AAF, Salt Lake Stallions are folding eight games into spring football league’s inaugural season

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans line up to cheer on the Salt Lake Stallions as they take to the field for the second half as they host the Memphis Express of the Alliance of American Football in Salt Lake City on Saturday March 16, 2019.

The Alliance of American Football, which includes the Salt Lake Stallions, is folding eight games into its first season.

AAF co-founder Bill Polian said he’s been told that football operations have been suspended and that virtually everyone involved with the fledgling spring league will be terminated within 24 to 48 hours.

Polian declined to say where he got that information. He said Tuesday that he was waiting for official word from majority owner Tom Dundon, who also owns the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.

The former NFL executive, who built a Super Bowl winner with Indianapolis, said he was “extremely disappointed” with the apparent demise of the latest spring football league.

“On the one hand it was kind of our wildest fantasies come true,” Polian told The Associated Press. “It all came true and now it’s all come crashing down.”

The Stallions, who were scheduled to play at Atlanta on Sunday, canceled Tuesday’s practice at RSL Academy in Herriman. The club has released no official information beyond that.

Stallions coach Dennis Erickson said he was stunned by Tuesday’s turn of events.

“It’s unbelievable,” Erickson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We were not told the truth. We were told the league had enough funding to remain viable for three years. Obviously, that was not the case. We are where we are. But it is over as of today, so, no more football.”

The Stallions are coming off an 8-3 home victory over the San Diego Fleet on Saturday, a win that boosted them to 3-5 this season with two games left on their regular season schedule.

The team has struggled to lure fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium for its home games, typically drawing announced crowds of between 8,000-10,000. But Salt Lake has not been alone in that regard. Many teams in the league struggled to fill the college-, and NFL-sized stadiums they played in.

“The league had too many costs — outside of paying the players and coaches," Stallions linebacker and former Ute Trevor Reilly told The Tribune. “Things like food, travel, hotels, lodging. You have to pay the players a decent salary or they won’t play. There was a good salary structure. They just have to cut outside costs.”

Asked why the league was shutting down, Polian said he's heard "only that it's about the money. That's all."

He said the only people who will be kept on will be equipment managers and others who will shut down operations.

Earlier Tuesday, two people with knowledge of the situation told the AP that the league is suspending operations eight games into its first season. The people spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because league officials were still working through details of the suspension. An announcement from the league was expected later Tuesday.

The AAF seemed to have a better chance of surviving than other alternative leagues, such as the USFL and the World League, because of the people and philosophies involved.

Polian and co-founder Charlie Ebersol, a television and film producer, envisioned it as a development league for the NFL with several rules tweaks designed to speed up play and make it safer. There were no kickoffs or PATs. Teams had to go for a two-point conversion after touchdowns.

“We were headed to a tremendous run of success, beginning with Saturday’s game leading into the Final Four on CBS,” Polian told the AP. “Our league on the field has prospered and grown. The football’s gotten better, and that’s a tremendous tribute to the coaches and players and GMs and front office staff and all the other people who have done a phenomenal job.”

Polian later said in a statement that when Dundon took over, it was his and Ebersol’s belief “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.”

Among the league’s coaches, besides Salt Lake’s Erickson, were Orlando’s Steve Spurrier, San Diego’s Mike Martz and San Antonio’s Mike Riley. Along with Salt Lake and San Diego, the league included teams in Orlando, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Antonio, Birmingham, and Memphis.

While it clearly wasn't NFL-caliber football, it was entertaining and helped fill the post-Super Bowl void.

However, there were signs of trouble in a league put together in less than one year.

Dundon invested $250 million in the AAF shortly after play began. At the time, Ebersol said reports that the Alliance was short on cash and needed a bailout from Dundon in order to make payroll were untrue. He said the league had a technical glitch in its payroll system that was fixed.

The AAF aspired to be a league for players with NFL hopes, but it could not reach agreement with the NFLPA to use players at the end of NFL rosters.

“It’s speculation on my part, but [Dundon] was told this deal with the NFL Players Association was going to get done. They told him it would happen," said Reilly. "And then when it didn’t get worked out, and he was still writing checks, he started talking about folding the league.”

Most AAF games have been televised by TNT, NFL Network or the CBS Sports Network cable channel or streamed on B/R Live. And while early ratings were impressive — the first two AAF games, broadcast by CBS on Feb. 9, drew 3.25 million viewers, more than an NBA game airing on ABC at the same time‚ those numbers have declined as the season has progressed. Only 340,000 people watched a March 23 game between Orlando and Atlanta on TNT, and the games broadcast by NFL Network that same weekend (one of them featuring former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel) drew fewer than 300,000 viewers.

“I am just heartbroken for the players," Erickson said. “The only reason I came back into it was because of the players and some of the coaches. It sounded like fun, and it was fun. I enjoyed the coaching aspect of it. It was fun being around those players. A lot of those ex-Utah players are fun to be around.”

He added: “I appreciate all the Salt Lake people, and their help, and all the things they did for us. It is too bad it didn’t work out.”

— Tribune reporters Jay Drew and Kurt Kragthorpe, and columnist Gordon Monson contributed to this report

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