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GAME OVER: Memphis’ spring romance with Express over as AAF cuts season short

On Jan. 3, the Alliance of American Football was holding training camp for all eight of its teams at the same time and place: San Antonio, Texas.

On Feb. 4, an unusually balmy day just after The Super Bowl, I was at the Liberty Bowl Stadium as the Memphis Express were preparing for their first game, a roadie at the Birmingham Iron.

On March 2, Memphis broke its three-game losing streak, notching its first ever franchise win, a 26-23 thriller over the San Diego Fleet.

By April 2, it was all over. The AAF announced it would be suspending operations with just two weeks remaining in the regular season. Though not officially dead, no one expects another season.

How did we get here?

Even though non-NFL leagues had a long history of failures, the AAF seemed different.

“Every single person who has attempted to do this before has failed,” said AAF Founder Charlie Ebersol back in January, during training camp.

“The reason they failed in my opinion is they didn’t take football seriously,” he continued. “We love football, we’re committed to football but you have to really dig in with the best people at the top.”

Indeed, the AAF was top-heavy with big names in football – among them NFL Hall of Famer Mike Singletary, who left his job as a high school football coach to become head coach of the Express.

Count me among those who thought it could work. I had my reasons:

• Unlike other startups, the AAF seemed to have a complementary relationship with the NFL, instead of an adversarial one. The AAF was hoping to be a developmental league for NFL hopefuls. But they never could reach a deal with the NFLPA, the labor union for NFL players.

• They nailed down early TV deals, including a local deal the Express had with CW30. Combined with being able to live stream games on mobile, I figured they’d be able to get enough eyeballs for long enough to find their audience.

• The betting. The AAF had a deal with MGM Resorts International that would make in game wagers possible. Knowing how lucrative sports betting is, I was betting that those dollars would keep the league afloat long enough for fans to embrace the league.

Unfortunately, all of those things were not enough to overcome three major chinks in the AAF’s plans:

• There’s a reason those players didn’t make the NFL. Many aren’t NFL-caliber players – and it showed up on the field, with players missing tackles and dropping passes. People were willing to accept sub-NFL quality football, but it needs to be watchable.

• Ah. Money. Within the first two weeks, the AAF was so cash-strapped that it took a $250 million investment to ensure paychecks cleared. That investment was made by AAF majority owner Tom Dundon, who ultimately decided to stop pouring money down the toilet.

• Maybe by the time February rolls around, people have no more appetite for football. For five months, football junkies can binge watch college football on Saturdays and NFL football on Sundays. There are thrilling playoffs on both levels, with the grand finale being that national football holiday we call The Super Bowl.

A food analogy: Imagine enjoying a delicious, satisfying and filling meal at the NFL Bistro. And while you’re waddling out, your date says, “That was great! I couldn’t eat another bite! So . . . you wanna grab something to eat at the AAF Café?”

Which isn’t to say the AAF wasn’t improving, said co-founder Abe Polian.

“We were headed to a tremendous run of success, beginning with Saturday’s game leading into the Final Four on CBS,” Polian told the AP. “Our league on the field has prospered and grown. The football’s gotten better, and that’s a tremendous tribute to the coaches and players and GMs and front office staff and all the other people who have done a phenomenal job.”

In Memphis, the Express stumbled early, opening the season without an offensive coordinator. The result was an obviously discombobulated offensive attack and ultimately unwatchable football.

Hosting its first two home games on cold rainy days didn’t help with attendance at the Liberty Bowl either.But the fan who did come were loud and intensely loyal. They got even louder when they learned “Johnny Football” was coming to town.

Having partied his way out of the NFL, Johnny Manziel, the former Heisman winner was expected to bring a jolt of energy to not just the Express, but the AAF.

Indeed, in Manziel’s first game, fans were chanting his name even as Brandon Silvers was leading the team to a 31-25 win over the Birmingham Iron.

“I don’t go out and round people up and say ‘Will you guys go out and chant we want Johnny’ all day,” Manziel said after the win. “To put that pressure on (Silvers) and for him to go out and do what he did was top-notch.”

In two games in Memphis, Manziel made five of eight passes for a total of 61 yards. He also rushed for 38 yards.

Several hours before the suspension was announced, Manziel tweeted: “If you’re an AAF player and the league does dissolve. The last check you got will be the last one that you get. No lawsuit or anything else will get you your bread. Save your money and keep your head up. It’s the only choice at this point unless something drastic happens.”

Another Manziel tweet followed:  “Just the reality of this unfortunate situation.. great concept, good football on the field and fun for fans to watch. Just not enough money to go around which has been the main problem with “other” leagues for a long time.”

And without another home game to say goodbye, fans took to social media to (ahem) express their feelings.

“Seriously bummed to lose the Memphis Express. Thanks for giving your heart to this City. We loved sharing the ride with you,” was the message tweeted from the Memphis City Council.

It was really great having a spring football team in Memphis to yell for. The games were awesome and a lot of fun. Thanks for the memories,” tweeted Todd Lowe. “Dundon….  You quit too soon.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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