By Doug Curlee | Editor at Large
Pro football fans in San Diego were starting to warm up to the new team in SDCCU Stadium. The San Diego Fleet was supposed to be a three-year effort to bring the game back to town. It was going to be a struggle, and everyone knew it, but it seemed like a good way to bring football back after the Chargers bolted for Los Angeles. The newly formed Alliance of American Football (AAF) said it had enough money in the bank to see it through and league founders said they would fight it out for three years.
It lasted three months.
Here in San Diego, the league looked like a budding success. Home game attendance at Fleet games was growing; Fleet jerseys and memorabilia were selling better than any other squad’s in the eight-team league; and, most importantly, there were tailgate parties in the parking lot with enthusiastic fans having a good time.
San Diego was one of the successes in the league. San Antonio was the other one. Now, there are none. What happened?
“I wish I knew what happened,” said Matt Provence, the Fleet’s team communications director.
Provence, at this writing, is back home in Pennsylvania, sending out resumes looking for a spot somewhere in minor league baseball, where he spent 23 years before succumbing to the attraction of living in San Diego.
“We thought the idea of a league being run as a single entity, with a central home office in San Francisco handling all the money, was a different idea that had a chance,” he said. “If we could make it for those three years, there was a good chance for lucrative TV contracts, a lot of fans buying tickets, and increasingly skilled players and coaches, making it a true minor league for the NFL.”
But the people who originally created the concept — television executive Charlie Ebersole and NFL Hall of Fame-inducted executive Bill Polian — suddenly found themselves overrun, and run out of the league, by East Coast billionaire Tom Dundon, who owns, among other things, the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League.
Dundon said he was investing $250 million in the new league, with an eye to making it in effect the minor league affiliate of the NFL.
“I think Tom Dundon thought he could force the NFL, and the NFL Players Association, into accepting his vision,” Provence said. “That might have worked if Dundon hadn’t tried to force it. If the AAF had lasted three years, and worked, the NFL might have seen this vision Dundon apparently had, and they might have worked it out to everyone’s satisfaction.”
But the trails of pro football are often littered with the remains of those who have tried to force the NFL to do anything it doesn’t really want to do.
It all came to an end on April 6, with the Fleet in Florida for a game against the Orlando Apollos, a struggling franchise. Instead of a game, Fleet players and coaches found themselves paying their own hotel bills and buying their own plane tickets home.
Several days later, Tom Dundon formally notified the teams, the players, and who knows how many vendors and suppliers, that the AAF was filing for bankruptcy.
How much money Tom Dundon actually put into the league is a matter of speculation, but most believe it was nowhere near the $250 million he said it would be.
“Tom Dundon has the right to decide how he spends his money,” Provence said. “I guess he decided it wasn’t going to get him what he wanted.”
At the end of the day, it appears no one involved got what they wanted.
Interestingly, you can still buy San Diego Fleet jerseys, sweatshirts and memorabilia at Dick’s Sporting Goods stores in the San Diego area.
It’s all half-price, but the Dick’s people say it’s still selling.
It may be the only way people will eventually remember the San Diego Fleet.
— Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.