressive 200 milliseconds behind real-time action, to television broadcasts which averaged around 12.5 seconds behind. Early complaints about the app was that it would constantly spoil the game for viewers at home.
On the tech-side of the league things could not get any worse, while business was running smoothly for the football side of the operation. They had managed to attract some big fish from the NFL like Johnny Manziel as QB for the Memphis Express, and Mike Singletary as coach for the same team, attendance for the first two weeks averaged in the tens of thousands, but didn’t drop from one week to another, viewership at home rivaled some NHL and MLS games. Things on the football side were going great, but then the investment money staggered.
Behind the scenes at AAF corporate operations, Ebersol had been struggling with the investment capital from Reggie Fowler. The disbursements weren’t coming in as promised. They would frequently come in short of the initial $15 million installments, late, and from multiple bank accounts. They would soon be in arrears $13 million to start their training camp, and Ebersol and Polian did not know why. The answer would come months later when Reggie Fowler, the league’s sole investor, was arrested on bank fraud charges. According to prosecutors, he and Israeli businesswoman Ravid Yosef (who remains at large) ran a money laundering operation that involved setting up multiple bank accounts to route money into an obscure cryptocurrency app. They also lied to banks to bypass anti-money laundering laws.
Like an episode of ‘Silicon Valley‘, Ebersol’s initial funding had become so unreliable that he needed to chum up another investor, and fast. Through a personal contact, Ebersol was connected with billionaire Tom Dundon, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL. Dundon had been interested in starting up a spring football league, and the AAF was particularly attractive because all the trouble of starting up was already done by Ebersol and Polain. Dundon came in with an investment of $250 million to fund the league through three years, and to buy out both Charlie and father Dick Ebersol’s voting capacity on the league board. On Feb 22, 2019, less than a month from their inaugural games, Ebersol announced via company-wide email that Tom Dundon would serve as the chairman of the AAF’s board of directors. Dundon now owned exclusive decision-making powers for the league, and for Charlie Ebersol, his dream of a successful AAF remained alive.
Shortly after the acquisition, Dundon had determined that the league was spending as if it were the NFL, just without the budget. He immediately ordered the league’s expenses be dropped from close to $100 million to $50 million.
“We would have to cut the players’ salary…”
Polain told him, attempting to stay true to their promise of player empowerment.
“Yeah, but if we don’t, we don’t have a business…”
Dundon made cuts to the budget wherever he could. Engineers on the interactive sports-gambling app soon found themselves without jobs, as Dundon found the app to be non-working. Players and coaches traveled to games on planes much smaller than what they were accustomed to, similar to a scene from the movie ‘Major League’. Their hotels were also inadequate, as the coaching staff that once used to conference rooms for holding meetings and walk-throughs, would now be holding them in parking lots.
It was Dundon’s assessment of their TV broadcast expenditures that may have ultimately spelled the demise of the AAF. In an effort to cut expenses on television broadcasts, Dundon attempted to negotiate with CBS executives, where they would “chip-in” part of the costs, but the revenue from the AAF wasn’t enough to garner more than a pay-your-way deal. Dundon felt he had only one option left, and it was to partner with the NFL.
His plan was to borrow third and fourth string players from the NFL and solidify the AAF as a developmental league instead of as a tech start-up. He even shared ominously in an interview with USA Today that the league would fold if the deal with the NFL failed. On April 1, 2019, Dundon met with executives of the NFLPA to negotiate his plan, and failed. The very next day, he suspended operations.
For players and coaching staff, the next few days would be chaos. The hotels they had been staying in had no way to be paid, so players and coaching staff were ushered out. Many of them had left other jobs and traveled clear across the country, and now many had the feeling of being stranded with no way to get back home. Some players had brought their family with them, and had to scrounge the cash to get hotels for them and their children. Injured players would be left wondering who would be taking care of their medical expenses. On one side of the country, a player sent a text to his friend on the other side asking if everything was okay.
“This feels like the Fyre Festival,” was the message he got back.
Weeks later, the AAF would file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
In the aftermath of the crash, none of the principal executives were left unscathed. A large number of players and coaches, disgruntled and feeling misled, sued the league. Charlie Eberson, Tom Dundon, and Bill Polain were all named as defendants. Reggie Fowler was arrested in April of 2019 for his shady banking practices. He faces up to 70 years in prison, and a plea deal for dropped charges has recently fallen through.
