Jeff Pearlman

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Tom Alexander

#402
He was the official team reporter for the Orlando Apollos, experiencing the greatest professional joy of his lifetime. Then, without warning, the Alliance of American Football folded before the season could end. This was not the twist he was hoping for. POSTED April 18, 2019

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Tom Alexander deserves your sympathy.

He’s not asking for it. He’s certainly not expecting it. But he deserves it.

Until recently, Tom was the official team reporter of the AAF’s Orlando Apollos. It was the most professional fun he’s ever had—new league, new players, exciting venture with a limitless future. From his perspective, it was the cherished opportunity to start at the ground floor with an endeavor that had a bright future. No, the Alliance wasn’t the NFL. But it was a cool concept (spring football) with money and TV behind it.

And then (poof) it died.

Truly, just (poof) like (poof) that. One day Tom and hundreds of other men and women are working in professional football, and the next day it’s all over, and Dicks Sporting Goods is unloading its remaining AAF merch at 50 percent off.

So how is Tom doing? Is he angry? Sad? Grateful? Hopeful? You can follow him on Twitter to find out. Or, you can kick back and read the 402nd Quaz Q&A …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Tom, it’s now been a few days since the sudden death of the Alliance. Have you worked this out in your head? Do you have a sound understanding why it lasted so briefly?

TOM ALEXANDER: I think I am still processing and grieving nearly two weeks later, to be honest. I used all of my mental bandwidth on that job for more than three full months, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I was expecting to at least have four more weeks of it — and maybe a championship ring when all was said and done — so having it suddenly end has been difficult to deal with. I still wake up every morning thinking about three big storylines or pieces of information about the Apollos I want/need to Tweet that day, and I find myself still checking my phone to see if I’ve received the latest injury report or need to Tweet a link to a recently-published article. I suspect it will be that way for some time.

I, like many others who lost their jobs in the blink of an eye earlier this month, likely won’t know for a while what exactly led to the end of The Alliance of American Football. I think, probably, there are only one to three people on the entire planet that know the whole story at this point (until the lawsuits enter the discovery phase): Tom Dundon (definitely), Charlie Ebersol (very likely) and Bill Polian (probably). What I understand, so far, about why it ended, has nothing to do with ticket sales, fan enthusiasm or the quality of the on-field product.

It’s been widely reported that we, as league employees, were led to understand the league had a four- to five-year plan, and was funded for at least three years. We were told that attendance was expected to be low in the first year, and the people in charge were fine with that as long as there was growth into the second year. Football, we were told, was the priority.  The football part of the equation worked. The quality of play was good and improved league-wide as the season went on. There’s no arguing that now, especially as dozens of former Alliance players sign with NFL teams, and will likely continue to do so during the run up to training camp. The league also had a huge group of passionate, talented people on the payroll who believed in the concept and wanted it to succeed, all the way up to the highest levels of the league, so I don’t think a lack of hard work or expertise was the issue, nor was it a desire to compete directly with the NFL, which has befallen other startup football leagues in the past.

The answer, as it is to so many questions in our world, is probably money. I don’t know the specifics about the financial situation of the league, and I can tell you I’m not aware of any employee who ever missed a paycheck, right up until the end. What I do know is that spending was frozen to a certain extent throughout the league after Mr. Dundon became involved, and most expenditures were scrutinized. In the middle of March, team reporters and social media managers were told they would no longer be traveling to road games, something I assume was a cost-cutting measure (saved as many as eight hotel rooms and seats on the team charter flights per week, give or take).

Around that time, I started to learn about vendors the league had not paid for several months, dating back to before the Dundon investment, and, at least for the Apollos, that meant we would no longer have our games broadcast on the radio. At that point, I started to think I wouldn’t have a job beyond the end of the season. A couple weeks after that, Mr. Dundon gave the USA Today interview where he said he was considering folding the league. That was the first we, as employees, actually heard about a possible end. We were out of jobs a week later.

For whatever reason, be it overspending, the league not having the kind of financial backing we were told it had, or something else, the league needed money. Mr. Dundon’s investment provided that, but he had a different idea about how to make the league profitable than the initial vision employees were given (Early on, we were told the plan didn’t hinge on having players assigned from the NFL to our league, and clearly, we didn’t, for the football to be successful). When Mr. Dundon’s plan didn’t come to fruition in the timeline he publicly stated, things came to an end.

