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While millions of fans are playing fantasy football this fall and pretending to be football executives, Phil Ofili, a first-year student in ASU Law’s Master of Sports Law and Business program, will be living out a real-life football fantasy by helping to manage personnel for a promising new football league.
A unique partnership between the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and the startup Alliance of American Football (AAF), modeled after an existing partnership between ASU Law and Sun Devil Athletics, created the opportunity.
Ofili has been named to a graduate assistant position with the AAF, which plans to launch play in February, following the NFL’s Super Bowl.
“With this position, what the Alliance of American Football represents, and the SLB program, it’s like a dream come true,” said Ofili, who played collegiately as a defensive back while attending the Air Force Academy from 2008 to 2012. “I’m on the path to where I want to go.”
What Ofili was looking for, specifically, was a career path that led back to football, saying he is “all in” on that career choice. When he was chosen as one of four finalists to be interviewed for the position, that hunger was evident.
“We were looking for a young person who is passionate about the game, and Phil just fit that description perfectly,” said Russell Giglio, the AAF’s director of player personnel. “Phil’s heart is in football.”
Ofili will be working directly with Giglio, maintaining a player database and managing league-wide player personnel communications. Much like a fantasy-football owner who scours box scores and waiver wires to find the best available players, Ofili will be looking everywhere for talented prospects.
“He’s going to help build and maintain a database of every single eligible football player in the world who might be able to come over to the AAF,” said Sam Renaut, director of the SLB program. “He’s going to be tracking the waiver wire every week in the NFL to see who gets cut, who gets signed, who gets dropped down to the practice squad, who might be available to come play for the AAF. And he’ll be doing the same thing with CFL teams, just tracking all player personnel moves across all professional football, to see who they might be able to bring in.”
Launching a professional football league is a daunting task, as evidenced by the graveyard of failed projects: the Continental Football League, the World Football League, the United States Football League and the XFL, just to name a few.
But Giglio says the AAF will not make the mistake that others have of directly competing with the NFL, instead viewing the league as a complementary entity. And he’s confident in the experience and vision of the leadership team.
“Some of these people worked in the USFL and XFL and learned from their mistakes,” he said. “I know the plan they’ve put together, and I’m confident it will work. And there are so many good former high school and college football players out there who still want to play.”
The league’s founders are TV and film producer Charlie Ebersol and Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, one of the most respected names in the sport. The architect of the 1990s Buffalo Bills team that went to four straight Super Bowls, Polian also helped the expansion Carolina Panthers reach the NFC Championship Game in just their second year, then built the Indianapolis Colts into a perennial powerhouse and Super Bowl champion.
Other members of the executive team include former Pro Bowl players Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward and Justin Tuck, and Ebersol’s father, retired NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. And the coaches of the eight-team league come from the highest pedigree, having competed for or won championships at the college and professional levels: Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Mike Martz, Mike Singletary, Rick Neuheisel, Mike Riley, Brad Childress and Tim Lewis.
As Renaut explained, the last successful startup was the American Football League, which merged with the NFL a half-century ago.
“And no one has been able to do it right since, so there’s always skepticism,” he said. “But the AAF has a lot of money behind it, they have a lot of clout, and the people who are getting on board are some of the most influential human beings in the football stratosphere. And if anybody’s going to be able to pull this off, I really do believe it’s them.”
Billed as an alliance between players, fans and the game, the innovative league aims to be fan-friendly while also focusing on the well-being of players, in terms of safety, compensation, education and NFL opportunities.
In addition to a Phoenix team that will play in Sun Devil Stadium, the league will launch in seven other cities: Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Orlando, Florida; Salt Lake City; San Antonio and San Diego.
The AAF will operate as a single entity that owns and operates all eight teams, and to help generate fan interest, the league will use an allocation system that assigns players based on geographic interest. So, for example, former ASU and University of Arizona players will be assigned to the Phoenix team. Several former Sun Devils are already onboard, including running back Demario Richard, linebacker D.J. Calhoun and quarterback Mike Bercovici, himself a graduate of the SLB program.
Prior to joining the AAF, Giglio was a senior administrator for ASU Athletics, where he regularly worked with graduate assistants from the SLB program. He was so impressed with those students that one of his first orders of business with the AAF was to tap back into the SLB program. He reached out to Renaut, and the league agreed to donate a scholarship that would fund an ongoing graduate assistant position.
Renaut said Giglio’s desire to continue partnering with SLB is not only a credit to the previous students, but also validation for the relatively young program.
“The groundwork was laid by previous students who had just done an amazing job with their opportunities,” he said. “When Russ became an executive with a startup football league, he came right back to the well and wanted to get more talent from us. So it’s a really a nice coming-of-age story for our program as a whole, and we cannot thank Russ and the AAF enough for being willing to venture into this innovative partnership.”
The program is what attracted Ofili to ASU Law in the first place. After completing his Air Force service, he moved to the Valley, where his fiancée (now wife) was completing graduate school.
“I knew I wanted to get back into sports in some facet, and after looking at different sports programs, I realized that one of the best in the country was right here in my backyard,” he said. “The people I talked to spoke volumes about the program, the alumni and the faculty, so that made the decision a no-brainer.”
Ofili is thrilled to be joining such an accomplished team at the AAF and will seize the chance “to soak in all the knowledge and industry experience they have.”
“I’m just very thankful not only for this opportunity with the alliance but also with the SLB program,” he said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind program with a life-changing opportunity, and I’m just very grateful to be in the position that I am.”