For Eberson, he had answered the thematic question on his short film for himself. Spring football could work, but he managed to find all the ways for it to fail. For the fans, the football product worked. It was just the app that didn’t, but much of that was due to an impossible deadline. For the players, the league was an opportunity to achieve their dreams of playing professionally, that didn’t pan out. To Eberson’s defense, his effort joins the ranks of every other failed spring football venture, and his might not be the last. Vince McMahon’s new XFL season starts Saturday February 8th at 2pm ET on ABC, and only time will tell how spectacular that debacle will be if it fails too. Though not completely his fault, Ebersol for now has set the spectacle bar pretty high.
A Review From Hidai Moya
Believe the hype. MW is a return to CoDs glory days with what is literally the best campaign of the last ten years & a really fun MP.
Whereas the first MW was inspired by the Iraq War this imitates the power vacuum struggles of the post war period. Combining the Kurdish Freedom struggle, terrorist attacks in Europe, the Russian intervention in Afghanistan & Syria, the raid on the Bin Laden compound, the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, & the Syrian Civil War, this puts all of these recent events together to create a hauntingly brutal & viscerally life like campaign.
In MP the night mode has become an instant favorite of mine adding the difficulty of tunnel vision & overall it just makes for a more badass gun fight experience.
Best CoD since MW2.
An Editorial By John Camarena
The End of 2019 brought us some genuinely awesome entertainment of the sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book variety to our TV screens. We at the Geeks’ Watch podcast had some less than stellar viewing experiences early on; looking at you, Star Trek: Discovery, Electric Dreams, Carnival Row, and the last season of Game of Thrones! And while there were a few bright spots intermittently, it wasn’t looking like there would be much to look forward to. But thankfully I was proven way wrong. We ended up getting some of the best watching experiences of the year pretty much back to back just as it came to a close, and my faith in humanity has been restored! So let’s break it down and see what made these shows so great…
A sequel to the seminal classic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibson. My initial trepidation with this show was that it would have no involvement whatsoever by the writer/creator of the series. Moore famously cut ties with DC after he felt the company was just trying to commercialize his works and diminishing their value in the process, so he had zero involvement with the previous attempts to capitalize on the property, from the 2009 Zach Snyder movie to the prequel series Before Watchmen. The movie was good, not great, as it made some changes, some for better and some not so much, and the prequel comics had some interesting ideas but felt like fan fiction more than a part of the canon. Add to that, the show was going to be run by Damon Lindeloff, someone whom I had cursed to the heavens for ruining the script for Prometheus and making Lost feel like a meandering mess. But I was told The Leftovers was good so I gave it a shot. Right off the bat, the trailers didn’t seem that interesting. It looked confusing and a little silly with what looked like police wearing yellow masks, a brief shot of Night Owl’s airship Archimedes, or Archie for short, and a tease of Dr. Manhattan. This series was to be a sequel to the graphic novel, set in the present time some 34 years after the events in the story. Whatever, let’s see what it’s about. From the very beginning, this was not a show that was messing around. It begins during the Tulsa Massacre and continues in an unrelenting and uncompromising narrative about race relations, past transgressions on current generations, Redfordations, and moving forward. The true genius of this surprise hit is that it doesn’t attempt to rehash the plot points of the novel, but expound upon them. Miniscule details and mentions from the novel turn out to have surprising consequences. Questions set up 30+ years ago are answered, some in unexpected ways, and more than anything, the show provided us with a way to supplement the viewing experience with a collection of documents mirroring the world-building segments from the end of each issue of the original via the Peteypedia website. This show was deep, well thought out, and respectful of the source material. Three of the episodes in this singular season were three of the best hours of television watching in a good while, with some interesting story telling and cinematography. All the new characters were interesting and striking in their own right, definitely up to the standard set by the original. It didn’t deserve to be this good and yet here we are, wishing that Lindeloff will decide to come back for a second season. As it is now, this will probably be a stand-alone miniseries, but even so, it was satisfying with enough plot threads left over that should they decide to continue, I will be there waiting to devour it.
