A good businessman looks for a gap in the marketplace, a void to set up shop and peddle his wares for profit. A good businessman also knows his competition. You won’t see Mom and Pop’s Hardware opening up across the street from Home Depot. So when Litchfield native Charlie Ebersol announced the creation of the Alliance of American Football, skepticism was a natural first reaction. But competing with the National Football League is not what he set out to do.
“I don’t need to do that,” Ebersol, 36, says during an hour-long phone interview. “Competing with the NFL is the fatal flaw of almost every single football league. First of all, you’re not competing. My league is the weekend after the Super Bowl (Feb. 9) until the weekend of the NFL Draft (April 27). So I literally exist in the one window in which the NFL is not operating competitive product. So the idea that I would get up and say any of the nonsense that was said by previous leagues about the NFL is counterintuitive to what you would want to build as a business. Right? Why would you do that? That would be the equivalent of … I don’t even know what the equivalent is. It would just be stupid.”
(Editor's note: After Week 1, Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon pledged a $250M investment and became league owner. On April 2, the Alliance suspended operations.)
There’s no mystery as to why Ebersol would avoid doing something stupid. He’s had a front row seat to success his entire life. His father Dick is the co-creator, with Lorne Michaels, of Saturday Night Live. Dick worked his way up to become chairman of NBC Sports & Olympics and was named the most powerful person in sports by The Sporting News in 1996. Charlie’s mother is Emmy Award-winning actress Susan St. James, best known for her roles on McMillan & Wife with Rock Hudson and Kate & Allie with Jane Curtin.
Now in his 70s, Dick’s newest gig is on the board of directors of The Alliance, which is headquartered in San Francisco. (“We internally call it The Alliance,” Charlie says. “We suffer through ESPN calling it AAF.”) While Charlie refers to his dad as a “genius,” the board appointment says as much about the Ebersol family dynamic as it does Dick’s sports business expertise. It’s a family dynamic that started in Litchfield, where Charlie’s paternal grandparents lived. “My father is as much a ‘Nutmegger’ as there is on Earth, just so we’re clear,” says Charlie, whose maternal grandparents were also from Connecticut even though St. James was raised in Illinois. Her road to Litchfield began at Rockefeller Center.
St. James was guest-hosting SNL in October 1981; Ebersol was serving as executive producer. They met and were married within six weeks. St. James had two children from a previous marriage and, according to Charlie, she wanted to be on the East Coast but didn’t want to raise children in New York City.
“My dad said, ‘Well, I grew up in a small town in Connecticut called Litchfield.’ And she said, “Well, I want to go visit it.’ And they went and visited it, and on the visit bought a house.” Stating the obvious, Ebersol says his parents don’t mess around when making decisions. When Charlie proposed to his wife Melody McCloskey, one year to the day they met, his father asked what took so long.
“Every single night that I was a kid,” Ebersol says, “both sets of my grandparents and my mom, we’d have dinner at the table. Keep in mind my mom was commuting to the city because she was doing Kate & Allie. And my dad was commuting to the city because he was doing SNL. So it would have been very easy for us to have been New Yorkers, and we spent a lot of time in the city, but it was important to them that me and my siblings had a childhood that reflected what my dad had, which was this Connecticut lifestyle. And by the way, it prepared me better, I think, for what I’ve done in work than anything else, because it mandated you have real, meaningful relationships with people. It’s easy in urban environments to have what I call ‘hug relationships.’ You guys hug and you know each other, but if you asked what the guy’s kids’ names were, you wouldn’t know them. In Litchfield you knew everything. You had to invest in people.”
Sports played a huge role in Ebersol’s childhood, and not just because of his father’s job. He says his mother — whom he calls one of his closest advisers, in life and work — was one of the founding voices of both the Connecticut and International Special Olympics. “I don’t know that I can remember a weekend in my childhood where I was not at either a professional sporting event or a Special Olympics sporting event,” Ebersol says. “Particularly in Connecticut, that was what we did. That was my family; growing up on the sidelines of sports.”
But even the closest, happiest families are not immune to tragedy. What befell the Ebersols on Nov. 28, 2004, was earth-shattering. At the time, Charlie was a senior at Notre Dame, his brother Willie a freshman at USC. The youngest of the three Ebersol boys, Teddy, was a high school freshman at The Gunnery in Washington. It was Thanksgiving and the entire family was together, the weekend culminating on Saturday night at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as Charlie’s Fighting Irish took on Willie’s top-ranked Trojans.
The next morning the family took a private jet to Colorado to drop off St. James, who would be staying at their home in Telluride. Charlie was headed back to Notre Dame, and Dick and Teddy back to Connecticut. The jet crashed during takeoff and Charlie was thrown from the aircraft. Despite breaking his back in two places, Charlie returned to the jet and dragged his unconscious father to safety. But he couldn’t locate Teddy.