J.P.: You wrote, “I have no regrets about joining the Alliance.” I don’t understand. Why?

T.A.: Simply put, it was the best job I’ve ever had. The league brass at The Alliance spoke all the time about it being a league of opportunity, for players and coaches to be part of professional football and maybe get back to the NFL, or get there for the first time. It was also a league of opportunity for me, and many others like me. I studied broadcast journalism in college because I wanted to be the next Bob Costas. When it came time to graduate, I wasn’t in a financial position to do what most sportscasters do and go to a small market and make $18,000 per year, so a graduate assistant who thought I was a good writer suggested I get a job with a TV station in a slightly bigger market as a writer and producer, so I could make a living wage and build up my talent reel in my spare time. I did that, and ended up spending more than a decade as a TV news producer (not sports) in Orlando, trying to find a side door into the on-air world of news and sports. Life got in the way (responsibilities, managers who didn’t believe in me, etc.) and it never happened. I figured that ship had sailed. I was doing freelance copywriting in news and marketing and doing my own sports podcast as a hobby when I applied for the Apollos job, never expecting to get a phone call.

Mike Waddell, the Apollos’ team president, and Dinn Mann, the Alliance’s head of content and marketing, interviewed me and gave me the shot no one else would, and to do it under veteran mentors and editors like Steve Miller and Howard Balzer, who gave me writing advice and feedback I will keep with me forever. In training camp, Waddell also allowed me to book myself on sports radio shows and podcasts, and tapped me to host the halftime report during radio broadcasts of our games. I was about 10 years older than my counterparts at nearly every other AAF team, but I finally got to do the thing 16-year-old Tom always thought he was meant to do, and it opened doors to me that I thought were closed forever.

In addition, covering a legendary coach like Steve Spurrier is a reporter and football fan’s dream come true, and I say this as someone who grew up rooting for Florida State, his arch-rival. As great a coach as he is, he’s an even nicer person, and getting to know him was an honor and privilege. The Apollos’ coaching staff was a great mix of experienced coaches who had a long history with Coach Spurrier and young, hungry ones, some of whom were getting their first shot coaching professional football. Each and every one of them was generous with his time, answered my questions graciously and willingly shared his knowledge and expertise. Our players were the same way. They were a fun group of good guys to be around, opened up to me in interviews and accepted me as part of the team from the moment I arrived in camp. I am rooting for each and every one of them to succeed in football and in life, and they will always have a fan in me.

We had the best team on the field, but we also had the best team off it, too. Our front office was loaded with smart, passionate people who wanted to win at everything. That started with Waddell, our leader, but extended into every facet of our organization. I feel blessed to have known and worked with all of them. It’s especially true of our content and communications team. We forged a strong bond that began when we were away from our loved ones for a month in training camp, and part of the pain of losing this job is not being able to work that closely with them — now close friends of mine — every day. I’ll also miss my peers on the content teams throughout the rest of the league, especially my fellow team reporters. They made me want to become a better writer every single day, and I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of them in the sports world.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be there at the start of something, especially something that I think is going to leave a lasting mark on football (despite its own short life). I would do it again in a heartbeat, even knowing how it would end.

J.P.: How did you find out you were out of a job? Who told you? How did it impact you? The news—specifically?

T.A.: We found out through media reports and Twitter. The Apollos were getting ready for a home game that week, and our organization had a staff meeting every day in the week leading up to a home game. After reading what we had been reading about the league for the days leading up to the end, Mike Waddell, our team president, moved the morning staff meeting on Tuesday, April 2, to 1 p.m., the same time as the beginning of practice, and asked me to come into the office for the meeting before going to the practice field, which was a couple miles away at Camping World Stadium.

I got there a few minutes before the meeting was supposed to start, and it had already started, because everyone was scrolling through their Twitter feeds, reading reports about how The Alliance would suspend operations later that day. Over the next hour, we learned that the football operations staff, including players and coaches, were told on a conference call right around the time practice was scheduled to start. We, as the front office staff, were given no such courtesy. Instead, our team leadership was told multiple times throughout the day that there would be a conference call about everything at 1:30 p.m., then 2:30 p.m., then 5 p.m. It never came. We spent the entire afternoon in the office, lamenting the end, reminiscing about the season, thinking about what our next steps would be and waiting for this conference call to tell us we were all out of jobs.

