Commanders players celebrate following a touchdown against the San Diego Fleet in the first game of the league on February 9th.
Commanders players celebrate following a touchdown against the San Diego Fleet in the first game of the league on February 9, 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

What was originally billed as an alliance of football minds attempting to build a successful spring league together to complement the NFL ultimately foundered, in part, because it became too reliant on one man’s money.

With two weeks left in its scheduled inaugural season, the Alliance of American Football ceased operations Tuesday. Majority owner Tom Dundon, who swooped in to save the league from financial problems in February with a $250 million commitment, reportedly made the decision, signaling the end of another short-lived San Antonio pro football team.

A parade of San Antonio Commanders players, coaches, and staffers toting their belongings trudged out of the Alamodome throughout Tuesday afternoon. The team had practiced earlier in the day before being told they had lost their jobs.

A former player of the San Antonio Commanders heads back to player lodging from the Alamodome.
A former San Antonio Commanders player heads back to his lodgings from the Alamodome. Credit: Jackie Wang / San Antonio Report

Commanders General Manager Daryl Johnston emerged shortly after 2 p.m. and stopped to sign several autographs and take pictures with season-ticket holder Raul Villarreal, who brought his 11-year-old stepson, Joshua Huerta, to the stadium to pay respects.

Johnston apologized to Villarreal and told him he appreciated the support. He told reporters he could not comment until after a league press release was issued at 4 p.m. Several players echoed that statement.

“I’m going to be with my family tonight,” Johnston said. “I will talk to you all tomorrow.”

Former SA Commanders General Manager Daryl Johnston leaves the Alamodome.
San Antonio Commanders General Manager Daryl Johnston leaves the Alamodome. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The players said they weren’t authorized to speak to the media, but one described himself as an “ex-Commander.”

Johnston, Coach Mike Riley, and team President Vic Gregovits later issued a joint statement.

“On behalf of all of us with the San Antonio Commanders organization, we were shocked and incredibly disappointed to learn of the Boards’ decision to suspend football operations,” they said. “[Co-founders] Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian delivered a quality football product that fans nationally were watching on TV, online, and here in San Antonio on each and every game day.

“While all startups encounter some challenges, we believed ours could be addressed in the offseason, after a successful completion to our first season.

“We are grateful to our players, coaches, staff, corporate partners, and especially our fans that supported us from the moment our team was announced through the record-setting attendance – San Antonio proved to be the best fans in The Alliance time and time again.”

Polian told ESPN the league had shut down. Numerous reports Tuesday said that Dundon had decided to pull his funding.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” Polian said in a statement. “When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all.”

The Commanders played their first game Feb. 9. The Commanders started the season with three home games that produced the three largest crowds in the brief history of the league. San Antonio went 1-1 in those games at the Alamodome, averaging 28,516 fans per game.

The Commanders fell 23-6 on Sunday night at home to the Arizona Hotshots, dropping them to a 5-3 record. The announced attendance for the game was 23,504 and the team averaged 27,720 fans per game.

The team had been scheduled to play host to the Memphis Express on Saturday at the Alamodome in the final regular-season home game and had one road game, at Salt Lake City, remaining on the schedule.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who previously has expressed interest in making San Antonio an NFL city, said he believes the city and its fans proved through four games it is ready.

“We are disappointed to hear the news out of AAF office, but by blowing estimates out the water with our fan support, San Antonio has proved  it’s a big-league city,” Nirenberg said in a statement. “… We have shown that our booming city and its thriving economy can provide a fan base that supports and sustains professional football. The passion displayed by our fans has made franchise owners across the country turn their attention to San Antonio.”

Villarreal, who was a season-ticket holder, said he hadn’t heard from the league as of mid-afternoon Tuesday and didn’t know whether he would receive a refund for the final home game of the season. In their statement, Johnston, Riley and Gregovits said they “hope to be able to share information from The Alliance about ticket refunds in the future.”

Villarreal said he was heartened by the support San Antonio showed the franchise and believes it proves the city deserves an NFL team.

“I was upset. I didn’t want the season to end,” Villarreal said. “It was fun coming to the games. Interacting with the fans, tailgating with everyone, meeting new people. It’s like we’re a family.

“… Hopefully it shows San Antonio should have a team.”

Former SA Commander Brian Folkerts (left) signs a football for Joshua Huerta, 11, as his stepfather Raul Villarreal takes a photograph.
Former SA Commander Brian Folkerts (left) signs a football for Joshua Huerta, 11, as his stepfather Raul Villarreal takes a photograph. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This is the second time Commanders Coach Mike Riley has seen a team he coached cease operations in San Antonio. Riley was the head coach of the San Antonio Riders in 1991 and 1992 before that franchise came to an end when the World League of American Football abandoned its North American teams.

Ebersol and Polian announced the formation of the AAF last spring and named San Antonio as one of eight founding cities. There are no individual owners in the AAF. Instead, all teams are funded by the league and its investors but operated individually by independent management teams.

All players were signed to three-year contracts paying them $75,000 the first year, $80,000 the second, and $100,000 the third year. Players were allowed to be released from those deals if they were offered an opportunity to sign NFL contracts.

There have been a dozen other failed pro football franchises in San Antonio since the mid-1970s. Some believed the AAF had a chance to succeed where the others had failed because it wasn’t seeking to compete with the NFL, but rather complement that league. It also had investors and support from former NFL players, it hired well-known veteran coaches, some of whom had previously coached in the NFL.

The league also attempted to sell itself through new technology allowing fans to watch games on their phones through the league app, which also helped fans track the movements of every player on the field for fantasy gaming through wearable technology.

San Antonio played a leading role with the AAF. The league chose it to host all eight teams’ training camps in January.

The AAF might have succeeded in influencing future changes to NFL rules. The league showed games could be played at a faster pace and replay reviews could be more transparent with referees wearing microphones.

The Commanders and the AAF join a fraternity of past failed San Antonio pro football teams including the Wings of the World Football League (1975), the Gunslingers of the United States Football League (1984-85), the Riders of the World League of American Football (1991-92) , the Force of the Arena Football League (1992), the Texans of the Canadian Football League (1995), and the Talons (2012-14) of the AFL.

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Kyle Ringo

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.