The Alliance of American Football kicks off this spring, building on the traditions that have made American football the largest sports audience in the country, while innovating around player and fan experience. This balance of innovation and tradition has lessons for every marketer or business leader seeking new growth.
The Product Needs to be Worthy of its Market Share and the Company of its Employees
Any company seeking to be successful must have a high-quality and attractive product that provides a good value for its customers. This is true in professional sports as well. David Livingston, the president of the new Atlanta Legends team, joined the organization this summer with a background in corporate partnership with Spectra and the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as brand management and executive leadership experience at IMG and Procter & Gamble PG -0.09%. Although the league is new, “the Alliance is a professional sports league, coached at a high level,” he explained. “There are over 475 years of professional football experience at the executive and coaching levels. The teams want to win. They have established systems to build out their rosters and their offensive and defensive schemes in play.” In the Atlanta market, the team has signed former University of Georgia quarterback and leader of the SEC career touchdown list, Aaron Murray and 13 year veteran NFLquarterback, Michael Vick in his coaching debut as the offensive coordinator.
Any team is only as good as its players and according to Livingston there are plenty of exceptional players to fill rosters for spring football. 1200 professional football players get cut every season around Labor Day when each of the 32 NFL teams trims their roster down from 85 players to 53. “These are accomplished college and professional football players that are no longer allowed to pursue their career,” he continued. “They could go to Canada and play under different rules and face limits of how many Americans are allowed to play. They could switch to Arena Football and play on a smaller field, with fewer players, and different rules.”
They expect players to move from the National Football League to the Alliance and visa versa. “There is a high level of interactivity between the Alliance and the NFL,” he explained. “This is nothing minor about this league, although there is a development quality and component to it.”
“A person who might be the 3rd or 4th man on an NFL team can get more reps in practice, get more playing time, and even start here. We are complementary to the NFL. That additional playing time translates to player development and to more game footage. Not only do fans get to watch more football and broadcasters have more premium content to air, but NFL teams also get more game tape to review of these talented players.”
“One of the hallmarks of the Alliance league will be engagement with the players,” Livingston added. “We expect these players to have a lifelong career arc. After they retire from the league, we are providing opportunities for them to go back to school, get career training or utilize a fund to ensure that they continue to do big and great things even after football.”
Take-Away: Whether it is a start-up or an established business, the company needs to have a high commitment to delivering an exceptional product and customer experience. That often means entering markets where the right talent can be found to fuel the growth. And knowing that your developing employees might be honing the skills and gaining experience to make them valuable to other companies is a welcome risk you take to pursue excellence.
Embrace Technology as a Game Changer
Fan and community engagement is now a requirement in professional sports and that is being formalized in this league. “All Alliance players are on standard contracts which include incentives to them to get engaged with their communities,” he continued. “Not only on social media, but through commitments they make to organizations and projects that are important to them. It is critical that players engage with the communities.” This player-to-fan engagement extends to new platforms.
“Every fan has a smartphone and they are used to engaging with that device during the game, whether they are in the stadium or at home,” Livingston observed. “Our proprietary app includes fantasy elements and encourages engagement.” Wherever legal, there is a sports betting platform associated with the alliance. We expect fans to be engaged with what is happening, watching each and every play. This new digital-first strategy has attracted venture capital and we are bringing the sports experience into the modern environment where today’s sports fans live.”
“The Alliance was formed to bring together a much more organic relationship between professional football, the players, and the fans,” he offered. From the start, the Alliance represents a game (professional football) that will have a game (app) that can enable gaming (betting).
Take-Away: Utilizing technology in new ways can create new customer experiences and enable new business models.
Align Strategy with Capitalization
“The Alliance itself is a start-up, but the idea of extending the professional football season has been around for a long time,” said Livingston. “Football fans are the largest sports audience in the US and during the regular NFL seasons there is high interest in the games themselves and in things like fantasy and big data gamification,” he continued. “Those tend to drop off, however, after the Super Bowl, as they don’t translate as well to baseball or basketball.”
Others have tried and failed and many attribute that failure to one of capitalization structure, relying on individual franchise owners to share a commitment to success. “The Alliance is a single entity league. This means that all the teams are owned centrally,” Livingston explained. “I am one of eight presidents each running their own business units in our structure.”
All teams are owned by the league under the name Legendary Field Exhibitions, LLC whose investors are said to include Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund (whose investments include Airbnb, SpaceX, Facebook (FB -1.03%), Lyft, Oculus,and Spotify), The Chernin Group (TCG, which owns Barstool Sports and other media and entertainment properties), Jared Allen (former football defensive end), Slow Ventures (whose investments have included Evernote , Nest, Pinterest, Slack , PillPack, and Nextdoor), Adrian Fenty (former DC mayor who is special advisor to Andreessen Horowitz), Charles King’s M Ventures (a former agent turned investor, who has represented Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey), and Keith Rabois (whose technology investments and executive roles include PayPal (PYPL -2.1%), LinkedIn (LNKD +0%), Slide, andSquare (SQ -2.24%). MGM Resorts (MGM -0.84%) International has also made an investment in the platform with an eye to in-game sportsbook betting.
“This is different from the NFL and previously failed spring leagues of professional football where each team is a franchise owned by individual investors who make investments based on their own preferences or personal economic factors.” The Alliance is made up of the Arizona Hotspots, Birmingham Iron, Atlanta Legends, Memphis Express, Orlando Apollos, Salt Lake Stallions, San Antonio Commanders, and San Diego Fleet. Although each of the cities vary, “with different sizes and media structures,” he continued, "this central ownership ensures that all of the team get the appropriate allocation of resources for the various markets.” And that strategy is attracting a new type of investor.
Take-Away: Investor and management must be aligned to ensure that the strategies of the organization are getting the resources and prioritization necessary for success. Unified ownership, in this case, could help the entire league execute their digital-first strategy and attract the talent to ensure the quality game play that will be required for the league to grow.
Disclosure: Some of the companies in which investors in the Alliance may also invested, could be customers, competitors, investments by Amazon or affiliates, may have been acquired by Amazon or its affiliates, or maybe among investments made by competitors. Amazon has a relationship with many professional sports organizations.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com.