AAF suspends play after owner pulls funding

Arizona wide receiver Richard Mullaney races down field while Salt Lake’s C.J. Smith defends. (Photos by Ronald Morrison)

Despite opening the season with high hopes of becoming a feeder league for the NFL, the AAF suspended operations April 2.

Officials of the AAF informed the players of the suspension of league play in a letter from its board of directors, noting that it would attempt to “restructure” the league and seek new investors.

While the letter did not provide a reason for the decision, reports have stated the league needs a minimum of $20 million to complete its first season, and Tom Dundon, the league’s majority owner and chairman, opted to pull funding.

Dundon invested $250 million into AAF in February, essentially becoming chairman of the league. Prior to that, AAF had financial issues early in the first weeks of the new league.

Staff and employees of the teams were paid through April 3 and players were free to contact NFL or other teams for employment as of April 4.

According to an email sent out by the league, “Over the last year, we have been able to realize some amazing accomplishments. We launched a football league, a ground breaking sports technology and APP, and established production and broadcast arrangements to air our content on major networks. Together we created some incredible moments for football and our fans. We are very proud of what we accomplished and appreciate the contributions each of you made during that process.

“Unfortunately, after careful consideration, the board has decided to suspend operations of the Alliance of American Football, effective immediately. As part of this process, we expect to keep a small staff on hand to seek new investment capital and restructure our business. Should those efforts prove successful, we look forward to working with many of you on season two. As a follow up to this communication, we will reach out to the personnel who will be involved in that continuation effort.”

Locally, the Arizona Hotshots, who were tied for first place in the Western Conference with the San Antonio Commanders at 5-3, released the following statement:

“On behalf of all of us with the Arizona Hotshots organization, we were shocked and incredibly disappointed to learn of the board’s decision to suspend football operations. Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian delivered a quality football product that fans nationally were watching on TV and online.

“While all startups encounter some challenges, we believed ours could be addressed in the offseason, after a successful completion of our first season.

We are grateful to all our players, coaches, staff, corporate partners, and most of all, our fans.”

Former AAF players and fans were shocked, too.

“It’s always been my dream to play in the NFL, but this is one step closer to get to the NFL. I’m just taking a different route,” Orlando Apollos running back D’Ernest Johnson during a press conference. “I just want to play football and this league was giving me that opportunity.”

Another player, Birmingham Iron linebacker Beniquez Brown added his feelings about the end of the league.

“When you get the game taken away from you, you don’t take anything for granted,” Brown said. “Maybe before when you were big time in college, you kind of took the game for granted. But you realize how important the game is, how much you love it, when you don’t have it. Every day I was away from the game was hard, because you didn’t know if you’d play again.”

Orlando Apollos head coach Steve Spurrier criticizzed the league after the announcement.

“Everyone was led to believe that the Alliance was well funded and we could play three years without making and money and this, that and the other. Obviously, everything that was said was not very truthful,” he said.

Local fans outside Sun Devil Stadium April 3 were upset to learn the league had folded.

“All I know is this team and league was a lot of fun to attend,” Phoenix resident Donald Ruiz said, wearing a Wolford jersey. “We actually had a winning team in Arizona, so what else could you ask for?”

Another fan, Johnathan Walters of Surprise, was also upset to hear about the possible end of the league.

“I hope they do find someone to fund this league,” Walters said. “I love having football to watch and attend.”

Ebersol and Polian said the league was expecting losses during the first two seasons, but had hoped to break even by season three.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” AAF co-founder and former NFL executive Bill Polian said. “On the one hand it was kind of our wildest fantasies come true. It all came true and now it’s all come crashing down.”

The Orlando Apollos lead the league with a 7-1 record and first place in the East Division, while Arizona Hotshots and San Antonio Commanders were tied for first in the West Division at 5-3.

Ebersol released his own statement: “My thanks go out to all who made our football product so competitive and professional. I am certain there are many among them destined for future success in the NFL and I look forward to doing all I can to help them in their quest.”

He added that both he and Polian thought the league had a strong future.

“Unfortunately, (Dundon) has elected this course of action. I am extremely disappointed to learn Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the (AAF). When Dundon took over it was the belief of my cofounder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manger that made economic sense for all.”

The Hotshots were the second ranked offense and were led by quarterback John Wolford and running back Jhurell Pressley, who were two of the top offensive players in the league, defensive back Erick Daragan, who was third in the league in tackles, and linebacker Steven Johnson, who had three interceptions.

So where to the players and staff go from here?

Some NFL teams will take a look at some of the players and more will take a look at the Canadian Football League, which begins its 61st season May 19 when training camps open.

Hotshot’s staff sent one last message to fans via social media April 3, stating, “Thank you for believing in us. It was with great pride that we represented the wildland firefighters who gave us our name. There is nothing we could ever do to thank them and their families enough, and everyone in the organization will carry their memories with us wherever we go.”