Birmingham Iron’s Season Ends Early, as Alliance of American Football Suspends Operations

Players for the Birmingham Iron pose for a photo by a fan at a meet-and-greet event, held at Iron City two weeks before the team’s first game. (Source: Robert Carter)

Updated — Even quicker than it came to life, the Alliance of American Football — and with it, the Birmingham Iron — has gone on life support.

The first word came Tuesday morning, after a report from the Pro Football Talk blog at NBC Sports that the league would suspend operations by the end of the day.

AAF co-Founder Bill Polian confirmed several hours after the initial reports that the league would suspend operations as of 5 p.m.  Tuesday.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn that Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” Polian said in a prepared statement first reported by ESPN.

AAF Chairman Tom Dundon threatened to pull the plug in comments he made to USA Today last week. He complained then about a lack of cooperation from the National Football League Players Association in allowing the AAF to use players on NFL rosters for developmental purposes, much as minor league baseball teams use players sent down from their Major League Baseball parent clubs.

Dundon, the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League and a majority owner of the TopGolf chain of upscale golf driving ranges, became the chairman of the fledgling AAF after he promised to invest as much as $250 million several weeks ago, at a time when multiple media reports said the league was having problems meeting its payroll — an issue that the league blamed on a change in payroll processing companies.

Birmingham Iron head coach Tim Lewis and general manager Joe Pendry issued a statement Tuesday evening about the suspension. “On behalf of all of us with the Birmingham Iron organization, we were shocked and incredibly disappointed to learn of the Boards’ decision to suspend football operations,” they wrote. “(AAF founders) Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian delivered a quality football product that fans nationally were watching on TV, online, and here in Birmingham on each and every game day.”

Lewis and Pendry added, “We were able to bring together rivals in the talent-rich state of Alabama, with players coming together in black, steel grey and silver. The Birmingham Iron promised a brand of football that made Alabama proud. We cannot thank our players, coaches, staff, corporate partners, and especially our fans that supported us from the moment our team was announced in the Magic City. The Birmingham community came together and proved to be some of the best fans in The Alliance.”

According to a report by Darren Rovell of The Action Network, a website focusing on sports betting, Dundon was in conflict with Ebersol and Polian about the direction of the league. Ebersol and Polian had a three-year plan to grow into a developmental league for the NFL, but Dundon wanted to speed up that timetable and set up a formal relationship with the NFLPA as soon as possible. The union’s collective bargaining agreement currently bars active players on NFL rosters from playing in a lower-level league such as the AAF.

Dundon’s comments to USA Today that he might suspend AAF operations sent shockwaves through the league and its fans. His comments were seen as a negotiating ploy against the Players Association, even though Polian had been talking with NFLPA officials about a formal arrangement at the time.

“When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief that 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,” Polian said in his statement. “The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”

Several reports, including Rovell’s, stated that Dundon had sunk $70 million into the Alliance so far, with almost all of that going toward payroll. The AAF had standard contracts with all players that paid them $70,000 for this season, increasing over the second and third seasons. Assuming 50 players on each of the eight teams’ rosters, that would come out to $28 million for the full season. The league has gone through eight weeks of the scheduled 10-week regular season. That figure does not consider health insurance, payroll taxes and fringe benefits for players, nor does it figure in coaching staff and front office payrolls.

Rovell also reported that Dundon’s $70 million had not gone toward payment of vendors to the league’s teams or headquarters, with many of those vendors left holding the bag for substantial bills.

Disappointing Birmingham

If the suspension stays in place, it will mark a sudden end to yet another league that has promised Birmingham sports fans a professional football team, only to see those hopes dashed. Of that progression of leagues — the World Football League, United States Football League, the Canadian Football League’s ill-fated American expansion, the World League of American Football, Arena Football 2 and the XFL — the AAF will be the shortest-lived, having failed to finish its inaugural season. The XFL is slated for a comeback, with a debut next year.

Dundon’s infusion of cash looked to give the Alliance an assurance of longevity, at least in terms of finances. Television ratings were promising, with the first two games getting higher ratings than an NBA basketball game on ABC. But the league suddenly announced in March that it was moving its championship game from Las Vegas to the Ford Center at the Star in suburban Dallas, home to the NFL Cowboys headquarters, which includes an an indoor stadium that seats about 12,000 fans. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has publicly expressed support for the new league.

The Alliance also attracted attention when it announced that former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel would play for the Memphis Express after he had been cut loose from the CFL.

Locally, the suspension will have little effect for Iron fans, as the team had already played all five of its scheduled home games. Attendance at Legion Field for those games was inconsistent, with the first two games attracting more than 17,000 paid admissions plus an undetermined number of discounted or giveaway tickets. Later games suffered from adverse weather, though the final game Sunday also brought more than 17,000 paying fans through the gates.

The Iron, with a record of five wins and three losses, had clinched a spot in the AAF playoffs with a win on Sunday and were headed toward a semifinal game at league leader Orlando.

Unlike most pro sports leagues in the United States, the Alliance is a single-entity league, with all teams owned by the league. Traditionally, pro sports teams are separately owned and operated, with franchises granted by the leagues.


Updated at 7:52 p.m. to include statements by Polian, Lewis and Pendry.