Unlike previously defunct leagues like the WFL, USFL, and XFL, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) did not complete its first season, suspending operations on April 2, after eight weeks of fairly entertaining, generally well coached pro football. The AAF’s demise was announced by league Chairman Tom Dundon, who has taken a fair amount of heat for how things played out.
“Incredibly disappointed,” was the summation by AAF San Antonio Commanders coach Mike Riley.
The AAF was the brainchild of 76-year-old former NFL Colts executive Bill Polian, along with TV wunderkind Charlie Ebersol in support. The idea for the AAF was to provide journeyman players a non-guaranteed three-year contract, worth a total of $250,000, with bonuses based on performance benchmarks.
There could be much to write about their business model, but that’s not our purpose here.
What’s left? Aside from the t-shirts, cups, and various team swag there exists an intriguing group of football cards—issued by Topps no less. The Alliance of American Football began on February 9, and Topps AAF was released on March 22, just ten days before the league folded. For astute football card collectors who appreciate oddball offerings, the set has many strengths and relatively few weaknesses—potential rarity among the strengths.
2019 Topps NOW Boxes
The Topps AAF set is a unique entry in an evolving football card market for reasons of collector interest, quality, and potential historical significance. It might be worth buying a box or possibly even springing for a few of the Topps NOW cards, available in ultra-limited runs.
The traditional cards make a positive impression from the get-go. I purchased a blaster box via Amazon ($22.95 with free shipping). There are ten packs with ten cards each.
The complete base set has 200 cards, so if you desire a full set, you must be prepared to buy additional product or find a trading partner.
The standard size cards are bright and well-designed, with superior but not brilliant photography. The graphics are good, with well written, readable text, and superb color reproduction.
Each team is represented by a comprehensive player mix, a cross-section of which shows how the AAF stocked the rosters. Personnel consists of guys who, for whatever reason, never made the NFL, untested players out of college, and a handful of grizzled vets who either want or still need jobs in pro football. Some just need more work to realize their potential.
Renowned football collector Carl Lamendola sees the need for an additional league like the AAF.
“College linemen often play in spread offenses, and so aren’t ready to execute the blocking schemes required in the NFL,” he said. “They need seasoning.”
Looking at the cards and running through them, you get the feeling AAF players and fans alike were having a ball. Unlike the more staid NFL, Alliance games had the flavor of a pick-up game, with everybody tossing the old pigskin around, not in the street but in a stadium.
Topps’ 2019 Alliance of American Football set had plenty of parallels including Red (#/99), Blue (#/50), Gold (#/25), Green (#/10), Purple (#/5) and Black (1/1) for each card in the set. The dizzy array goes further still:
Future Stars inserts averaged 1:6 in packs (I got two in my ten) and highlight possible AAF standouts. These have Gold (#/25), Green (#/10), Purple (#/5) and Black (1/1) parallels.
Hobby boxes held three autographs with Purple (#/5) and Black (1/1) parallels also possible. While autos were possible in blaster boxes, I didn’t get one.
A study of Topps information about the 2019 AAF set confirms that this offering takes advantage of the currently advanced state of computerized on demand print technology to deliver issues tailored to the niche audience that fanatic football card collectors happen to be.
As a football and football card fanatic, there are some interesting pieces here. One example is the Lori Locust card, No. 42, a defensive line assistant for the Birmingham Iron. Not only is this an early example of the gender-neutral trend in professional sports, it a notable peek at a real-life Lora Croft.
As with all Topps products, and this set is no exception, what really counts is the visual record of American football at a particular moment. Perhaps my favorite image among the cards belongs to Younghoe Koo, No. 108, the South Korean-born kicker for the Atlanta Legends. He is shown following through on a boot. In Week Four, Koo kicked the winless Legends to a victory over the Arizona Hot Shots.
Topps NOW AAF
The best gimmick Topps used to promote the AAF was the Topps Now series. Available for 24 hours in the usual on-demand NOW format, the chronicle of the AAF was cut short but a fair number of cards made it to the market. The strip sack of San Diego Fleet QB Mike Bercovici by Shaan Washington in Week One is probably the most spectacular of the AAF Topps Now cards ever to appear. It’s a stunning image, and on it Michael Strahan will someday remark.
Aside from that card, the drawback to the AAF set is that some of the photos just aren’t all that great. Ideally, a football set should feature an action shot on the front, a player portrait on the back, along with college, stats, age, position, and a mini-bio.
Topps deviates from the formula with this set, and while the cards are pretty good, most players are shown helmeted and you therefore have no facial recognition element. Part of that could be the lack of time available for production.
Modern History of Start Up League Cards
The 2019 AAF Topps set is the most recent card set for a startup league, in a tradition going back to 1960, when Fleer issued a 132 card set for the newly formed American Football League (AFL). Such sets have a checkered history. The early Fleer set was a winner because of a strong rookie selection, despite poor centering on many of the cards.
Topps’ later 1984 Premiere USFL set was also popular with collectors, as it was produced in low numbers and featured a truly outstanding rookie crop, including such top stars as Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, and Steve Young. It retains a high value, at $350-400 per set in Near Mint.
Not so successful were the card offerings for a previous NFL developmental league, the World League of American Football (WLAF—later rebranded as NFL Europe). Cards issued in the early 1990s for the WLAF by Pro Set, Wild Card, and Ultimate have so far received scant attention from hobbyists. A sealed box of the 1992 Ultimate cards can be had at present for as little as six bucks on eBay, plus cost of shipping.
With a dearth of well-known football players and the fact that the companies really let the printing presses roll to produce them, the 1990s WLAF cards are certainly worth more than a bucket of warm spit, but not by much.
Another loser in the fledgling league card category was Topps 2001 Xtreme Football League (XFL) set. When this set came out, a box guaranteed to land you a complete set retailed for almost $50. The box costs currently around $15, with few takers.
Clearance Fodder or Potential Gem?
We now arrive at the most vital question: Does the 2019 AAF set have Topps 1984 USFL Premiere series potential? Obviously, the number of big name college stars who spurned the NFL for bigger money was bigger back then.
On the plus side, what seems to be a limited production run won’t hurt. For example, the iconic Shaan Washington creaming of Mike Bercovici NOW card has only 736 existing specimens and most other print runs were 200-300–some less than 200. While we don’t know Topps’ production runs for hobby and blaster boxes, it’s safe to assume they were far more limited than most releases. So now that the AAF has gone the way of the WFL, USFL, and the XFL, might the 2019 Topps cards grow in value?
Johnny Unitas was pulled from a semi-pro sandlot team to star in the NFL. Nearly 50 players from the AAF have already signed with NFL teams as of now. Many will likely be cut in training camp, but should a couple of the guys in the AAF cards go on to stardom, well, who knows?
Hobby and blaster boxes seem to have buyers on eBay with those news stories about multiple player signings probably helping the cause.
There are players in these cards who seemed happy for the chance to strut their stuff. Without the AAF, they never would have been able to go from bench warmers to starters. Unfortunately for everyone around the game of football, no AAF squad ever got to be champions.
So snicker if you will, but don’t discount the possibility that Topps’ one-and-done 2019 AAF set may yet have collector potential, particularly if it turns out some of the players used their short time in the league to get noticed and make a name for themselves in a league with a little more staying power.
Mike Bonner is the author, along with Carl Lamendola, of Collecting Vintage Football Cards, A Complete Guide with Checklists, available for $25.99 from Amazon.com and on-line retailers everywhere.