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Tuesday, June 5, 2007
AAFL planning spring fling in 2008

By Chuck Klosterman
Special to Page 2

Don Klosterman was a third-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1952, played quarterback in the CFL, was a key pioneer of the AFL, worked as an executive for the Oilers, Colts and Rams, and served as president for the USFL's L.A. Express. He was also -- as far as I can deduce -- completely unrelated to me (we don't even pronounce our names the same way). But when Don Klosterman died from a heart attack in 2000, I was periodically asked by strangers if we were somehow connected. Two weeks ago, this happened again via e-mail, this time by Don Klosterman's nephew (who, just to make this paragraph as complicated as possible, is also named Don Klosterman). However, his specific e-mail probably had more to do with marketing than with misplaced genealogy, evidenced by this particular line in his message:

"I'm working on a new football league I want to talk with you about."

I am not sure how many U.S. citizens are already familiar with the All American Football League; I'd never even heard of it. It was supposed to come into existence this year but was pushed back to 2008, when it will (theoretically) launch during the last week of April.

So -- yes -- this will be a spring football league.

There are some historical lessons that almost always prove true: Don't wage a ground war on two fronts. Don't impulsively buy a speedboat or a racehorse. Don't ask a woman who loves Tori Amos to tell you about her dreams. And do not stage professional football in spring. It does not matter that football is more popular in America than pancakes or puppies. There is some psychological (and I suspect meteorological) barrier that makes people uncomfortable with springtime pigskin. We unconsciously associate the advent of football with the dawn of autumn and the coming onset of winter; for whatever the reason, football games in the month of May always feel gratuitous and inauthentic. As such, history tells us that the AAFL is doomed. It might not matter what the league does or how it operates.

Yet this league intrigues me.

It intrigues me for many reasons, but principally for its unspoken, overriding philosophy: The AAFL is trying to be a professional version of college football. It's kind of like when Ford and Chevy decided to build cars that were almost like Hondas -- the AAFL is hoping to repackage previously existing elements into something that's simultaneously new and familiar, targeted solely at fans who aren't particularly interested in anything else.

"The intention," Don Klosterman tells me, "is to play in areas where there are two sports: football and spring football. These are places like Tennessee, where they cram 110,000 fans into UT games and turn away another 80,000 who want to get in. Or in Alabama, where they just had 92,000 show up for U of A's spring game."

The World Football League (1974-75) failed because it ran out of money (the league supposedly paid its MVPs in cash because nobody believed a WFL check would clear). The USFL (1983-85) failed because of franchise instability, one crushing court decision and -- somewhat paradoxically -- too much money distributed unequally (by late '84, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump basically controlled everything). The XFL failed because football was not its priority (the entire endeavor seemed depressing and sarcastic). However, the unifying element in all those failures was a desire to compete against the NFL, an aspiration that's fundamentally impossible; Mark Cuban's newly proposed UFL (a theoretical fall league owned by billionaires and comprised of second-tier NFL prospects) would never sustain national interest. But the AAFL has no intention of competing with anyone, and that might be its saving grace. Instead, it's trying to appeal to the kind of (typically Southern) dude who dreams of a universe where college football never ends.

"What will make this league different is the relationship it will have to the university system, and the fact that its players will be recognizable to fans," says AAFL acting commissioner Cedric Dempsey. "We will only go where the interest in spring football is already very, very intense. A place like Gainesville, Florida, is probably a make-or-break city." Other universities that have signed options to host games include Purdue, North Carolina State and the aforementioned universities in Knoxville and Tuscaloosa. AAFL clubs will use existing stadiums and facilities at each college.

Dempsey used to be president of the NCAA; he's 75 years old and looks like a more athletic version of H. Ross Perot. Just about everyone on the AAFL's board has some kind of long-standing relationship with major college athletics: The board includes Harvey Schiller (former SEC commissioner), Martin Massengale (former chancellor at Nebraska), Gene Corrigan (former AD at Notre Dame and ACC commissioner) and -- perhaps most interestingly -- an SEC football fanatic named Marcus Katz who got rich as a student loan executive ("There is big money in the student loan business," Dempsey tells me, and I am not surprised). Dempsey estimates that starting the league will require between $30 million and $50 million. He is hoping for either a six- or (preferably) eight-team league and anticipates that players will be paid salaries in the vicinity of $75,000 to $100,000. Open tryouts for the AAFL will begin in early July in Orlando, Fla.

According to Dempsey, the potential success of the AAFL will hinge on its ability to feel local: Every roster will include at least 15 players who played for either the host college or a rival school from the region. The franchise set in Tennessee would ideally sign someone like ex-Vols quarterback Casey Clausen; a team playing on the campus of N.C. State might hope to sign someone like former North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Darian Durant, a player who would still feel familiar to anyone who followed Wolfpack football. I assume the proposed club at Purdue will aspire to lock down whatever Big 10 talent gets cut during NFL minicamps. There is, however, one curious caveat: You cannot play in the AAFL unless you have graduated from college. Players who have completed their college eligibility without receiving a diploma are not eligible; you actually need a four-year degree. "Many people feel the graduation issue will be our biggest hurdle," Dempsey says.

Of course, a bigger issue might be ownership: It's still not clear who will own these hypothetical teams. Dempsey mentioned using a "Green Bay model" of community shareholders, but that's more complicated than it sounds; for one thing, it necessitates convincing any given community that possessing a spring football franchise is something they all should want. It also appears there will be no income from television (in fact, these games might be shown on public access TV without commercials). All revenue will have to come directly from ticket buyers, of which there are currently none. It seems like a risky, almost impossible business plan. But who knows? People never know what they want until they already have it. And if the AAFL truly does what it intends -- if it creates a professional, lo-fi version of major college football -- it will immediately be more watchable than any pro sport that's currently in existence. Besides, there's at least one dude (who isn't related to me) who's very, very stoked about marketing this dream. This is how he responded when I asked, "Is the 2008 AAFL season 100 percent happening?"

"The league is 100 percent on for the spring of '08," Don Klosterman insists. "You can imagine the hurdles that need to be conquered, so is anything in life 100 percent? The answer, though, is 'yes,' 100 percent -- barring famine, WWIII or the sudden mass disinterest of football as we know it."

As a dedicated enemy of famine, war, and mass disinterest, I have no choice but to support the AAFL. But we'll see what happens.

Chuck Klosterman, whose latest book is "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas," is a columnist for Esquire and a regular contributor to Page 2.