Alliance of American Football co-founder Charlie Ebersol cares about the narrative. After seeing his father’s XFL quickly become a punching bag, Ebersol has done what he can to protect the AAF’s reputation by generating a slow-and-steady storyline. The latest example comes Thursday, as the league will announce a new deal with CBS to have two additional games on the broadcast network.
The first of the two new CBS games will air at noon on April 6 ahead of the NCAA tournament semifinals. Before then, look for AAF promotion as CBS and Turner Sports broadcast March Madness. CBS will also have a semifinal game April 21.
Ebersol built his schedule around potential TV times but did not push for maximum exposure at launch. He’s been talking with CBS about expanding their partnership ever since the league debuted to three million viewers. Now, the news comes a week after TNT also signed up for two more games. “The premise was underpromise and overdeliver,” Ebersol said Wednesday after a day spent feature testing in San Francisco. “I wanted the story to be … we’re so successful they put us on the mothership.” The TV and film producer hopes that growth narrative continues week after week and year after year until … who knows when.
Ratings have remained a talking point surrounding the league as it attempts to avoid the pitfalls that doomed its predecessors. Airing across CBS, TNT, NFL Network, CBS Sports Network and BR Live, the AAF has seen highs and growth as well as dips and drops (in the lingo of those who track these things).
“We care about the ratings, NFL Network and Turner and CBS care,” Ebersol said, “but we really care about those ratings against the backdrop of people engaging with our product beyond how many are watching on TV.” According to Ebersol, the AAF app has been download between six and nine million times across platforms, with roughly a million people using it during each game.
While it remains to be seen how many players turn an AAF stint into an NFL gig, two new rules have already garnered attention. The NFL has reportedly considered adding a “sky judge” to help avoid blatantly missed calls and the Broncos have proposed overhauling the onside kick parameters after the AAF let teams elect to go for a fourth-and-12 conversion instead of trying to recover a kick.
On the field, the 5-0 Steve Spurrier-led Orlando Apollos have dominated the other seven teams so far. Meanwhile Ebersol said Birmingham Irons (3-2) running back Trent Richardson, who leads the league with eight rushing touchdowns, has emerged as a voice of the players. A project featuring Richardson is set to roll out soon. The AAF CEO added that he’d like to see the former Heisman finalist and No. 3 overall pick in the NFL be a part of the AAF organization after he’s done playing. The startup’s ability to last that long, Ebersol believes, will ultimately hinge on how well the game is played.
“One of the things that was a big bet—maybe the biggest bet we made—was betting on the actual football being good enough that it would be our calling card,” he said. “Once people accept the football, the conversation moves from Is this league going to survive? to What can this league actually become?”