The recent news of another new football league launching wasn’t particularly surprising. What was eye-opening, however, was this: CBS has agreed to televise the games of the Alliance of American Football, an eight-team operation that will play games over 10 weeks beginning next February.
And former Gators coach Steve Spurrier, 72, will coach the Orlando team — the only city that so far has been publicly awarded a franchise.
The CBS deal gives the new league a shot to succeed. While most of CBS’ telecasts will air on CBS Sports Net, CBS will air two games, both in prime time — the league opener on Feb. 9 (the Saturday night six days after next year’s Super Bowl) and the championship game.
So why would CBS go into business with a new league when it already has the NFL and when it doesn’t exactly need the programming in the spring, when the network airs considerable college basketball and golf?
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“Ithink the fact they are so well funded,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told me at the recent NFL owners meetings in Orlando.
“And the fact they have a really good plan for utilizing the hundreds of good athletes coming out of college who don’t have necessarily an immediate NFL career but are still really, really good football players.”
McManus also liked “the fact they don’t have a two or three or five year plan. They have a plan for the next 20 years.”
And McManus holds two men associated with the league in high regard: movie producer Charlie Ebersol (son of former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol) and former NFL general manager Bill Polian.
“The fact that Charlie Ebersol is involved and the fact Bill Polian is involved we think is important,” McManus said. “We don’t look at it as competitive in any way with the NFL. We look at it as good, solid programming. Of all the spring leagues that have been tried over the years, this one has a really good shot of making it. So we’re excited about it.”
Other U.S. football league ventures have been short-lived, including the XFL, the United Football League and United States Football League.
The AAF will try to limit games to 2 1/2 hours by eliminating kickoffs and extra points and implementing a 30-second play clock, 15 seconds less than the NFL’s. There will be no TV timeouts.
Ultimately, the league’s success will be determined by the quality of play. Rosters will be filled by undrafted college players and others who fail to make NFL teams. The league hopes to appeal to people who miss playing fantasy football after the NFL season ends.
“This is not a development league,” Ebersol told The New York Times. “There are tens of thousands of players who don’t have a job, which translates into hundreds of Kurt Warners.”
Spurrier said the league offers him “a unique opportunity to get back into coaching and work closely with hungry, talented athletes looking to begin, revive or extend their professional careers. The fact I can do this in Orlando makes it that much sweeter. I’m fired up.”
CBS college football analyst and former UCLA/Colorado/Washington coach Rick Neuheisel will coach another of the teams, according to The Sporting News.
The AAF is one of three new leagues potentially on the way. A developmental league is being launched by Don Yee, the football agent who represents Tom Brady, which will focus on players who want to skip college. Vince McMahon announced in January that he will relaunch the XFL in 2020.
AROUND THE DIAL
Though NFL ratings declined again this season, McManus told me and Sports Business Journal’s Daniel Kaplan: “More people are consuming the NFL in different ways. TV ratings have been down marginally, but that doesn’t mean that there is not the same amount of people who are consuming the product, whether it is through Red Zone, whether it’s through the mobile app, or whether it’s through highlights on social media. The NFL is more popular than ever.”
▪ It will be interesting to see if the league fills Fox’s Thursday night package primarily with AFC games that would otherwise air on CBS on Sundays or instead take some of Fox’s Sunday afternoon games and moves them to Thursday.
“We talk to the league all the time about the schedule,” McManus said. “All of us lobby [chief schedule maker] Howard Katz and the league shamelessly. There is no bribery that actually goes on but it’s as close to bribery as it can possibly get. I say that facetiously. We all lobby to get the best games and somehow he manages to keep five broadcast partners pretty happy.
“All of us come away from the scheduling process being satisfied that he’s done a good job. It doesn’t mean that we don’t occasionally lobby. It doesn’t mean that we don’t complain that more of our good games have been taken away. But by in large, he does a really good job and the schedule is always fair to all the broadcast partners.”
I’m not sure ESPN would agree; Sean McDonough, who was removed from the Monday night football booth, said ESPN routinely gets one of the worst games each week even though it pays the most money for rights.
▪ McManus said CBS, on NFL games, will “continue to experiment with the two boxes where you have the advertising in one box and what’s going on on the field, whether it’s a review or players ready to come back into the game, [in the other box]. You’ll see more experimentation like that. The new format, where you will see four commercial breaks instead of five per quarter, worked very well for the networks, the viewers and for the advertisers.”
▪ Dan Patrick is leaving NBC’s NFL studio, by choice, to focus on his primary job of hosting a radio show. Mike Tirico might replace him in studio.
▪ Peyton Manning declined Fox’s offer to work the network’s 11-game Thursday night package, and The New York Post reports that Fox’s lead team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are expected to call those games.
Fox has auditioned Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, retiring Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas and Carolina tight end Greg Olsen (who reportedly will continue playing) for analyst jobs. It wouldn’t be surprising if Witten ends up at Fox. Thomas also has auditioned for ESPN.
▪ Fox Sports Sun is permitted to televise every Heat first-round playoff game that isn’t on ABC. No local coverage is permitted after the first round. … ABC will air games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons this weekend, presumably featuring Golden State and either Cleveland or Houston.
▪ HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is working on a piece on Derek Jeter and his controversial cost-cutting approach as Marlins owner.