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New football league to debut in 2019 with CBS coverage, streaming fantasy app

Last year, Charlie Ebersol, a film and TV producer and son of former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol, released a documentary about the XFL, the defunct spring pro football league that his father and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon shepherded through one season in 2001.

Now, the younger Ebersol, in conjunction with long-time NFL general manager and Hall of Famer Bill Polian, and with his father on the board of directors, is launching his own spring football circuit, the Alliance of American Football next February, with CBS (US) coverage and a streaming fantasy app in tow. McMahon announced in January that he plans to debut a reimagined XFL in 2020, but has yet to declare any media partners.

CBS will televise the league’s inaugural contest and championship game, while CBS Sports Network (US) will air a weekly regular-season game.

Like the revised XFL, the Alliance of American Football is promising a safer and faster brand of ball and a single ownership structure, although neither circuit has listed any cities that will be home to their squads. Unlike the XFL, Ebersol has several investors; McMahon, at least at outset, is funding his league with $100 million of his own money.

Ebersol's initial investors include the Chernin Group LLC, Founders Fund Management LLC, Slow Ventures III, M Ventures, and former NFL All-Pro Jared Allen.

Both spring leagues are looking to hit pigskin pay dirt during the NFL off-season. Although remaining media’s top live entertainment vehicle, the NFL has seen regular-season audiences decline for the past two seasons. Moreover, each of the league’s most recent postseason contests fell from the previous campaign, including Super Bowl LII, which was the least-watched NFL title game since 2009, though its 103.4 million- average audience will rank as the most-viewed show in the U.S. in 2018.

The NFL's viewership decline is partly due to injuries to star players, concerns about concussions and long-term brain damage, political fallout from player protests during the national anthem before kickoff, and the proliferation of contests. It's also due to many younger fans getting their football fill from ad hoc highlights networks, AT&T Inc.'s DIRECTV's RedZone Channel, which is available through the satellite provider's exclusive out of home package, NFL Sunday Ticket, the NFL RedZone, operated by NFL Network (US) and available through cable, telco and other satellite distributors, including Dish Network Corp. and its virtual platform Sling TV. Many younger NFL fans are also interested in following their fantasy players, rather than tuning in full-length games.

To that end, the eight-team Alliance, sporting a 10-week regular season and four-team playoff, will play heavily on the fantasy front. In a first for pro football, the league will livestream games via a free app that will integrate fantasy options.

In a move akin to the territorial drafts that shaped teams during the early days of the NBA, the league’s 50-player rosters will be constructed in part from those who played their college ball in the areas near the new teams. Eight Alliance cities and their respective coaches are expected to be announced over the next three months.

With safety in mind, the Alliance is eliminating kickoffs and allowing the offense to start on the 25-yard-line. Onside kicks will also be punted on, as the trailing team will receive the ball on its own 35-yard line facing a 4th down and 10 situation. "Players have our commitment that we will seek the highest degree of safety and our support as we continue to invest in their success off the field with post-football career scholarships and financial wellness programs," Ebersol said in a release.

The fan experience is expected to be enhanced as extra points are out in favor of two-point conversions after every touchdown. The league also plans to use a shorter play clock and fewer commercial breaks in the interest of shortening the contests.

The original XFL was a joint venture between the WWE — then known as the WWF — and NBC (US) with McMahon and Dick Ebersol, who was also instrumental in the development of "Saturday Night Live," leading the way. Premiering under ESPN (US)'s "30 for 30" documentary banner in February 2017, the Charlie Ebersol-directed "This Was the XFL" concludes with McMahon and the elder Ebersol talking about lessons learned from the attempt and if something similar could work today.