The Alliance of American Football kicked off last Saturday night to what many have called a rousing success, from a ratings perspective. The league’s inaugural game between the San Antonio Commanders and San Diego Fleet attracted 2.9 million viewers. This topped the NBA’s marquee game between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder (2.5 million), a matchup that features the league’s two most recent MVPs.
Football beating out basketball should come as little surprise. Despite the NBA thoroughly shellacking the NFL for polarizing PR matters like social justice and player empowerment, the NFL consistently tops its basketball counterpart in revenue, raking in $14 billion in 2017 while the NBA saw $7.4 billion.
However, the reasons for the AAF debut’s popularity are more intriguing than the popularity itself. Aside from the massive football vacuum left by the conclusion of the NFL’s season, the violent nature of the AAF was one of the more resounding developments that caught my attention. Personally, I had no intention of watching or following the AAF: Who wants to see washed running back Trent Richardson suit up for a football team in Alabama that isn’t named the Crimson Tide? Yet as I scrolled through my Instagram feed Saturday night, I was alerted of the bone crushing hit Commander linebacker Shaan Washington delivered on Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici. It was by far the most violent legal hit I have seen in a football game in as long as I can remember. And it was awesome.
ESPN’s Will Cain shed some light on the newfound appeal of this league. “The hits … the way they allow those players to hit the quarterback shows the true nature of the game. The nature that people, for better or for worse, love.”
The AAF addresses something the NFL has become increasingly devoid of amid new safety rules: excitement for defense. The essential eradication of violent hits in the NFL has shifted the majority of the exciting action to the offensive side of the ball — as scoring even more important from an entertainment perspective. Sure, players like Khalil Mack and JJ Watt are still dominant forces, and fans enjoy watching them play. But from an entertainment perspective, even Mack’s own abilities are hindered with the new safety rules — he can’t display his full physical prowess when pursuing a quarterback, reducing the very number of highlight-reel plays he produces.
People didn’t hate the Super Bowl because only 16 points were scored. People hated the Super Bowl because in the modern NFL, low-scoring affairs are devoid of one of the loan remaining exhilarating aspects of professional football: scoring. Fewer touchdowns means fewer moments of intriguing action, given that most jaw-dropping hits draw a penalty and thus are largely discouraged.
Unfortunately, these types of plays also significantly increase the risk for injury and long-term ailments. That’s the very reason why the NFL has outlawed many plays that used to be the norm.
The jury is still out on the AAF, as week two, which commences tomorrow afternoon, will be even more telling of the league’s long-term prospects.
The AAF is not the NFL. The league sports a fraction of the teams and features inferior talent in relatively minuscule markets (Salt Lake, Birmingham, Memphis, etc.). It has zero chance of matching the storied history of America’s favorite sports league. To compensate, though, the AAF has brought back the vicious, bone-crushing hits that were once a staple of the National Football League. From the looks of opening weekend, this approach may just make the AAF the next big source of entertainment for American sports.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.