Daryl Johnston said when he played fullback for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, he would have bristled at having cameras in the locker room or at doing in-game TV interviews.
“From a player’s standpoint, you’ve earned the right to be in the locker room, you’ve earned the right be on the sideline, to have those experiences,” he said. “You don’t want to share that with everybody.”
But Johnston now is general manager of the Alliance of American Football’s San Antonio Commanders, and he knows one reason the league has connected with fans is the access it provides during televised games.
Cameras are in locker rooms. Coaches are mic’d, and star players are interviewed while the game is going on. Last Saturday, Arizona Hotshots quarterback John Wolford talked about how he and his coach disagreed on how a play should have been run shortly after it occurred.
“Now when you see the response of fans and how much they enjoy that, you see how shortsighted that was,” Johnston said.
Orlando Apollos quarterback Garrett Gilbert admitted it wasn’t a natural part of the game-day experience.
“It’s not the easiest thing to do — to go from being in the middle of a game, and then have to go give an interview at the end of the first and third quarter,” he said. “But it’s great for fans. So you snap out of what is going on and you get ready to present yourself for the camera.”
For viewers, it’s like being everywhere on the field except the huddle.
“It has definitely exceeded our expectations,” AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol said. “In order to be a success, you have to be a story of growth, and I can be pretty confident in saying that is exactly what it has been.”
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TV ratings have been consistently strong, but Ebersol said there’s another indicator that tells him the AAF’s TV strategy works.
“You can always measure a network’s interest by how much they order up to the mothership,” he said. “And the fact Turner and CBS have both literally scrounged through all their available time to find places to put games. We ended up with more CBS games and more TNT games. That gives you a clear picture of how excited everyone is.”
Asked for the defining moment of AAF TV coverage? Ebersol laughed: “Everything Steve Spurrier has done.
“Him, opening night, saying: ‘We are going to run the same play. But tell him this time to catch it’ — that was the defining moment,” Ebersol said. “All of a sudden, you feel like you are in the league, in the huddle, and I think that’s enormously valuable.”
Although Spurrier has been highly entertaining, he said he doesn’t particularly enjoy being mic’d. “But I can understand why we do it,” he said. “That’s part of the Alliance, and our game is somewhat made for television.”
AAF officials count on the delay being long enough to prevent anything offensive from being broadcast. However, Ebersol said the AAF is pushing the bar as far as it can. “Sometimes we have left the mic on too long,” he admitted.
It’s not likely fans will ever hear the quarterback calling a play in the huddle. “The problem with getting in the huddle is that suddenly you are challenging the integrity of the game,” he said.
Johnston said co-founder and head of football Bill Polian has reminded every coach and GM that no one should be trying to use the league’s openness for a competitive advantage.
“The question,” Johnston said, “is always how can we bring someone inside an area they haven’t been in without exposing some of the strategy or vocabulary that a team is using?”
Another question: Whether the AAF’s expanded access might prompt the NFL to open up its game. Can you image sideline reporters talking to Patriots coach Bill Belichick in-game, or interviewing Tom Brady after a three-and-out?
“It would certainly be entertaining, but it might be tough to make work,” said Gilbert, who started two games for the Carolina Panthers last NFL season.
Ebersol, however, thinks fans will see more of this access in the NFL.
“I think there’s an inevitability to this,” he said. “Once you see it doesn’t affect the game, it doesn’t argue. Seventeen years ago, when they put Skycam over the XFL, the NFL took a look at it, and the next year, every NFL game had a Skycam over it.”