Two days later the family released a statement. “While our grief is unfathomable, we are so proud of our Charlie, who pulled his father from the flames. That anyone was able to survive this horrible accident is a miracle, and all of us will forever be inspired by Charlie’s courage and bravery.” Eleven days after the crash was Teddy’s funeral back in Connecticut. Sustaining a broken sternum, pelvis, coccyx, and multiple broken vertebrae and ribs, Dick was wheeled into the memorial service on a gurney. Charlie was one of the speakers.
“It’s funny the things that become important to you,” Charlie says while reflecting on his little brother. “Teddy is buried in Litchfield. Not to get overly morbid, but his gravesite is a place where I spend a lot of time. And there’s a community field that’s right by our house where I grew up playing Little League. For some reason that’s where my father and I always seem to end up whenever I’m back. We go for this long walk and end up there.”
Nothing alters life like death. When Ebersol mentions “things that become important,” he’s talking about family, sure, but also his work. The innovative structure of the The Alliance reflects that focus. “The plane crash for me served as a reminder that I have a very short amount of time on this planet,” Ebersol says. “I have a responsibility to do more than just create things I can sell.”
Concussions in football are an epidemic. But because Ebersol’s eight-team league is a true single entity, team doctors report to the league’s chief medical officer instead of the team. “What’s in the best interest of this player? First and foremost, we constructed something that’s specifically designed to maximize the value to the athlete for their life,” Ebersol says. “We believe that football is a moment in your life. It is not your entire life. So preventative health care, one of the best health care programs in all of professional sports, will be a part of the league.”
Other innovations include a one-year scholarship to post-secondary education or vocational training for every year a player plays in the league. The Alliance also offers job placement and bonuses for engaging with fans, the community and charities. And there’s an out clause if a player gets the opportunity to sign with an NFL team.
That being said, Ebersol is far from naive. He knows that a million good intentions aren’t enough to save one bad product. “Our core focus is great football,” Ebersol says. “We’ve invested a lot of money and a lot of time in putting together what we believe is the first real serious attempt at putting quality football on the field in the spring.” That’s quite a statement considering that in 2001 the doomed-to-fail XFL was a joint venture between the Stamford-based WWE and NBC, more specifically longtime friends Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol. (“Hulk [Hogan] was my babysitter for three years,” Charlie says. “I’m dead serious. That’s not a punchline.”)
Charlie, first and foremost a director and producer, directed This Was the XFL as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series. (McMahon will launch the new XFL in 2020.) Ebersol points out that ratings and ticket sales started out high despite the fledgling league having no big-name players. “The television [broadcast] had issues and the football was garbage,” Ebersol says, “but they drew big crowds.” He also notes that football ratings are so much higher than all the other sports that he doesn’t need to match numbers with the NFL.
“If I capture some of those people, I have a very viable business, and I think people lose sight of that,” Ebersol says. “People think that I’ve got to go put up Super Bowl numbers in a rating or that I’ve got to get 60,000 people into the stadium for this to be viable. I don’t need either of those things. I have long-term partners who understand that if I build this slow and steady, the way the great businesses of the world are done, we can build something meaningful.” Ebersol’s investors include Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and The Chernin Group.
Ebersol knows the endeavor is high risk, but he also knows the best way to defer risk is to surround himself with the best people. That’s why he co-founded The Alliance with Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian and stacked the league office with former NFL greats like Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Justin Tuck and Jared Allen. The eight cities in which the teams are located — Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Tempe, San Antonio, San Diego and Salt Lake City — were also chosen for a reason.
“We focused on the South for the first season because we did not want to have weather barriers for new fans,” Ebersol says. “We make the one exception in Salt Lake City because we also desperately wanted at least one snow game.” But don’t count out snow games in places other than Salt Lake City in the future. Ebersol says there’s already been a good amount of interest from cities about expansion, despite The Alliance not kicking off its inaugural season yet.
Ebersol says if this league doesn’t succeed, he can’t imagine how anyone else would be able to pull it off. And if it doesn’t succeed, there’s a strong support system in place to deal with the fallout. Ebersol says that when he and his father were in the hospital in the days following the plane crash, a trauma therapist told them there were two types of families in these situations: those that get tighter and those that fall apart. It’s become perfectly clear which type of family the Ebersols are: a close-knit group from a small town in Connecticut called Litchfield.
“Connecticut’s been really, really good to me and my family,” Ebersol says. “They’ve taken care of us. In the hardest moments of our lives, and the best moments of our lives, the constant has always been Connecticut. And the depth of my gratitude for that I think has been something that I’ve never been able to fully articulate. I’m very glad that my parents, for reasons that really exceed understanding … the fact that they decided to come back to Connecticut to raise me had a much deeper and more profound effect on me than I think even they realize.”