In the week since the release of our story about the demise of the Alliance of American Football, a spring league that launched in February and lasted just eight games, The MMQB has been contacted by a number of former AAF employees and other people within the league’s orbit, all wanting to share stories about their experiences with the startup—and, in one case, a tale about Bill Murray.
The Alliance may have been a brief flicker in the American sports consciousness, but it carried a real weight for those working in the trenches: the players hoping to maximize an earning window in their non-guaranteed contracts, and the support staff tasked with building an organic, local football ecosystem from scratch with the help of their communities. These are some of their stories.
First, though, Bill Murray.
In the lead-up to Super Bowl LIII last February, the Alliance’s brain trust, its in-house creative team and an outside ad agency all spitballed ideas for a commercial that would run during the NFL’s tent-pole event and capture the 110 million sets of eyeballs tuned in to America’s most-watched television program. The more meetings the group held, though, the bigger the idea grew, until, according to one Alliance higher-up who attended a few of those meetings, the vision—for some dreamers, at least—became clear: Bill Murray would sit at a piano, singing and playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” while the ad cut back and forth between him and a montage of football hits.
One problem. Murray is notoriously reclusive. He doesn’t have an agent and is reachable only through the voicemail on a 1-800 number—plus he was apparently overseas on vacation. Amazingly, though, a liaison of the AAF’s ad agency finally got Murray on the phone with the request. The actor’s response was classic Billy Murray:
“Let me check my horoscope,” he said. Then he ghosted them.
At the outset of the AAF, theoretically as enticement to join the league, players were promised “coins” that could bolster their standard three-year, $250,000 deals. A player could earn a coin, for example, by scoring a touchdown, forcing a turnover or downing the football inside the 10-yard line on a punt. You could also earn a coin for doing community service. And at the end of the season those coins (the specific value of which, players report, was never detailed) would be tallied up and calculated into a bonus.
“Guys were excited, because you could do community service once a week,” says one player. “We were thinking, Oh, this is going to be easy money.”
As speculation swirled that the league was on shaky ground, however, players started to question the value of what they were really earning. One player who led his team in coins says it was a running joke to debate their worth based on the reported financial status of the league. “Is it seven dollars, or seven hundred?” he says, making note that in initial pitches the Alliance told some players they could feasibly double their salaries with coins. “Now,” he says, “I guess I’ll just go play Monopoly and win the same amount of money.”
Brad Sternberg, a video and football operations employee with the San Antonio Commanders, left home for a Week 6 away game against the Atlanta Legends knowing that his wife would give birth a week later via a scheduled C-section. Then things escalated quickly. When the team plane landed in Atlanta, Sternberg’s wife texted that she was having contractions and going to the hospital early. Sternberg told general manager Daryl Johnston, the former Dallas Cowboys fullback and NFL color analyst, who gave Sternberg his credit card. Find a way home.
Except there were no flights back to San Antonio that night. So the entire Commanders coaching and support staff huddled at a bar down the road from the team hotel while Sternberg joined them in watching the birth of his son via FaceTime. In the end, the doctor snapped a picture, Sternberg shared it with the group and everyone erupted in cheers.
Sternberg shares this story because, for him and many others, it symbolizes what the Alliance was all about: Football enthusiasts uniting over their intense and sometimes unreasonable love of the sport. For every person who unloaded on the AAF and shared dirt, there were almost as many who, despite everything, said they would sign up to do it all over again. The AAF “made football what it used to be,” Sternberg says of the culture. “Every coach on our staff approached this with the best intentions.”
His story, though, also illustrates what people sacrificed for the league. People who after eight weeks of football were laid off without severance or health insurance. These employees shared stories of willingly missing surgeries and honeymoons because of various Alliance responsibilities. They would be awoken in the pre-dawn hours to accomplish some seemingly essential task, or would stay at team headquarters late into the night searching for answers to some problem they’d been berated about earlier in the day.
