Gail Sideman Publicity


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PR buzz was great, but AAF not prepared to support it

If you’re a football fan, you know by now that the Alliance of American Football, the startup spring league that generated loads of positive publicity and was headed toward its first postseason, has suddenly gone dark.

With some of its eight teams at practice preparing for this weekend’s games, a letter was reportedly sent out to team management saying all AAF operations would be suspended at 5 p.m. ET, without much explanation, although red flags were raised. Tom Dundon, the new majority owner of the league, reportedly said that unless the AAF was able to share players with the NFL Players Association, its future was in doubt.

From coaches to players, it seems as if most were surprised at the abrupt ending to a season for a league that was about to play its first postseason.

In thinking about this from a PR standpoint, I enlarged the scope to startups. Positive publicity is great for any business, especially when you have name talent behind it as the AAF did with Charlie Ebersol who comes from a successful sports media family, and former NFL general manager, Bill Polian. The two announced the league in 2018 and leading up to the first game, spoke about a solid business plan amidst their excitement. It didn’t intend to compete with the NFL behemoth, but sought to fill a gap that after Super Bowl, left fans counting days until football training camps started. The AAF also provided an outlet to athletes who wanted to play ball as close to the college and professional games as possible, as well as coaches and others who wanted roles within a football organization.

Many found the football entertaining. If you watched the games on television or online and accepted that athletes were a notch below NFL practice team players, you simply enjoyed the sport. There was also a lot of buzz around the AAF’s tweaked traditional football rules and traditions. Audiences were given peeks and sound to upstairs officials’ booths, there were no kickoffs or extra points after touchdowns, fewer timeouts ensured quicker games and more. Television ratings remained steady even when games went against the NCAA Basketball Tournaments, which were further proof that fans were hungry for more football.

The abrupt suspension was one for public relations grinders as well as upstarts. It taught us very publicly that if you want to start a sports business, you must secure operating funds beyond the first season to avoid the need for cash mid-season. When you punch the calculator, accommodate for obstacles — the just-in-case factors — and have enough money in the bank should your perfect scenario go awry. The AAF experienced legal challenges and insurance issues it obviously didn’t anticipate and what looked like a promising project ended with lost control.

Positive publicity is great for any business, but if you can’t pay the bills and sustain the level you established, it won’t matter. Ask people in the AAF who were suddenly left jobless and had to hustle rides home.


©Gail Sideman, 2019

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