Waddell let us all go home after 5 p.m. came and went with no call. We finally got an email at 5:30 p.m. Eastern, saying operations were being suspended and our last official day of work was the next day, April 3. The news left me cold. I had kind of been expecting it, given the news reports over the preceding days, but I was still thinking we’d be told the end of the season would be the real end, not get snapped out of existence like Spider-Man and company at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. If I’d have known my Monday “Final Word” column was really going to be my final word, I’d have written it differently. It was one of the saddest days of my professional life.

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Interviewing AAF Head of Football Development Hines Ward at training camp.

J.P.: What did the league do right? What did the league do wrong?

T.A.: It certainly did the football things right. I don’t think anyone missed having kickoffs, and I wouldn’t be surprised, given the current cultural attention on player safety, if they eventually leave tackle football altogether, maybe even in the next five years. The shorter play clock and onside conversion are also things I think we could see in the NFL in the near future. You’ll NEVER see the NFL take fewer commercial breaks, in my opinion, but one never knows.

I think the league could have done a better job raising awareness before the start of the season. That’s a tall order, given the short timeline from the announcement to the start of play and the noise from the NFL and college football during that period of time. However, in the Alliance cities that didn’t have NFL teams, they probably could have done more to raise awareness. I don’t, however, think that a string of sellouts in all eight cities from the get-go would have led to things turning out differently.

Ideally, the league would have taken a full year just to woo more investors, raise awareness, test the technology involved, like the app and its gaming/tracking features and generally get its ducks in a row. The XFL deciding to re-launch in 2020 threw a wrench in that, I think, which led to The Alliance launching in 2019 to plant its flag in the spring football sphere.

J.P.: Random question—I’m sitting in an airport, and three guys near me are talking NFL. And they’re butchering names, information, details. Am I allowed to step in? Or is it best to shut up?

T.A.: I think it depends. If they’re wondering out loud, like “What’s that guy’s name that used to play for so-and-so?” you can step in. If they’re the type of people who simply butcher facts as if they know what they’re talking about, save yourself the headache. I find that people who fall into the latter category are don’t take kindly to being corrected.

J.P.: So I’m staring at the Apollos website, which now features nothing more than a message from the league. They’re grateful, they’re appreciative—blah, blah. I didn’t work for the league, and I feel like punching someone in the face. Do you? Is there festering anger?

T.A.: Absolutely. I wanted to finish the season. I wanted my damned championship ring. I wanted to see the Head Ball Coach hoist a trophy and go out the way he wanted to go out, instead of the way things ended for him at South Carolina. I wanted to see our players, coaches and staff, who all worked their asses off, see this thing through. I also wanted to see what the offseason held for myself and the other reporters. Would there be job offers from other places? Would the league want us to follow the stories of some of our players who went to NFL training camps? I really, really wanted to see what either Austin Appleby or Kevin Anderson would have done as the Apollos’ quarterback in year two (I figured pretty early on that Garrett Gilbert would be back in the NFL in some capacity). In addition, the websites for the league and all the teams were taken down without warning any of the content creators. Anyone who wanted to try to save their work from the site, who didn’t do it before things ended, lost it all. I was lucky enough to get mine before it was taken down, but many others were not as lucky. The anger isn’t intense, and it ebbs and flows. It will subside, in time, but right now, the wound is pretty fresh.

If scientists ever devise a way to travel to alternate universes, there are four places I want to go: the universe where the Nicolas Cage-starring, Tim Burton-directed Superman Lives movie came out, the one where Back to the Future starred Eric Stoltz, the one where Don Mattingly didn’t have back problems and the one where The Alliance of American Football survives into year two and beyond. Maybe those are all the same, weird universe. I don’t know.

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Alexander, safety Josh Evans, Apollos Social Media Manager Kaylee Chicoski, Apollos Director of Storytelling Eli Walker.

J.P.: You were the team reporter for the Apollos. What did that entail? What were your tasks? And, on game days, what were you doing? Literally?

T.A.: In short, I was an embedded reporter with the team. I went to training camp in San Antonio for the entire month of January. I attended every practice, reported on the daily happenings in camp and wrote feature stories for the Apollos’ website every day. I also gave interviews on radio shows and podcasts about the league, the team, what people could expect and how it was shaping up to get fans amped for the season, broke news about the team on social media all the time and recorded three on-camera reports for social media each week.

