What is the AAF? A look at the new football league’s rules, founders, and future

"Quality football is important, but football is not the engine."

AAF Legends Apollos Football
Orlando Apollos linebacker Reggie Northrup II runs onto the field before an AAF game against the Atlanta Legends. –AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

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Early in the first quarter Saturday, San Antonio Commanders linebacker Shaan Washington blindsided Mike Bercovici with an eye-popping hit that sent the San Diego Fleet quarterback’s helmet flying.

If the players, teams, or physicality sound unfamiliar to an NFL-trained ear, it’s because the matchup marked the league opener for the Alliance of American Football. The eight-team upstart league will play a 10-game regular-season schedule and crown its champion after a title game on April 27.

Former NESN sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl will reprise that role for CBS Sports’ coverage of the AAF. She noted the league offers fans an opportunity to “fill up” on the sport during a time of the year that’s usually football-free.

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“Take it for what it is,” Erdahl said. “It’s an opportunity to watch football in the offseason and see what it can become.”

Here’s what you need to know about the new professional football league:

The rules

Although there are several significant differences between the AAF and the NFL, the game as a whole shouldn’t be too far off what you’re used to seeing on Sundays.

  • Instead of kickoffs, which the league decided slow down the game and create too many injuries, the ball will simply start on the 25-yard line after each score or at the beginning of each half.
  • Instead of kicking an extra point, teams have to attempt a two-point conversion after every touchdown.
  • Onside kicks have been replaced by an onside conversion. If a team is trailing by 17 points, or there is five minutes or less left in the fourth quarter, they can opt to get the ball on their own 28-yard line and try to convert a 4th-and-12.
  • There will be no TV timeouts and fewer full-screen commercials. Additionally, there will be a sky judge referee who can communicate with the officials on the field in real-time so the refs won’t have to go under the hood.
  • In overtime, each team will get the ball at the opposing 10-yard line. They’ll have one possession to score a touchdown, then attempt a two-point conversion. The game will end in a tie if neither team scores.

Each player in the nascent league signed the same deal: a three-year, $250,000 contract with an option to opt-out if the NFL comes calling during the offseason. The AAF will also offer secondary education scholarships and an internship program.

The players were allocated to their teams by region based on where they played college football or last played with an NFL or CFL club. For the quarterbacks, a four-round draft was held that allowed teams to protect one player from their region or pick from the entire pool.

The people involved

The AAF was announced in March 2018 by co-founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian.

Ebersol, a filmmaker, is a son of Dick Ebersol, the former NBC Sports president who co-founded the short-lived XFL with WWE chairman Vince McMahon.

Polian was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015 after a long career as an NFL executive. Patriots fans might recall that he has a history of influencing rule changes; after Bill Belichick’s defense manhandled the Indianapolis Colts’ offense in 2004, Polian — then the Colts’ president — prodded the NFL until it restricted what defenders could do to receivers downfield.

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The AAF’s leadership board features multiple former NFL players. Former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu will serve as Head of Player Relations, while longtime Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward takes charge of Football Development. Retired defensive ends Jared Allen and Justin Tuck will advise on Player Relations, as officiating consultants Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino offer up the experience they both acquired as the NFL’s Vice President of Officiating.

There are eight inaugural franchises in the AAF: the Arizona Hotshots, Atlanta Legends, Birmingham Iron, Memphis Express, Orlando Apollos, Salt Lake Stallions, San Antonio Commanders, and San Diego Fleet. Orlando is led by legendary college coach Steve Spurrier, while former San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary will manage the Express.

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Former Patriots listed on AAF rosters include wide receivers Devin Lucien and Brian Tyms.

The future

Looking forward, the AAF hopes to complement — not compete with — the NFL. One of the central components of this plan is the league’s tech platform. Fans will be able to log on to an app during the games and interact with a livestreamed broadcast.

Ebersol told Fox Business that the AAF plans to roll out new features that will reward users for guessing the correct play or outcome, with points that can be exchanged for cash prizes and other perks. The league is partnering with MGM Resorts, and the AAF believes its lightning-fast data will eventually allow fans to place in-game bets on the outcomes of each play.

“Quality football is important, but football is not the engine,” Ebersol said. “It’s not the economic engine of this business year one. The long-term goal is to build a technology company that has a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and so we’re going to invest heavily in putting good football on the field that mimics in the NFL in terms of the quality and the type of play, so that our technology can travel to not only the NFL, but other sports and other industries.”

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You can watch the AAF through a multitude of platforms. CBS Sports Network will televise one game a week, the NFL Network will show 19 games, and TNT and B-R Live will also carry broadcasts of the action throughout the season.