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As seems to be appropriate in 2019, the end – or news of it – came on Twitter. Shortly before 1 p.m. on April 2, word began to circulate that Tom Dundon, a 47-year-old billionaire who had acquired a majority stake in the AAF less than two months earlier, had decided to shut the whole thing down, over the objections of Ebersol and Polian.
By 5 p.m., it was official.
Dundon, who owns the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, had pledged to pump $250 million into the AAF in February. He'd moved in after an initial funder bailed following the league's season opener, and his investment gave the league the appearance of a strong foundation on which to grow. Indeed, that's what Dundon said when he took over.
"There's a difference between commitment and funding," Dundon told the media in February. "They had the commitments to last a long time, but maybe not the money in the bank. My money is in my bank. I'm sure of it. ... That's enough money to run this league for a long time. We're good for many years to come with what I just did."
That's not what happened. Dundon, it turns out, had only agreed to float the AAF week to week. And by the end of March, the league had burned through $70 million of his cash.
Dundon's desperation move was a threat to dissolve his league unless the NFL Players Association let the AAF use younger NFL players, with the hope that bigger names coming out of college football would cement the AAF's status as a developmental league. Though there were rumors, the NFLPA initially declined.
After that, it seems he gave up.
Dundon made his fortune off of subprime car loans and an investment in the sports and entertainment gaming franchise TopGolf. He'd bought the struggling Carolina Hurricanes in 2018, overhauled the organization, and a year later it made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. He should have known what he was getting into.
AAF executives have remained mum since the league dissolved, and Dundon did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But it seems clear the league was a financial garbage fire. Almost all of Dundon's $70 million went to payroll; the league's vendors were getting shafted.
The AAF, for example, owes UCF more than $325,000. The league signed a three-year agreement in which the Apollos would play five home games a year at Spectrum Stadium at $75,000 a pop, for a total of $1.1 million. The team only ended up playing three games there, bringing the tab to $225,000, plus unpaid expenses for police and other vendors.
UCF sent the AAF three invoices before the league pulled the plug. The check has yet to arrive.
The university declined to comment on whether it would pursue legal action, adding to the two lawsuits that have already been filed, and the AAF's former head of business operations did not respond to questions about how the league would pay its outstanding debts.
Though the AAF's website is mostly inactive, a statement on its homepage says, "This is not the way we wanted it to end, but we are also committed to working on solutions for all outstanding issues to the best of our ability. Due to ongoing legal processes, we are unable to comment further or share details about the decision."
The AAF never really had its shit together. Case in point: Just three weeks into the season, the Apollos had to move their practices from Camping World Stadium to a high school in southern Georgia, with the players being bused back and forth from hotels in Jacksonville. This happened because Florida does not cover athletes under its workers compensation laws, and the AAF hadn't found an insurance company to cover the entire league. Having the Apollos spend 51 percent of their practice days on Georgia soil allowed players the option, if needed, to file a claim under the state's workers' compensation laws.
Football, it goes without saying, is a violent, concussion-prone sport. Launching a football league without an insurer does not seem like a particularly well-considered decision.
That was one of many ill-considered decisions. Perhaps these decisions were ill-considered because the AAF rushed to get on the field. In January 2018, two months before Ebersol and Polian made their announcement, Vince McMahon said he was going to take another stab at the XFL in spring 2020, so maybe they wanted to beat him – and his promised half-billion-dollar investment – to the punch.
That's speculation. Regardless, the AAF's collapse has produced a volcano of legal activity.
John Swope and Jay Roberson, who worked for the AAF's Birmingham Iron franchise, filed a potentially class-action federal lawsuit arguing that the league failed to follow the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act when it issued the nationwide layoffs in April.
Birmingham Iron punter Colton Schmidt and Apollos linebacker Reggie Northrup have brought another claim, saying they wouldn't have subjected themselves to "serious risk of physical or damage to [their] health" or "forgone other financial opportunities" had they been aware of the AAF's shaky financial standing. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the AAF not paying its players for the last two regular season games indicates that the AAF entered the contracts in bad faith.
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