Now this show had a bit more expectation behind it. Being set about 5 years after the end of Return of the Jedi, a time period not yet explored in the new Disney continuity, we follow a Mandalorian bounty hunter just trying to be the best bounty hunter he can be. Within the Star Wars fandom, there are subsections devoted to this class of characters, with their cool armor and mysterious history, it felt like it was going to try to make both the fervent fans and more casual followers happy. Not a balancing act I’d like to tackle. But in the capable hands of Jon Favre, and with guests like Taika Waititi, Bill Burr, Clancy Brown, Ming Na-Wen, among others, this show turned out to be arguably better than the recent spate of movies in the Skywalker saga. And that’s not even touching on the incredible cultural impact that a certain baby has had. The Child, referred to by pretty much everyone as “baby Yoda”, has shifted the zeitgeist of what Star Wars can be. With the tone of a sci-fi western and a dash of Lone Wolf and Cub thrown in, The Mandalorian has become a runaway success and Disney cannot license baby Yoda merchandise fast enough to meet the demand. It’s a simple story, predictable even, but feels like such a breath of fresh air in a stale series that it, and the upcoming Clone Wars final season, may be the cure for the lackluster cinematic entries.
Now for the last show we watched just before the end of the year, The Witcher is not a series I was too familiar with. Outside of knowing it was a video game and book series, and some memes about taking a bath, I had no real anticipation for what this ended up being. The first trailer looked interesting, and to be honest, I was happy to see Henry Cavill in something after his absence from Shazam! hinted that he might no longer be involved in the DCEU. I love fantasy, magic, alchemy, monsters and swordfights, and this show looked like it was set to deliver all that, but I wasn’t truly sold until the first time Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia, when confronted by a group of angry villagers, realizes he’s going to have to fight his way through and kill them all. His exasperated “Fuck” was so well-delivered that I was hooked from that moment. All in all, I enjoyed this show more than I thought I would, even though I felt like I only understood what was going on maybe 75% of the time. Characters like Jaskier, the annoying bard that just grows on you, and the innocent-turned-power-hungry Yennefer, all have wonderful chemistry with our lead protagonist. Even long, drawn out scenes with crazy amounts of confusing plot elements, while obtuse, are never boring.
While 2019 was a dumpster fire of a year, it was great to finish it out with an explosion of good content. And if only 2 of these 3 shows continue to develop, that’s alright by me. We already got three good seasons and for the first time in a long time, I have hope for what’s to come.
By John Camarena
Going into The Rise of Skywalker, expectations were low to say the least. The Last Jedi felt like a slap in the face to the fans that held the franchise close to their hearts, and having 2 of the main characters essentially tell us, the audience, that we are basically stupid for holding onto it, while a brave and interesting move, is not what Star Wars should be. By now it’s been revealed that even though JJ Abrams had an outline for the rest of the trilogy, Rian Johnson was given free rein to make the second movie however he wanted, and what he chose to do was interesting but also misguided. Rian Johnson, in my opinion, is not a bad director; however, his choice to deconstruct the mythology in order to water it down for mainstream audiences split the fandom. Some people liked it, many hated it, and I felt like maybe Star Wars just wasn’t for me anymore. This was most disappointing after the acceptable movie that Abrams had crafted. The Force Awakens, while a soft reboot/remake of A New Hope, was exactly what we wanted in order to bring the old fans back after so many adults were let down by the prequel trilogy. Abrams set up a familiar premise with the potential for meaningful payoff. Then Johnson said “nah” to that and essentially ended the trilogy with the second movie by making the theme one of letting go of the past and starting something completely different. There was nowhere coherent for the third movie to go and it showed: the big bad villain was unceremoniously killed before we get to know anything about his past, his motivations, and his goals; the second most important character also dies kind of pointlessly after spending the whole movie being a downer and refusing to be involved. This was Luke Skywalker! And the movie even makes a meta commentary on the fact that Luke was the former hero now reduced to being a sad hermit. Finally, the big set up that Rey was somehow important got flushed down the vac-tube by revealing she’s actually a nobody and her parents were just drunks. More on that in a bit. Needless to say, Disney was in a bit of a panic and their solution to try and win back the fans was to get Abrams back for the third movie. For some strange reason, it was never intended to have a unifying vision guiding these movies the way Marvel does, but nevertheless, this was a hail Mary play. So we get Abrams back and what happens next? Well, he basically has to undo many of the plot threads from The Last Jedi, or somehow twist them so that they fit into what I presume must have been the original outline of the trilogy. The perfect metaphor for this situation is being introduced to Kylo Ren in Episode 7 with his black helmet, then Snoke makes fun of Kylo Ren for using it so Kylo destroys it in Episode 8, followed by Kylo Ren reconstructing the damaged helmet and wearing it again to bring us back to form. It’s as beautiful as it is stupid. So what happens next? Let’s take a look.
