Did the Wrong Advertising Doom the the Alliance of American Football?

Defense wins football games but not brand loyalty

One of the less glamorous parts of advertising—not counting the feral lack of dignity around leftover meeting bagels—is whenever a brand fails, people quickly blame the work. The agency. The creatives and strategists. This despite usually countless reasons that the work, well, didn't work.

Which is why I feel a tad hypocritical bashing the creative that ran in support of a recently failed brand: the Alliance of American Football (AAF).

I mean, no one likes the proverbial armchair quarterback lounging on the sidelines and criticizing work that took months of concepting, selling, revising, selling, testing, revising, shooting, editing, selling, revising (cue head exploding), right?

But as a longtime creative director (on many sports brands), an author of two football books and even a semi-pro football player—OK, I was a kicker and punter, so "playing" football is debatable—and therefore someone whose Spidey senses might tingle more than most when sports and advertising collide, I can't help feel that, yes, the AAF's branding was absolutely part of its failure. 

Wait, slow down, you're probably saying. The whosey alliance of football whatsit? Precisely.

Despite the promo spots that ran incessantly on NFL Network almost all fall through the Super Bowl, you probably didn't know the league even existed. Outside of hardcore football fans, few did. But like the World Football League (1974-75), the USFL (1983-85) and XFL (1999-2001) before it, the AAF—announced in March 2018; kicked off in February 2019; suspended operations April 3—is the latest upstart to get violently tackled short of the goal line and fumble.

(Sorry—the football puns are practically writing themselves.)

Which is a shame because, on paper, the AAF could/should have been a stealthy, tech-forward challenger brand. The Dollar Shave Club to the NFL's Gillette. 

They developed a revolutionary app that would a) enhance real-time, play-to-play gambling, and b) mine valuable user data to not only improve their own product but also sell to gambling partners like MGM Resorts International and even non-sports brands/industries. They also eliminated monotonous kickoffs and extra points, reduced the play clock to 35 seconds from the NFL's 40 and offered other innovations to speed up games and optimize the fan experience.

Add in heavy-hitter Silicon Valley investors like Paypal founder Peter Thiel, TV and streaming deals with CBS, and former NFL stars (Mike Singletary, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, e.g.) for gridiron cred, and the AAF looked appeared poised for success. 

So what happened?

While there were admittedly other objective, tangible problems aside from subjective, intangible advertising—most notably running out of money!—on the field the AAF was indeed looking radically different/better than past leagues. Could better branding have at least given them a stay of execution? 

Here are a couple suggestions how:

Tell us why, not what

To me, the lion's share of the AAF's work was cliché. Rational. Way too narrowly focused. And in the end it just drowned in the vast, cluttered sea of sports-related messaging bombarding viewers during the NFL season. 

Of course, they told us WHAT the league was: pro football in the spring. That football is—gee, never heard this before—a metaphor for America itself. That the AAF offered all the requisite hip-hop-and-robot-fueled adrenaline and other clichés of smashmouth sports broadcast promotion blending into white noise from September through the Super Bowl. As league co-founder Charlie Ebersol once described it, the app let you play "Madden-meets-Angry Birds." (NOTE: Look at all the people in the stands in this last link. Depressing. I've seen more spectators for a back alley bumfight undercard.)

The Alliance: What If?

Although the anthem was nicely shot, overall there was just no indisputable, strategic WHY. That inspiring, emotional brand truth or mission first popularized by Simon Sinek in his 2009 TED talk, and in which I, despite the influx of data, still wholeheartedly believe.

They never told us WHY this league simply had to be. WHY we should root for it. WHY it was the cure for some football or sports fan ill. WHY anyone should truly care. And isn't our job as ad pros to find a brand's elusive, DNA-deep core values—that it can actually live up to (harder for most brands than you'd think)—and make consumers' neck-hairs stand up when they learn about it?

All of which makes me think of a Bill Bernbach quote: "You cannot sell a man who isn't listening."

Instead of "playing offense" and using that unexpected WHY to build a legit sports challenger brand, they "played defense" and spoon-fed tired, rational, rote messaging to those who were already sold (loyal NFL Network and CBS football watchers). They simply didn't give a wider swath of consumers and slightly-more-casual football fans even one fresh, unexpected reason to "listen."

And when a brand isn't worth listening to, real people won't attach real meaning to it. Which is when it ceases to exist, if it ever did in the first place.