More than a handful of former AAF employees tell The MMQB that they paid out of pocket for work expenses—office supplies, industry memberships, multimedia software—that were never reimbursed. Some of those costs stretched into four figures. Such outlays were easier to swallow when they believed they were getting paid for the next three years. As one employee says, staffers would often conclude stressful meetings by repeating to one another: “Three years.” It was a sort of calming mantra.
For Sternberg, it was startling to see how quickly the atmosphere bottomed out. After the AAF closed up, he says, one employee from each team was retained, for a small bonus, to recoup that franchise’s physical assets—hardware such as cameras, computers and televisions—and return them to the Alliance’s warehouse in San Antonio. That task proved more difficult than expected, though, because some of those assets started making their way out the door the day the AAF was shuttered.
“I watched the biggest loot-fest I’ve ever seen,” says Sternberg. “Cameras disappeared. Flat-screens. I watched a f------ full-time coach walk out of the building carrying a 55-inch TV. I watched people carry printers out. It was unbelievable.”
Another story that spread far across the AAF offices has Marshawn Lynch crashing the league’s quarterback draft last November at the Luxor casino in Las Vegas. According to one employee, Lynch, whose cousin Josh Johnson was the first pick in that draft, and who is notoriously media-averse, agreed to do a two-minute interview for the Alliance at that event in exchange for $5,000. But when a check was presented to Lynch, he asked that his money be delivered instead in quarters—which AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol took seriously. In the end, 20,000 quarters were delivered to Lynch’s room and the interview apparently took place . . . but no one ever saw it. It didn’t air.
At the downtown sales office used by one of the league’s eight teams, the final April day of the Alliance’s existence started with the typical unease that all employees increasingly felt hanging over them. By then, new owner Tom Dundon had told USA Today that he would shut everything down if an agreement wasn’t reached to work with the NFL Players Association. Every day was a tightrope walk.
Still, on this particular day, in this particular office, a game operations meeting had been scheduled and completed; workers then went back to their desks for what had become a hellish routine: a flurry of calls from concerned sponsors, radio salespeople and season ticket holders who wanted to know what was up. The company line, We don’t know anything, was true, even if the concerned party on the other end of the line didn’t believe it. By this point, AAF employees were getting more frequent updates from Twitter than from their superiors.
Then, around 1 p.m. ET, news came down that the Alliance would suspend operations. Local media showed up at the team’s headquarters. The phone lines flooded with requests for comment. And more calls from angry season ticket holders.
“That’s when things really hit the fan,” says one employee. The football ops team was getting information first, then relaying messages to the front office staff in a separate building. Together they all realized the true fragility of the ground they were standing on. Blind faith was no longer an option.
When I heard this story I thought back to another employee, across the country, who told me about the first time he saw video of a live AAF preseason scrimmage. He cried for almost an hour as he watched something he’d helped bring to life. The football was good; it looked right. In less than a year, with a shoestring budget and funding more reminiscent of a shady eastern European political campaign than of a professional football league, they’d pulled it together. The moment was indescribably rewarding.
An employee at a separate Alliance office, clearly emotional, described a familial love for co-workers. These were small, dysfunctional families, all bonding over the same insanity generated from a front office that seemed nonexistent. Such environments tended to bring people together, as in Orlando, where, in the absence of any money earmarked for decorating the team office, employees covered one wall in multi-colored thank you notes, written from the sales staff to the fans.
And yet here they all were, apologizing on behalf of the Alliance’s owners to parents who’d spent their entire entertainment budgets on season tickets, to small business owners who still hadn’t received money from the league for services they’d provided.
At the end of that last day, their thanks for this damage control came in the form of a nebulous email from the Alliance’s generic leadership account, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It basically said: We’re letting you and your staff go—all the people who moved into the market with their families,” recalls one AAF staffer who’s helping dozens of her former colleagues find jobs. “We were being paid through the next day.”
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