This is a bummer. A bummer a blind man could see coming from 50 go-routes away, but a bummer, nonetheless.
Salt Lake City lost its pro football team on Tuesday, lost its pro football league.
You don’t really care because darn-near nobody around here even knew it existed in the first place. You didn’t have enough time to get acquainted with it, let alone get attached to it — just 52 days.
“Pray for us,” said Gionni Paul, a former Utah Ute and now former Salt Lake Stallion linebacker who isn’t sure what his football-playing future holds.
I went to exactly one Alliance of American Football game, the Stallions against the Memphis Something-er-others, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It was surreal watching a pro football game played in March on the Utes’ home field, dressed out as it was in baby blue.
Indications that trouble was on the horizon reared up when exactly three of about 40 seats in the press box were occupied, my own being one of them. You could have thrown a spiral down press row and not hit anyone on account of one obvious reason — the place was a ghost town.
Eyes being drawn out the press box’s large windows directly at the stands was unavoidable because Rice-Eccles looks strange, almost haunting, when it is empty, and on that occasion, it was basically that. They said 8,310 people were in attendance for the game, but in that huge open space it looked more like 310.
I once waited in a concessions line at an NFL game with more people in it.
The AAF is suspending operations, it was reported on Tuesday, after losing millions of dollars over a glorious lifespan of … eight games. The Stallions are serving out the suspension, along with their league-mates. And that is sad.
But not unexpected.
The facts that not enough people bought tickets for the AAF’s games and the care factor was low were just a couple of the problems vexing the league. The others were that the AAF’s owners/investors wanted the league to be connected to the NFL, serving as a kind of Triple-A outfit for the big boys. NFL scrubs theoretically could play in the AAF to better prepare them for a more frontline role in the top league and increase interest, and the level of play, in the bushes.
That didn’t work out so well when the NFL players association wouldn’t cooperate, pointing to bylaws in the collective bargaining agreement that prevented what some might classify as overuse of said players. And when the union swung the hammer on the idea of enabling third-string players to participate in additional games and practices to benefit the AAF … well, that plan stalled.
The NFL was never going to cooperate with somebody else’s league. It doesn’t need a minor league — that’s what college football is for. The players union was never going to sign off on it.
They’re too busy protecting the players who want to be protected, who already have made the NFL and don’t want to be pressured to get their ligaments torn and hamstrings pulled by playing in some backwater deal. Unfortunately, that protection also kills the dreams of other players who are on the fringe of the show, and now have few options as to where they can pursue those dreams.
It was supposedly knowledgeable executives who put the AAF together, football people who knew all the ins and outs of the pro game, guys and gals who would avoid landmines that had blown the arms and legs off of previous attempts to launch these kinds of endeavors. The AAF had television deals and qualified coaches and good talent with which to field an overall product that would be pleasing to an educated football public.
AAF teams were better, on average, more athletic, more skilled than a whole lot of college programs that draw 60,000 spectators on any given Saturday. The league’s athletes, its competitive structures were solid, the games, at least some of them, were enjoyable. I had a fine time at the Stallions’ game and deep down wished there were more than a smattering of fans in the stadium to see the action.
They weren’t there. And that Saturday was a blue-sky, 50-degree kind of day, perfect for taking in a little springtime football, a whole lot more entertaining, in and of itself, than watching, say, a college spring scrimmage.
It was bound to take time to make the connection between potential fan bases and teams. Fifty-two days aren’t enough to house train a puppy, let alone grab the attention of fans, change their habits, make them care, establishing a real pro league.
The biggest problem of all came down to what usually causes problems — a lack of money. The league was supposed to have cash to burn, and since January that fire was raging. Steve Spurrier, the noted coach of a team known as the Orlando Apollos, told the Orlando Sun-Sentinel in the smoking aftermath that league executives lied.
“Everyone was led to believe that the Alliance was well-funded and we could play three years without making any money and this, that and the other. Obviously, everything that was said was not very truthful.”
Trevor Reilly, a former Ute and New York Jet linebacker who suited up for the Stallions said wasteful spending was to blame for the AAF’s woes.
“The league had too many costs — outside of players and coaches,” he said. “Food, travel, hotels, lodging. It could have been done more efficiently. There were some success stories. San Antonio was averaging 25,000 to 30,000 fans. The TV broadcasts were averaging half-a-million viewers. It’s just that promises were made to a main investor that weren’t delivered on. And he was being asked to keep writing checks.”
The writing stopped on Tuesday.
“It could start up again,” Reilly said. “It could be done better.”
But it won’t be.
It was kind of cool — in a lonely sort of way — while it lasted.
Say a prayer, then, like Gionni Paul requested, for the Stallions, for pro football in Salt Lake City.
Make it a benediction.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.