(2021) Sports Documentary (1091) Steve Spurrier, Chris Martin, Charlie Ebersole, Alex Orendorff, Mike Woodell, Robert Vanech, Roscoe Mynck, Conor Orr, Benjamin Sturner, Daniel Kaplan, Darren Heitner, Olivia Liette, Freddie Wehbo, Bryan Woodfork, Tom Veit, Dillon Smith, Dylan Sesco, Zach Bromwell, Aaron Evans, Jeff Fisher, Hines Wood, Christina Martin, Ronnell Hall, Jennifer Smith. Directed by Steven Potter
The National Football League is in many ways the 800-lb gorilla of professional sports. Not since the American Football League in the 1960s has the NFL had a serious challenge to its dominance, and even then it just absorbed the whole league into itself. There have been several start-ups since, mostly positioned in the Spring as to not compete directly with the NFL. The football graveyard is littered with their corpses; the World Football League, the United States Football League, the XFL and the United Football League – all started out with high hopes, only to end up scattered to the four winds.
Even the indoor Arena League didn’t hold out for long; after a brief resurgence, it too died. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t repeated attempts to try where the others failed, and at first glance the Alliance of American Football (AAF) seemed to have the ingredients to succeed. The visionary at its head was Charlie Ebersole, son of the sports broadcasting legend Dick Ebersole (who back in 2001 co-founded the XFL with Vince McMahon). He also had some pretty heavy hitters in the upper echelons with him; Super Bowl-winning GM Bill Polian, legendary coach Steve Spurrier, former Minnesota Vikings owner Reggie Fowler, and football strategist Jeff Fisher.
From the beginning, Ebersole preached fan interactivity. A web app was designed to allow fans to bet on plays in real time. A point system was designed that at the end of the season would give players a share of a prize pool depending on how much community work they did. Ebersole had a deal with CBS to broadcast games and a tireless staff that promoted the league and tried to get their communities fired up about spring football.
But it was all smoke and mirrors. The financing, which Ebersole had touted, just wasn’t there. Also, in order to get the league an advantage over the returning XFL, he rushed the league into action a mere eleven months after announcing its formation, giving the organization nowhere near enough time to develop. Starting a football league is not just coming up with some cool team names and announcing try-outs – there are literally millions of moving parts, from securing practice and game facilities, arranging for health insurance (players do get injured, you know), purchasing equipment for the players, the training room and the front office, arranging for travel and accommodations, and so on and so on and so on. These things take time and patience.
Perhaps it was the charismatic Ebersole’s charisma that had people believing, but believe they did, even when there were troubling signs – the league had difficulty meeting payroll after the first couple of weeks (as it turned out Fowler turned out to be laundering money and was indicted for it, taking out a gigantic portion of the league’s operating budget), the merchandise was priced insanely high, tickets were given away more often than sold in an effort to make sure that the television audience didn’t see a mostly-empty stadium. Also the broadcasting deal was not as advantageous as Ebersole led people to believe; most of the AAF games were broadcast on the cable CBS Sports Network which reached far fewer households.
Even so, it came as a shock when after only eight weeks the league ceased operations. Players were left high and dry, thrown out of hotels whose bills hadn’t been paid; staffers who had moved cross country suddenly found themselves in a city where they knew no one with a mortgage and no job. Many vendors went unpaid, forcing some of them into bankruptcy as well.
This documentary began life as a series of player interviews for the Orlando Apollos social media, but as things began to unravel, first-time filmmaker Steven Potter found himself making a different kind of movie. His inexperience shows in places; some points are hammered home with a great deal of repetition, others are given no exploration at all. Potter had almost no budget at all, utilizing money given him as a graduation gift to defray expenses. For that reason, we don’t really hear too much from the financial guys (other than through videos of interviews and press conferences) but we do hear from players like Chris Martin, an offensive lineman who had gone to the University of Central Florida and after playing on NFL taxi squads, finally had an opportunity to play in his home town. He is articulate and warm, although Potter does relate the story of the drowning of his son before the league started up, which is kind of brutally inserted into the film near the end, and creates some tonal problems.
But the story is nonetheless an interesting one, and Potter does a good job in laying it out. Given that there are two more spring leagues on the horizon – the XFL under new ownership, and a reboot of the old USFL – it appears that despite the daunting obstacles of starting up a professional football league and that no outdoor spring league has ever lasted more than three seasons – there are those still believing that this time it will work.
REASONS TO SEE: A thorough post-mortem of a league that was doomed to fail – and the human fallout from that failure.
REASONS TO AVOID: Interesting, but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and rude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Potter was initially hired to provide promotional films for the Orlando Apollos AAF franchise; after the league went belly-up, he decided to use his footage and create a documentary about the league’s rise and fall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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