Monday, April 6, 2009
AFL's future still in doubt
By Jack McCarthy Special to ESPN.com
The AFL has been in turmoil since commissioner David Baker unexpectedly resigned.
The dormant Arena Football League lost its top executive Monday, but former acting commissioner Ed Policy insists that the league is not about to close up shop.
Policy, who has run the league since longtime commissioner David Baker stepped down in July, confirmed his resignation late Monday to ESPN.com.
"I stepped down really because we've been undergoing a major restructuring," the 38-year-old executive said. "And part of that restructuring is doing away with the commissioner. There will probably be a CEO rather than a commissioner, but [league owners] haven't defined what that will entail."
Policy also confirmed a Monday afternoon teleconference call among league owners, but declined to elaborate on discussions. One league source said earlier Monday that options which could be discussed included the league's dissolution.
But Policy, who plans to remain involved in AFL's restructuring as a consultant, maintained that the league remains in business.
"Absolutely," he said. "The league's still alive. We still have a lot of momentum moving forward."
The league, which eyes a 2010 return, will move forward without a commissioner and will eventually hire a top executive to oversee business functions now handled individually by separate teams.
"Last year we had 17 teams operating as 17 affiliated regional companies," Policy said. "What we'd like to do is roll up all those business operations into one company."
In December, the AFL became the third North American sports league since 1994 to call off all or part of a season when owners pulled the plug on the 2009 season.
In recent weeks, some team executives expressed optimism that the AFL would return in 2010, but as the league's suspension entered its fourth month there was still no official word on when or even if it will restart operations.
Despite the dearth of news, officials of at least two AFL franchises said last month that they were confident operations will soon resume.
"It's pure speculation, but I think [the odds] would be 9 [out of 10]," Grand Rapids general manager Scott Woodruff told ESPN.com. "I always have been optimistic. And if I didn't feel that way, I probably would have aggressively looked for employment elsewhere."
Ron Jaworski, president of the reigning Arena Bowl champion Philadelphia Soul, said a return is a near certainty.
"We have a plan in place; we're going to open up next year again. There's a lot at stake," Jaworski told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot during an appearance last month in Portsmouth, Va. Shutting down "was disappointing for us ... But the model needed to be fixed."
Fueling optimism was last month's tentative agreement between representatives of owners and players on a revised four-year collective bargaining agreement.
The deal reportedly reduces costs -- including salaries -- and helps lend financial stability to the league. And the AFL was also said to be exploring a less-costly centralized business operation model.
"Players are making economic concessions now in return for a share of expected increases in the league's value and revenue, because the players believe in the future of the AFL," Richard Berthelsen, AFL Players' Association acting executive director, said in a statement.
But results of a vote by the full AFLPA membership had not been announced by early April and the league owners had yet to OK the pact.
In a mid-March statement, Policy said the tentative agreement was a "critical step" forward.
"The AFL is working tirelessly to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure that the league not only survives but thrives as a business enterprise," he said. "This revised deal with the players provides a fundamental and vital foundation upon which we can rebuild the economic model."
Arena Football's abrupt shutdown was its first in 22 seasons. The last suspension by any league occurred when a labor dispute shuttered the National Hockey League for the full 2004-05 season.
A 1994 clash between players and owners led to cancellation of two months of Major League Baseball's regular schedule and the entire postseason. National Football League players called a strike in 1987, but after a one-week disruption the NFL season resumed with replacement players.
If and when the AFL restarts, there are still numerous practical issues to resolve.
It's uncertain how many of the league's 16 remaining franchises might be back. (The New Orleans VooDoo shut down after last season.) The status of head coaches and assistants is also unknown and there is no word on how team rosters might be stocked.
Moreover, the suspension forced teams to lay off nearly all support staff -- including ticket and sponsorship sales, media relations, finance and marketing personnel and even people who answer the phones. Most Web sites are now dormant and one team -- the Georgia Force -- lost control of its URL (georgiaforce.com).
Teams would have less than a year to rebuild operations, repair relationships with sponsors and ticket holders and rekindle fan interest in a sport that will have been absent from public view for 20 months by the time it kicks off again in March 2010.
In Grand Rapids, Woodruff and media and community relations manager Alex Clark are the only remaining front-office staffers.
Rampage coaches were also being paid and were expected to quickly ramp up when the decision to restart came.
"On the football side we're in excellent shape, arguably the best in the league," Woodruff said. "The other side is the business side -- ticket sales, sponsorship sales, community relations, media relations. And I don't know what to expect. We're in uncharted waters."
In Chicago, Rush president and general manager Mike Polisky was lured to the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves as team president. Vice president Mike Alzamora remained on board as the sole front-office staffer until late March, when he also departed.
In Utah, team president Jason Jones left in mid-March to pursue other business interests, according to the Salt Lake City Deseret News.
The AFL's turmoil shouldn't have happened, according to former commissioner Baker.
"I thought I left them in the best possible position than it had been in for a long time," said Baker, reached by ESPN.com last month in Southern California. "Attendance was up higher than ever before, ratings -- which had been struggling for a couple of years -- were actually up. We had sold Tampa six months early for $19 million and had an expansion from Pittsburgh that was at $20 million."
But Baker felt the league needed to centralize operations and build revenue with professional management. Over the past two years, at least two private equity firms had expressed interest in investing in the league, including a $140 million offer.
"It was my intention to resign and make that a catalyst for the Arena Football League [owners] to make some of the decisions they needed to make without me looking over their shoulder," Baker said. "And I also felt that in the worst possible case, there was an investor there to help make it happen."
But the private equity investments did not occur and, at the same time, the economy worsened through 2008.
"There are a lot of teams that did their best," said Jim Renacci, Columbus Destroyers chief and AFL vice chairman, during a teleconference with reporters in December. "I can't tell you specifically which teams lost money and which ones didn't. I can tell you, as a whole, that the league did lose some money, but I think it was nothing insurmountable."
Renacci said he has been charged with overseeing the league restructuring plan.
"[An] equity group that took a look at the league gave us a lot of good ideas and I think it's time to implement those," he said. "The centralized business model was one of the bigger areas. ... There are opportunities to centralize signage, marketing opportunities, to centralize ticket sales."
The league entered a new era in March 2008 with a five-year agreement with ESPN. The deal called for ESPN to televise 17 regular-season games and nine in the postseason, including the Arena Bowl, and gave the network an unspecified, nonmanagement financial interest in the AFL.
NBC had previously televised games but was reportedly unhappy with dwindling ratings during a four-year pact.
ESPN's first-year viewership averaged 274,000 per regular-season game in its cable universe and jumped to 385,000 per game during the playoffs.
Arena Bowl XXII, televised by sister network ABC, had a 0.9 rating and more than 1 million viewers. It was the highest-rated Arena Bowl since 2005, according to ESPN figures.
"[The ratings] were about what we expected," ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer said.
Network officials were noncommittal when asked if and when the league would resume play.
"We will continue to assess the situation and maintain an open dialogue with the league as they determine their future," Hofheimer said.
So far this year, ESPN has already lost six weeks of programming with the shutdown.
The league's 17 teams drew a collective 1.76 million fans last year and AFL has long trumpeted its fan- and family-friendly approach.
But luring forgiving fans back is not going to be easy, and one longtime AFL observer thinks the effort may be futile.
"As a fan, I'm heartbroken for this season," said Adam Markowitz, an Orlando, Fla.-based accountant and frequent contributor to the Arenafan.com Web site. "I think the AFL is finished. I think there has been too much damage done to repair it.
"Will the league come back in some form in 2010? Probably. Will it ever be a success again? Doubtful."