Can upstart league and an iconic brand from yesteryear rewrite the future of American sports?
Major League Baseball’s Minor Leagues and the National Basketball Association’s G League now have an NFL counterpart. The American Alliance of Football (the AAF) has arrived. The AAF aims to fill the void leagues such as the Canadian Football League, Arena Football League and XFL have failed to occupy. The Alliance’s ambition is to provide American football with a developmental, farm system.
The AAF was founded by filmmaker Charlie Ebersol and former NFL commissioner Bill Polian. With oversight from NFL heavyweights like Mike Pereira (retired referee & Fox NFL Sundays), Dick Ebersol (Charlie’s father, NBC Sports Executive & co-founder of the XFL) and J.K McCay (former NFL player & USC Sports Executive), the AAF is studded with NFL insiders. Names like Troy Polamalu, Jared Allen, Michael Vick, Hines Ward, Justin Tuck, Steve Spurrier and Mike Singletary round out the Alliance’s leadership core.
Charlie’s ESPN 30 for 30 film “ This was the XFL ”(2016) inspired his vision for a league offering fans a higher quality of football outside of the NFL’s season. The AAF keeps closely in line with NFL rules. The few deviations are aimed at making the game safer for players and more streamlined for fans. There are less commercials and no commercial breaks. There are no extra-point attempts, only two point-conversions. Kickoffs – the play experts connect most with head injuries – have been eliminated.
Working closely with the NFL and with the latter’s blessing, the AAF is poised to become a fixture in the American sports calendar. With their eyes on a lucrative, prolonged future, the Alliance’s inaugural 2019 season marked the berth of a new arms race in athletic apparel – who would provide the league’s eight teams with uniforms and on-field gear?
That’s right, Starter. Starter has burst back onto the fashion scene in recent years with high-profile collaborations like their HUF X Starter line. Nostalgia has resurrected the brand.
Kids raised in the 90’s have made the brand chic again. But where did they go? Where have they been?
In the late 1970’s, Starter was one of several brands licensed to produce apparel for the major American sports leagues. Their signature style of breakaway jackets were instant sensations. By 1983 Starter was in business with the NFL, NBA, MLB and Canadian Football League. Their rampant success helped them win an exclusive contract with the NFL to produce parkas worn by coaches on the sidelines. Their satin breakaway jackets, sold to the public, boosted sales to $58.9 million by 1989. By the end of 1990, sales had doubled to $124.6 million. They were outpacing their competition, brands such as Champion and Russell Athletic by leaps and bounds.
The late 90’s saw a decline in Starter’s popularity. Newcomers like Nike and established brands such as Champion were winning contracts with the major leagues away from Starter. By 1997, only the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets were wearing Starter uniforms in the NBA. By 2000, the only MLB team still in Starter were the New York Yankees. By 2002, Starter was out of the NFL entirely.
Starter’s journey back into limelight began with Nike’s sale of the brand. The Swoosh purchased Starter in 2004, selling them in 2007 to the Iconix Brand Group. In 2013, G-III Apparel Group stepped in to produce for Starter their signature jackets and satin breakaway pullovers.
The jackets, riding a nostalgia driven wave of monster sales, brought the brand back into the forefront. Charlie and the AAF tapped Starter in July of 2018 to be their exclusive on-field and gameday supplier:
“We’re proud to bring Starter, an iconic brand with over 35 years of rich sports heritage, back to the football field. A pioneer in the space, they were one of the first brands to be on the field … Starter has long been associated with your favorite sports teams … We look forward to taking our first snap with the instantly recognizable Starter logo emblazoned on our jerseys as well as on our sidelines.”
Charlie’s selection was far from easy. Yes, Starter has 35 years of sports history, but so has Champion. Champion provided the NFL with jerseys for much of the 80’s and 90’s. For most of the 1990’s, Champion was the exclusive uniform provider to the NBA. The XFL’s single 2001 season was outfitted by Champion. Riedel also has extensive history with the NFL. Riedel has supplied uniforms to the Canadian Football and the Arena Football Leagues.
Starter went from the industry leader in the late 80’s to defunct in the early 2000’s. Nearly 20 years later, the brand has clawed its way to the cutting edge of modern fashion. Their deal with the AAF has them in position to expand like never before, into the worlds of street, athletic and high fashion.
So what does this mean moving forward, for Starter and the AAF?
Rumor has it XFL co-founder Vince McMahon is planning a comeback of his own. Who will Vince choose to fit his new league? Will the XFL supplant the AAF as football’s next-best-thing? Will the NFL bless two developmental leagues? Could Starter win both?
Currently, each of the Alliance’s eight teams have one jersey option. Starter supplies the Alliance with jerseys, gloves, sweatbands, pants and socks – essentially everything but the pads and helmets. Many critics have noted the bold, contrasting designs and colorways.
So much rides on the Alliance’s 2019 season. The future of Starter is bright – thanks to their renewed fashionability – yet, the question still remains: it’s been nearly 20 years since Starter has produced a game-day uniform. Do they still have the juice? Can they replicate their success of the 90’s? Have they made uniforms to stand the test of time, as their breakaway jackets and pullovers have?
The AAF Championship is scheduled to air on CBS on April 27. Starter can be sure we will watching. Their jury is their public. The verdict is in the hands of the people. All eyes are on the Alliance.