People: Voices

Column: A league of its own

By A.J. Moore

It was one of those minor sports stories you probably came across last year and thought little of at the time. Starting in February 2019, another professional football league, the Alliance of American Football (AAF), will make its debut.

A new member entering an already oversaturated marketplace does not seem overly interesting. Even crazed sports fans are likely to take a pass on it. But what the little-known AAF does in early 2019 to attract an audience could be an indicator of where sports media will soon be going.

Any media operation launching in the era of Netflix and Fire Sticks must be ready to deal with a treacherous environment where consumer eyeballs have so many options just a finger stroke away.

That’s why the AAF could be effective with a counterintuitive approach of intending from the onset to be a niche product.

That mindset gives the league a chance to survive since the other four major North American sports leagues have failed to recognize they are also in a similar profile. Yes, the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA have tremendous brand equity and are still very popular. However, they just have a bigger niche because none of them still command appointment television status.

In today’s marketplace, it is almost impossible to attract a wide array of demographics; instead, success is achieved by maintaining a slice of a certain demographic.

The AAF is wisely looking to establish a trend other sports leagues should follow. The league’s primary sales pitch to audiences and advertisers is that games will clock in under three hours. Not that long ago, a league measured its success by the amount of prime time coverage it got on broadcast and cable television. Now the AAF wants to score a touchdown by reducing its screen time. This goal should be reached by the AAF hierarchy eliminating television timeouts and using a shorter play clock. Branding and advertisers’ logos will be built into the telecast thus eliminating commercial-driven timeouts.

In today’s sports, less is more. Fans no longer park themselves on the couch with a seven-layer bean dip and invest an entire day to watch sports. All the stoppage of play in major sporting contests are giving fans a reason to divert their attention to Twitter and then disregard the game itself.

Extended timeouts, timeouts after timeouts and officials laboriously reviewing challenged calls are becoming the norm in sports, and fans — especially digital natives — are “bored.”

Any league, new or old, that can solve the riddle and reduce the amount of game time will be a trendsetter. Such is the case when fans can easily drift away to all the other content at their disposal. Because the AAF has made shorter games a priority, it has a chance of gaining some traction in the sports media. Call it bottom-up marketing.

The AAF could also create a new sports norm when it livestreams all its games and makes fantasy play an integral part of its telecasts. At the moment, the major leagues are doing both, just on the fringes. From day one, the AAF emphasizing livestreaming and fantasy play could speed up the process for the big boys to do likewise.

Looking forward a couple of months, I don’t know if you and I will be watching the AAF, but I do know in a few years we will be watching all sports the AAF way.

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