Back in the 1970s, there was the World Football League, an ambitious venture designed to provide a spring/summer professional football alternative to the mighty National Football League. It quickly failed, along with one of its franchises, the Detroit Wheels.
Ten years later came the United States Football League, another spring/summer counterpart to the NFL. Its Detroit-based franchise, the Michigan Panthers, was a rousing success in the USFL’s first year, 1983, winning the league’s championship. But two years later, the USFL was likewise gone, a victim of too little revenue following too large of a dream.
The latest warm-weather alternative to fall and winter professional football is the All American Football League, which has as one of its six franchises an organization known, for now, simply as Michigan. No nicknames have yet been conferred on the six AAFL teams.
A 10-game schedule is set to begin April 12. Team Michigan will play that day at Tennessee before opening its home season April 19 against Florida at Ford Field. Team colors are navy and gold, and the head coach is John Fontes, a former Detroit Lions assistant and brother of ex-Lions head coach Wayne Fontes.
The AAFL perhaps has a chance to do what some of its predecessors failed to achieve, all for the simple reason that this league is eminently more modest in its vision. Rather than compete directly with the NFL for big-name — and expensive — talent, the AAFL will concentrate on players of lesser profile who own something not enough NFL players possess: a college degree. In the spirit of academic achievement, franchises are attempting to establish relationships with in-state universities. In some cases, AAFL teams are seeking to use university facilities, or at the very least use their bands and cheerleaders.
Michigan thus far has no such formal attachment to the state’s two Big Ten universities: the University of Michigan and Michigan State. But it does have some of the two schools’ alumni on the player roster, albeit athletes who were not necessarily lofty in profile during their collegiate days. Among the U-M players who were on Michigan’s 2008 AAFL pre-season roster were lineman Adam Stenavich, kicker Garrett Rivas, and defensive backs Willis Barringer, Jeremy Lesueur, Dewayne Patmon, and James Whitley. Former MSU players include linemen Sean Poole and Kyle Rasmussen. Kenrick Mosley, a wide receiver, and Charles Missant, an offensive lineman, played at Western Michigan, and James King, a defensive back, competed at Central Michigan.
In keeping with the college theme, the league’s commissioner is former NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey, which fits with the league concept of marrying academic accomplishment with football on a competitive and entertaining level. That, of course, was always supposed to be the NCAA football philosophy at work.
The notion of making college degrees as attractive as touchdowns is noble. But in a sport as theater-based as pro football, it may be viewed as impractical by some observers.
For now, the AAFL means business. Ticket prices reflect the league’s optimism, ranging from $23-$63 for single-game purchases at Team Michigan games. Season tickets can be purchased for $10 beneath the single-game price, or $265 for a five-game seat in a prime location at Ford Field.
Whether fans turn out in the numbers necessary remains to be seen. But a new football league, built upon new thinking, is about to be unveiled.