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Why is the AAF folding? Who to blame for Alliance of American Football's collapse

Sporting News logo Sporting News 4/2/2019 Tadd Haislop
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The Alliance of American Football technically has not folded — not yet, at least. Tuesday's reports of the AAF suspending its football operations were viewed by most as the end of the start-up professional football league that lasted just eight weeks in 2019.

Which begs the question: If this is indeed the end of the AAF, how and why did it fold so quickly?

AAF TIMELINE: How the Alliance evolved, ended so abruptly

The answer to that question was elusive in the hours after the league, co-founded by Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian, ceased to operate. But there was one common denominator among all of the reports and theories as to what killed the AAF.

His name is Tom Dundon.

It is worth noting that the apparent collapse of the AAF is not related to TV ratings. Action Network's Darren Rovell reported the league’s TV ratings were "respectable" through its inaugural season despite a significant drop-off after its opening weekend. Instead, the collapse appears to be tied directly to Dundon.

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - MARCH 23:   Joel Bouagnon #36 of Salt Lake Stallions reaches to recover a fumble Arizona State Sun Devils De'Vante Bausby #41 of San Antonio Commanders grabbed ahold of him during the first half of the Alliance of American Football game at Alamodome on March 23, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/AAF/Getty Images) © Edward A. Ornelas/AAF/Getty Images SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - MARCH 23: Joel Bouagnon #36 of Salt Lake Stallions reaches to recover a fumble Arizona State Sun Devils De'Vante Bausby #41 of San Antonio Commanders grabbed ahold of him during the first half of the Alliance of American Football game at Alamodome on March 23, 2019 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/AAF/Getty Images)

The owner of the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, Dundon committed $250 million to the AAF in February, an investment that reportedly kept the league afloat. He became the controlling owner of the league at that point, something Ebersol and Polian might now regret.

Days before the AAF suspended football operations, Dundon told USA Today he needed cooperation from the NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) in order to feed current NFL players into the league and, therefore, maintain the AAF's viability — in Dundon's mind, at least.

"If the players' union is not going to give us young players, we can't be a development league," Dundon said.

Currently, NFL players who sign "futures" contracts at the end of a given season are allowed to play in the AAF, but the NFLPA has not agreed to budge — at least not as quickly as Dundon apparently prefers — and allow active NFL players (and/or NFL practice squad players) to play in the AAF.

The reasoning from the NFLPA, per USA Today:

"A players' union official did express serious concerns about the risks of lending active NFL players to the AAF. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

"The person said the players' union is founded on the belief that using active NFL players and practice squad members for the AAF would violate the terms of the CBA and the restrictions that prevent teams from holding mandatory workouts and practices throughout the offseason. The limitations set in place are designed to ensure the safety and adequate rest and recovery time for football players. But there’s a concern that teams would abuse their power and perhaps force young players into AAF action as a condition for consideration for NFL roster spots in the fall.

"The additional concern on the NFLPA’s part is that if an NFL player played in the AAF and suffered serious injury, that player would face the risk of missing an NFL season and lose a year of accrued experience, which carries financial ramifications for players."

Rovell reported Dundon had been funding the AAF on “a week-to-week basis," and that as of Tuesday, he had invested $70 million of the $250 million he committed to the league.

Which begs yet another question, and one to which even those in the AAF reportedly can't fathom an answer: Why would Dundon waste $70 million and pull the plug on the league over a silly stare-down with the NFLPA?

On Tuesday, Albert Breer of The MMQB offered a possible explanation: "Perception inside the AAF is that Dundon bought a majority stake in the league simply for the gambling app being developed."

Indeed, a technology sector in which MGM has invested is part of the AAF. The league reportedly had been developing a proprietary gambling application that would help drive league interest in an increasingly gambling-friendly sports environment. But according to Rovell, such a motive on the part of Dundon is unlikely from a legal perspective.

"While Dundon is said to have liked the tech component of the business and owns the entire company, sources say it would not be legal for him to shut down the league in order to strip the assets," Rovell reports.

MORE: Questions about AAF's future remain

CBS Sports' Ben Kercheval offered a reminder Tuesday: The AAF is (was?) operating on a three-year plan. This is noteworthy because Dundon's actions suggest he was not willing to wait three years — and invest more money — for the league to become whatever he hoped it would become.

Ebersol and Polian have been clear from the beginning; the AAF was never supposed to compete with the NFL. It was supposed to be the opposite. The AAF would be somewhat of a developmental league in the spring — a Triple-A to MLB, of sorts — for fringe NFL roster players hoping to make it in the fall.

But before it could become a true developmental league for the NFL, the AAF needed to develop on its own, hence the three-year plan. Natural financial complications aside, there is little reason to believe the AAF's model was not sustainable. Dundon surely knew this when he promised to invest $250 million.

"I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football," Polian said Tuesday in a statement (via ESPN). "When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all. The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.

"I sincerely regret that many that believed in this project will see their hopes and efforts unrewarded. They gave their best for which I am deeply grateful. Unfortunately, Mr. Dundon has elected this course of action."

What changed, if anything — and why Dundon seemed so set on reaching an agreement with the NFLPA so quickly — remains unclear.

To put it simply: Regardless of his motives, Dundon is the reason the AAF appears to be folding.

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