Charlie Ebersol has held back on announcing the Alliance of American Football’s eight cities for the inaugural season, instead planning to unveil that information beginning in April with the hopes of staying visible. However, a number of clues were provided at the Facebook Live Q&A that followed the opening press conference, and the most concrete came from Ebersol himself:
Each team will have the ability to take an allocation from the players that play in their region first and foremost, so our Florida team, for example, will pull from the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins, the players that played there, that established themselves, as well as the collegiate players at University of Miami and Florida State, etc. Each team will have four NFL teams that are in their “region,” and then they’ll also have college teams in that area.
If you’re going to give on away one home state for free, the Sunshine State was a good choice. As the Alliance seeks to create a national presence, Florida is an obvious building block, and there are enough qualified cities that just naming the state doesn’t quite confirm anything.
I would suggest that three boxes need to be checked by any city: there needs be a) a right-sized stadium, that b) can be consistently filled in February through April in c) a major media market that will in turn create valuable media rights outside the market. This dovetails nicely with what XFL spokesman Lou D’Ermilio recently outlined as that league’s criteria: “population, fan affinity, and venues.” Ebersol, however, struck a slightly different tone in his Facebook Live Q&A:
What I think’s important is less the venue size and the market size. … Think about this: Where is the fan engagement the highest? Where do you have the highest level of passion? Where do you have the place where the market is either underserved or just can’t get enough? We think about it that way, because in the modern era, football is local.
Taken at face value, fans in a lot of mid-sized cities should be encouraged. I suspect that that when the cities are unveiled, we’ll see that this is more than a little spin. We’ve talked before about how the XFL is really a broadcast property; I think Ebersol put that much more nicely during his press conference when he said the league was really a media company. If anyone knows that a crowd of 25,000 in Virginia Beach are not as valuable as a crowd of 25,000 in New York, it’s Charlie.
The Front Runner: Orlando
The only city that firmly fits Ebersol’s stated criteria of “underserved or just can’t get enough” is Orlando, which is Florida’s only “major league” city (defined as already having at least one NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, or MLS team) without a professional football team.
Orlando has competed in nearly every alternative professional football league, with the WFL (Florida Blazers), USFL (Orlando Renegades), WLAF (Orlando Thunder), XFL (Orlando Rage), and UFL (Florida Tuskers) each putting a team in the city. The Rage had the greatest success at the gate and on the field, drawing over 25,000 fans per game for the XFL and finishing first in the regular season with a 9-1 record. Notably, former Rage General Manager Tom Veit holds the title of Director of Business Operations for the Alliance.
The big advantage an Alliance team will hopefully enjoy over its predecessors is a better stadium situation. Each of the aforementioned teams played in the Citrus Bowl, the current capacity of which is 60,219. Orlando has since opened the 25,500-seat Orlando City Stadium for the MLS team, and the University of Central Florida recently renovated its 44,206-seat Spectrum Stadium, riding the atmosphere of “The Bounce House” to an undefeated 2017 season. Booking one or the other would put the Alliance in an excellent position to succeed.
One caveat: Orlando is a WWE city. The WWE Performance Center, where WWE trains its developing wrestlers, is located in Orlando, and the city has hosted Wrestlemanias in 2008 and 2017. The city actively campaigned for the 2017 edition, flying to Stamford, Connecticut to state its case in person. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer boasted that the event brought in $181.5 million in economic activity, and when the XFL news broke, he said through a spokesman that “this is something we would be interested in learning more about to bring to Orlando.” If Orlando was put in a position where it had to choose, they would likely think long and hard before turning down Vince McMahon.
The Plan Bs: Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa
If Orlando doesn’t work out for whatever reason, Florida’s three NFL cities can all mount reasonably strong cases. Miami is the largest market in the state and has the best national recognition. Its drawback is its fantastic weather and nightlife, which makes drawing at sporting events a challenge. None of its current pro teams are consistently strong draws, and MLS has had an unbelievably hard time making inroads in the city.
A generation ago, Jacksonville drew very well for the USFL — the Jaguars surely owe their existence in part to the Jacksonville Bulls, who led the league in attendance in 1984 (46,730) and 1985 (44,329). However, that was before the Jaguars existed, and the city doesn’t have a right-size stadium, with EverBank Field (64,428) being too big even for the NFL club and all other options being too small.
Tampa is probably the best qualified: like Jacksonville, it can claim it drew well for the USFL; unlike Jacksonville, it did so with an NFL team sharing the market. The Bandits were nearly on par with woeful Buccaneers, drawing over 43,000 during its three seasons. The Tampa Bay area also is held back by its stadium situation: Raymond James Stadium, home to both the Buccaneers and the University of South Florida Bulls, is too ambitious at a capacity of 65,890. Tropicana Field is a better size (up to the 40,000s, depending on the configuration), but the facility is poorly lit and poorly located in St. Petersburg; the venue has crippled the MLB Rays, who have been trying desperately to build a stadium in Tampa for years.
The Big Name Coaching Targets
The Sporting News put a story out this week saying that the Alliance is considering offering up to $500,000 for name head coaches. By offering real money for what amounts to a four-month gig, the Alliance stands a good chance of luring big name coaches who are currently not working due to the year-round grind of coaching in the NFL and college. In exchange, the Alliance gets a face and a spokesman for a team for less than the price of the NFL veterans’s minimum. It’s not a guarantee of success — the UFL had former NFL Head Coaches including Jim Fassel, Dennis Green, and Marty Schottenheimer (the latter of whom earned $1.1 million for the eight-game 2011 season) and still failed — but it’s a much more efficient way of spending money than on name players, and it certainly would give the league more visibility.
The Sporting News suggests Steve Spurrier, who hung up his visor at the University of South Carolina during the 2015 season. His name would carry significant weight anywhere in North Florida thanks to his successes at the University of Florida, which is a less than a two-hour drive to Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa. Spurrier won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as a quarterback for the Gators and became a legend as a coach at the school, racking up a record of 122-27-1 from 1990-2001 and winning the 1996 National Championship. His penchant for high-octane passing offenses and quotable quips would both be a welcome addition for a new league looking to create an entertaining product and remain in the headlines.
I’ll throw out one more name to watch for a Florida team: Tony Dungy. He is only 62 and retired from the NFL due to the workload. He still lives in Tampa, where he coached the Buccaneers from 1996 to 2001 and was instrumental in building a roster that would win the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. After the Buccaneers, he went to Indianapolis, where he went 85-27 from 2002 to 2008 and won Super Bowl XLI. The man who hired him? Alliance’s Co-Founder and Head of Football Bill Polian.