- Palpatine was behind it all. We thought he was long dead, having been thrown into a pit on the second Death Star, and thus fulfilling Vader’s redemption and the prophecy that would bring balance to the Force by eliminating the Sith once and for all. But no, somehow Palpatine survived his Force lighting self-electrocution, falling down a bottomless pit, and the Death Star explosion, so he could go into hiding for the next 30 years where basically no one would know where he was and secretly build a huge fleet of planet-destroying Star Destroyers, which now makes them the most inappropriately named ships. Palpatine literally created Snoke as a pawn and influenced Kylo through the Force, making him think his grandpa, Darth Vader, was communicating with him. The problem here is there was absolutely zero set up for this reveal. Which leads me to my next point…
- Rey is a Palpatine. So it turns out she isn’t really a nobody; she’s a direct descendant from one of the characters that’s now been a part of all three trilogies. Sure, her parents weren’t infamous, but the son of Palpatine would most certainly not qualify as a nobody. There are so many more questions that come from this reveal: why were Rey’s parents not on the same page as the Emperor? Who did the Emperor have a child with? Were there other children? Were the parents not Force-sensitive? Was selling Rey into slavery to a shady junk dealer as a small, defenseless child really the best option to keep her away from Palpatine after I’m assuming it was discovered she had Force potential?
- The Rule of Two. The Rise of Skywalker introduces a couple of ideas with deep implications, but like everything else in the story, they get glossed over with minimal explanation. First, Kylo states that he and Rey are a dyad in the Force. Somehow, the two of them are inexplicably and inexorably interconnected within the Force; soulmates. But this idea is new to the canon and has no previous frame of reference really understand the meaning of this. Then the Emperor wants Rey to kill him so she can fulfill her ultimate destiny and the Sith can inhabit her being. This is actually very interesting because it implies that the Rule of Two, first mentioned in The Phantom Menace, is with the goal of the master training an apprentice to eventually kill him in order to transfer his soul into the body of the apprentice and thus defy death and continue the cycle with a new apprentice. Since the Sith cannot commune with the part of the Force that would essentially turn them into ghosts like Luke, Ben and Yoda, they have strived to cheat death through unnatural means, and it seems that this is the secret that Darth Plagueis discovered and Palpatine briefly alludes to in Revenge of the Sith. Again, a very interesting idea worth exploring further, but no we move on and this is not mentioned again.
This isn’t to say the movie was bad as a whole. In truth, I liked this one the best out of the three. If you shut your logic circuits and can regress to being 5 years old, this is an entertaining ride. It’s only under basic scrutiny that the flaws in the story become apparent. A simple peek behind the curtain and the whole things begins to unravel. The main issue is the course-correction Abrams implemented that both had to undo or recontextualize a lot of the previous movie in order to make this work, and as a result, this felt like two movies compressed into one. Everything moves so quickly that you barely have time to grasp what just happened before we’re whisked away to the next plot point rushing to the finish line. Some of the best parts of my favorite entry in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, are the slow, character building and exposition scenes. Had Abrams at the very least been the guiding hand of the trilogy, we could have avoided a lot of the ill will garnered by the last movie. Had the idea of Palpatine being the puppet master been implemented earlier, this would have been an amazing reveal. In contrast to the movies, Jon Favre has demonstrated that it is still possible to make something good with the Star Wars brand when you have the right people and a vision involved. Here’s to hoping that this is a learning experience for Lucasfilm and better quality control begins to seep in.
A Review By Hidai Moya
I didn’t mind that this blatantly imitates ‘Assassin’s Creed’ & “Arkham”, after all if the mechanics work why change them?
However what’s not imitated is their creativity in making a satisfying open world & encountering meaningful quests.
For a game based on the imagination of Tolkien it has a lot to live up to & honestly its few redeeming quality were its Orcs & Uruks who have terrific dialogue & are vividly ugly & the voice acting of “Talion” & “Celebrimbor”.
Mordor itself fails at feeling like an organic open world. Instead it feels like an open air jungle gym. The side quests are easy & you become very overpowered very quickly robbing you the feeling of a real challenge.
The story is meager & though the fight animations are good, especially when decapitating.
However, it doesn’t add too much of a satisfying experience.