Once the season started, it was much the same. I wrote one or two articles every day, seven days a week. They were the kinds of things beat reporters at outside media outlets do: features on players, coaches or different units on the team, analysis, game previews, recaps, news and notes and a weekly column. I did the social media videos twice a week, recorded interviews with players and coaches for use on our weekly coaches’ radio show and game broadcasts, Tweeted constantly about the team, continued to give radio and podcast interviews and hosted the halftime report during live game broadcasts.

On game days, I would wake up, Tweet my three keys to victory for the Apollos, write a “Tale of the Tape” article, breaking down what the team needed to do on offense and defense on the ground, through the air and in the trenches to win that week, and which players on the other team fans should watch for.

Once the game started, I would live Tweet the key plays from the press box and sketch out my game recap story. I would host the halftime report on radio, which usually involved a short recap of the first half, a live or taped interview and a quick preview of the second half. I’d go back to Tweeting for the second half, write questions for Eli Walker, our team videographer, to ask of some key players in the locker room after the game, and attend the post-game press conference myself to interview both head coaches and both starting quarterbacks. I’d spend a few hours after the game writing a game recap article plus a sidebar article, file those and call it a night.

Our home games were all at 8 p.m. Eastern, so on those nights I wouldn’t leave the press box until around 1 a.m. On the road, we always went right to the airport after the game, so I would knock out my game recap on the bus ride to the airport, file it, then write my sidebar on the plane. We didn’t have wi-fi on team charters, so I’d have to wait to file the sidebar until we landed in Florida.

J.P.: You graduated from Central Florida in 2003, and since then you’ve bounced around TV and radio. I always talk with print reporters about the difficulties of the profession. How about TV and radio? How hard is it to “make it” in 2019? What are places looking for now that, perhaps, were ignored skills/abilities in 2003?

T.A.: Some of the difficulties are similar to print media, like shrinking newsrooms, shrinking salaries and having to compete with newer forms of media for eyeballs and ad dollars. Like in many industries, journalists in TV and radio are being asked to take on more responsibilities, with fewer resources, and for less pay, than they have before. In TV, especially, we’re seeing more “one-man bands” — reporters who shoot and edit their own video for stories — in larger markets than in the past. Generally, reporters in smaller markets who are just starting out are expected to shoot and edit their own stuff, but when you rise into bigger cities and markets, they have the resources to hire more videographers and editors, so reporters no longer have to do that. Now, because stations are trying to do things more cheaply, many larger markets are employing the “one-man band” strategy.

I don’t know that it’s any harder to “make it” in broadcasting in 2019 than it has been before, but there’s more crap to put up with now than ever before. In TV especially, it’s not enough for a reporter to hit the street after the 9 a.m. meeting, turn one package for the 5 o’clock news, do a shortened version for the 11 o’clock and call it a day. Now, that same reporter (and videographer, if the reporter is lucky enough to have one with them) have to do one story for the noon newscast, either a longer version of that or a completely different story for 5 o’clock, a shortened version for 11 o’clock, a shortened alternate version for the next morning, and write yet another version of that for the station’s website. Oh, by the way, Tweet updates to your story throughout the day (usually there’s a Tweet quota), and so-and-so called out sick for the morning show tomorrow. Because stations are now operating with the bare minimum of personnel, reporters have to get it done three hours earlier than usual so they can go home at 3 p.m., sleep and be back by 1 a.m. to cover that morning shift for the sick person, who really isn’t sick, but is just mentally and physically burned out from having to stick to the routine I’ve laid out herein each and every day for the past six weeks, without a day off, because the station hasn’t replaced the reporter who got burned out and quit two months ago, because they can’t find someone cheap enough who’s willing to commit to that sort of grind.

I was a producer, not a reporter, in TV news, so the grind is slightly different, but can still take over most of your life, especially if you’re producing and writing multiple newscasts in a given day and covering shifts because the station is shorthanded. If you’re willing to put up with all that, you can make it, but I see talented, passionate people getting chewed up and spit out by that grind every day and leaving the media business because they want “unreasonable” things like a family, a social life, a weekend, eight hours of sleep every night and a living wage.

