SALT LAKE CITY — Less than four weeks before its scheduled first championship game, the Alliance of American Football is reportedly on the brink of collapse.
Multiple national outlets, including Pro Football Talk, ESPN and The Action Network, reported Tuesday that league majority owner Tom Dundon is suspending football operations, a move that could set in motion the AAF’s eventual folding.
"I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football," co-founder Bill Polian said in a statement Tuesday shared by ESPN. "When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all.
"The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity."
Dundon, the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, committed to a $250 million investment to the league in February, essentially making him the AAF’s owner, not long after reports of the league failing to make payroll. Dundon will lose approximately $70 million on his investment, according to The Action Network’s Darren Rovell.
There were two weeks remaining in the regular season for the eight-team league — which includes Utah’s franchise, the Salt Lake Stallions — as well as a conference championship playoff weekend and a championship game set for April 27. Pro Football Talk reported that the league would need roughly $20 million to get to the end of the season.
"I sincerely regret that many that believed in this project will see their hopes and efforts unrewarded," Polian said, according to ESPN. "They gave their best for which I am deeply grateful. Unfortunately, Mr. Dundon has elected this course of action."
Stallions linebacker Trevor Reilly, a former standout at the University of Utah, confirmed during an interview with 1280 the Zone radio that Stallions players met with team officials Tuesday.
“We had a team meeting, and as of right now, it’s suspended,” Reilly said.
A Stallions representative confirmed that Tuesday’s practice was cancelled.
Last week, Dundon told USA Today the league was in danger of ceasing operations if it didn’t receive support from the NFL Players Association to use young players from NFL rosters to help staff AAF rosters, particularly at quarterback and on the line. Among the chief concerns from the players’ association standpoint would include insurance and player injuries.
Now, the AAF appears in serious danger of joining other football leagues that have folded, like the former United States Football League and the XFL. The XFL is attempting to make a comeback next year under WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, who sold $272 million in WWE stock to help fund the XFL relaunch, according to Sports Illustrated.
The league signed players to three-year, $250,000 non-guaranteed deals that paid out $70,000 the first year, $80,000 the second and $100,000 in the third. AAF player contracts will be terminated Tuesday, with contracts of football operations staff being terminated Wednesday, according to Rovell.
The AAF had TV broadcast rights lined up with several companies, including CBS, TNT, NFL Network and CBS Sports Network. The championship game was scheduled to be televised on CBS. The league often had between 400,000 and 500,000 viewers tuning in for games, according to ESPN.
The Stallions averaged a league-low 9,125 fans in four home games at the 45,000-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium, according to paid attendance figures. San Antonio averaged an AAF-high 27,720 per game, followed by San Diego at 19,154. Birmingham was the only team to play all five of its home games in the league's first season, averaging 14,307 fans per game.
The Orlando Apollos and Birmingham Iron had already clinched the Eastern Conference’s playoff spots, and the Stallions, at 3-5 on the year, were still alive for a postseason spot, though they trailed Western Conference foes Arizona Hotshots and San Antonio Commanders by two games in the standings.
"Every game we’re going to go out there and do our best, regardless if we’re 1-9 or 10-0. I think you always want to go out there and give it your best. You always need a goal to work toward," Salt Lake quarterback Josh Woodrum said after the team's 8-3 win over San Diego last Saturday.
The AAF, which began its first season the weekend after the Super Bowl, was billed as a development league and as a complement to the NFL. Salt Lake’s roster was full of players with varying degrees of NFL experience, including players like Reilly who were at one time college stars in Utah.
The news was tough for former Ute linebacker Gionni Paul, who broke his arm in the victory over the Fleet. The Stallions team captain joined the Salt Lake squad partway through training camp and had 43 tackles on the season.
"So the league's gonna fold, y'all. I blew my hand out for this league. It's gone," Paul said in a Twitter video following the team meeting, while sporting a Stallions beanie. "Charlie, you told us that this year gonna be different. This year it wasn't going to fold. You had the money. Now look at it — eight weeks into the league. My hand, what am I gonna do? They all still pay for my hand? Dang man, should've touched up with the CFL or Europe."
Reilly told 1280 Sports that following the meeting, there were players at the Stallions meeting weighing both sides of their future in football.
“I enjoyed it this year, and I’m going to go out on my terms,” said the 31-year-old. “It just stinks, because this thing was going to make it.”
Reilly said he hoped the league could figure out a way to cut costs, while pointing to things like housing and the cost of feeding players as places to look at. “It gets expensive,” he said.
Reilly refuted reports earlier in the season about the league struggling to make payroll.
“We’ve always gotten paid. We’re getting paid tomorrow,” he said.
At the beginning of the year, Stallions coach Dennis Erickson referred to the league as football’s equivalent of triple-A baseball.
“Some of the players you’ll see playing for us, you’ll see playing in the NFL,” he said.
Erickson stood behind that proclamation after watching the first eight weeks of the season.
“That's part of our job to get them out there and show their abilities. I'm also responsible to win football games and that's the No. 1 responsibility," he said Saturday. "A lot of those guys are getting looks right now (from the NFL) because they're in this league and this league is so good. You take (defensive end) Karter (Schult) for example — great pass rusher and he's playing well. There's other guys out there that because of this league, they're probably going to have an opportunity to have another shot.”
Former NFL first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel, who recently signed with the Memphis Express of the AAF, also shared his thoughts on the situation.
Just the reality of this unfortunate situation.. great concept, good football on the field and fun for fans to watch. Just not enough money to go around which has been the main problem with “other” leagues for a long time.— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) April 2, 2019
If you’re an AAF player and the league does dissolve. The last check you got will be the last one that you get. No lawsuit or anything else will get you your bread. Save your money and keep your head up. It’s the only choice at this point unless something drastic happens.— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) April 2, 2019
So, too, did former local radio personality and former football star Hans Olsen. Olsen played collegiately at BYU and for several years in the Arena Football League with the Utah Blaze.
I played in the AFL for 4 years after my time in the NFL to support my family and live my dream, I can't imagine having that pulled out from under me at that time.— Hans Olsen (@975Hans) April 2, 2019
My heart is broken for all the current players that were using this as their primary source of income.
Good luck! https://t.co/88p66PlRGH
Polian said he would do all he can to help players in the AAF achieve the goal of reaching the NFL, according to ESPN.
"My thanks go out to all who made our football product so competitive and professional," Polian said. "I am certain there are many among them destined for future success in the NFL and I look forward to doing all I can to help them in their quest."