Adore the data

As a (cough) "veteran" creative, this used to be blasphemy. Now, it's just common sense. I love how data, when used correctly as a compass paired with the map that is the creative process, can help us concept, sell and produce better, more quantifiably potent and effective work.

Which makes me wonder if the AAF didn't do enough with its data, mined from that revolutionary app, to influence and optimize their brand messaging and execution? Yes, the league was always fairly transparent about being less of a football league and more of a technology company that happens to play football. That is, their tech was alluring and revolutionary because it was apparently able to process and deliver massive amounts of user data in real-time. So, the AAF business model was based on more than traditional sports fandom and revenue sources like ticket and merch sales or even television ratings.

But when it came to data and consumer learnings, the AAF could have been even leaner. More agile. Using real-time, low-cost testing in the real world to discover the most effective and resonant campaign assets.

That could've then helped the brand ascend beyond the rational (that meddling WHAT again) into the emotional WHY. They could have used data to transform from "just" a sports gambling/tech company into something even more lasting—a consumer advocate for both core and newbie football fans. Combining rational data and emotional creative to offer unique, original, unexpected brand actions and experiences. Experiences they could then have turned into more compelling, consumer-facing marketing ... which in turn could have built longer-term loyalty (and revenue) should the tech portion of the plan fail.

Now, if they never intended give a single shit about the fans, players or game itself, and the AAF was all just a front to make billions off data and back-end technology, that's fine. Who am I to argue? They're billionaires and I'm not. But if league operating costs skyrocket (which they did) and the runway to keep mining that data and developing and selling that tech shortens or ends (which it did), what would they have left?

Certainly not a brand to which fans would connect emotionally and stay loyal through any weather. Like Bud fans will.

But don't forget the analog

As a private startup venture bankrolled by investor seed money in a series of raise rounds, the AAF eschewed a proven sports league/franchise revenue-generator: corporate sponsorship.

Now, some might argue that the "purity" of any sport should be protected and revered, and one way to do that is to not "sell out" with lowbrow ad schlock like brand patches on jerseys. But for a league whose ultimate doom was operating revenue, taking this high ground was shortsighted.

Take the NBA. In 2017, it was the first of the four "major" U.S. sports to begin an advertising "patch program" test, sporting logos like Harley-Davidson, Disney and Goodyear, generating $150 million in revenue for 29 of 30 franchises over its first three years. And the patches are only 2.5-by-2.5 inches, so it's not like this new/old form of "branding" forces, say, Kyrie Irving to wear a giant Subway logo on a uniform made entirely of the salami, pepperoni and ham in an Italian B.M.T. As delicious as that sounds.

Hell, one of the richest, most venerable sports leagues in the world, the English Premier League, has teams worth many billions sporting such lucrative (and damn near billboard-sized) logos as Manchester United's Chevrolet, Liverpool's Virgin Media, and Chelsea's Yokahama tires. And three of 2018's top five most valuable sports teams in the world, according to Forbes, sport big honkin' corporate logos right on their chests: Man. U. (Chevy), Real Madrid (Emirates) and Barcelona (Rakuten).

I get the Catch-22 here: A brand worth partnering with isn't going to pay EPL money to dominate jerseys in an unproven league; but in turn, the league can't keep proving itself without enough revenue.

Still, why didn't the AAF harness even this old-school branding to make some extra cash? I know he's no Lionel Messi, but wouldn't the Tempe-area Ford co-op have paid something to be on the jersey of Arizona Hotshots star receiver Rashad Ross?

After all, for a league that ultimately couldn't pay its players' basic hotel bills or medical charges, something beats nothing.

When the final whistle blew on the AAF, for all its promises of being radically different than all past (failed) pro football leagues, the league ended up looking just like them when it came to branding. A conservative, grinding "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" style playbook that belied its high-flying, up-tempo Silicon Valley dreams.

Am I so delusionally bullish on the power of WHY-centric creative to claim it alone could have saved this league? No. But while, to paraphrase the old gridiron adage, defense might win football games ... in branding, "playing offense" ultimately wins the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers. And emotionally fueled, data-optimized creative beats rational and safe work every day of the week.

Which, at least in this sports/ad nerd's mind, might explain why the AAF is longer playing any day of the week.

Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a creative director at CPB.