It’s more important now than ever for people wanting to get into the media to be proficient in writing for and developing an audience on social media. Unfortunately, a lot of places take your social media following into account when they consider whether to hire or retain you. It’s not acceptable to be “web illiterate” in the media anymore.

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With wife, Melissa, outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando before seeing “Hamilton.”

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

T.A.: The greatest moment of my career is probably producing election night coverage in 2012. Not because of any particular outcome, but it was my first time being in the lead chair to produce hours of wall-to-wall coverage like that, and our team kicked ass that night. It felt like everyone in the building and in the field was in some kind of zone for several hours in a row, and the high of being in the middle of all that is crazy.

The lowest moment of my career probably came a few months after I left TV news. I didn’t want to go back to the news grind, almost all my experience was in that field and I had no idea what I wanted to do. The high of having my free time and personal life back had worn off, and I was left wondering what it was I was meant to do in life. I don’t know if I’ve yet figured out the answer to that last part yet, but I at least know what is important to me now, and it has nothing to do with work.

J.P.: What’s the difference between a great on-air interview and a mediocre-to-shitty one? How much of it is on you, v. the subject himself/herself?

T.A.: A great interview sounds, to the audience, like they’re a fly on the wall to two old friends having one of those long, deep conversations one has with an old friend into the wee hours of the morning. It’s about getting to the truths of the human experience. It’s more about the why and the how than the who, what, when and where. That’s a 50-50 partnership between the subject and the interviewer. The interviewer has to ask questions to get to those truths and make the subject feel comfortable enough to be that vulnerable. The subject has to be willing to connect with the interviewer and the audience on that level and really examine their experiences. Howard Stern is great at those kinds of interviews.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TOM ALEXANDER:

• If there’s one AAFL player who will go on to star in the NFL, it’s …: Wide receiver Charles Johnson. He looked like a man among boys playing in The Alliance. Carson Wentz needs to look CJ’s way often.

• One question you would ask Blair Underwood were he here right now: What was the weirdest case you ever handled on L.A. Law?

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Bruce Willis, Sports Illustrated, Heidi Klum, D’Ernest Johnson, granola with blueberries, “Us,” sentences that begin with the word ‘But’, ham and eggs, Dick Enberg: Heidi Klum, D’Ernest Johnson, Bruce Willis, Sports Illustrated, granola with blueberries, “Us,” Dick Enberg, ham and eggs, sentences that begin with the word ‘But’

• Three memories from your first date: We went to see “Good Will Hunting.” It was with Vicky Hill, with whom I am still friends. Neither of us was 17 and the movie was rated R, so our moms had to sign our tickets to get the movie theater to let us see the movie without adults

• What’s one thing I need to know about your wife?: She’s the most genuine person anyone could ever meet. There is not a fake bone in her body.

• Five all-time greatest sports uniforms?: 1. New York Yankees – You can’t beat the pinstripes. They’re iconic; 2. San Diego Chargers’ powder blues;  3. ThisTampa Bay Lightning jersey; 4. The Orlando Apollos’ blue alternate combination; 5. The Chicago Bulls’ late-90’s black alternate jerseys.

• What happens after we die?: I think we re-join one large, collective consciousness and immediately know all and see all. It’s some hybrid of all being one, but also retaining our individuality. That, or it’s just like the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life.

• Four reasons (not Disney) one should make Orlando his/her next vacation destination: 1. Our up-and-coming restaurant scene. We have multiple James Beard Award-nominated chefs in Central Florida, and almost every type of cuisine one could want. It’s a hidden gem for foodies; 2. We have multiple distinct neighborhoods in the area, each with its own character and “Main Street”-type area, including shops, restaurants and events; 3. Gatorland. There’s no other theme park or attraction like it in the world, as far as I know; 4. Sports. The Camping World Kickoff and three bowl games in college football, the Magic, the Solar Bears, Orlando City and Orlando Pride soccer, the USTA national campus, UCF, the Pro Bowl and golf courses as far as the eye can see.

• On a scale of 1 to 100, how concerned are you about climate change?: It’s an existential threat to the human race, but I’m not obsessed with it.

• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Danny Treanor?: Danny is an absolute joy. Working with him taught me tons about being on TV and relating to an audience. Plus, he knows a lot about good food and good suits. Last and certainly not least, he’s one of those people with “one in the chamber” all the time: a joke (many not printable here) ready to tell at a moment’s notice. He’s a legend.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life