AFL's come a long way, but still has a way to go

To many football fans, Arena football is just a crazy game played during the NFL offseason. The length of the field is 50 yards and games are played in basketball arenas. There are only 16 players on the field and AFL scores are similar to those of college basketball games. There's nothing unusual about a 66-59 final.

Different? Yes. Passing fad? No. The AFL has made a lot of progress since its inception in 1987. The value of AFL franchises has quadrupled in the past seven years and the league signed a national television contract with ESPN this past spring. There are celebrity owners like rock star Jon Bon Jovi and country music star Tim McGraw. And NFL Hall of Famers like John Elway and Mike Ditka are owners, giving the AFL more name recognition and a little football street cred, so to speak.

Since its inception, the AFL has focused on making the game-day experience as entertaining and affordable as possible. Tickets often cost less than $30, players sign autographs after the game, and there's seemingly always a promotion or something happening during time outs.

"The AFL has done a really good job of understanding their customer and what they want," said Jeff Bliss, former chief marketing officer for the 1994 World Cup and current president of the Javelin Group, a global strategic marketing firm. "If you go to an AFL game you are really going to have a good time. They have done a nice job of making the atmosphere as fan friendly as possible. The challenge in the future will be to stay loyal to their customers and not overexpand."

That's not the only challenge. Despite the fact national ratings doubled compared to last season, including another two-fold increase once the playoffs started, and the fact 15 of 17 local markets saw an increase, the ratings could be higher. And while the AFL has 10 national sponsors (Aarons, ADT, Champs, Discover Card, EA Sports, Mitsubishi, Russell Athletic, Schutt, Spalding and U.S. Army) and national sponsor revenue is up 60 percent this year, there's always room to grow the sport nationally. According to several sports marketing experts, the AFL will need to expand its fan base to attract more sponsors. Most of the AFL's fans are extremely loyal and passionate, yet they are a very concentrated group.

One obstacle, according to Bliss, is that Arena football, like hockey, is almost too quick of a sport to watch on television. If someone is watching an AFL game, he or she could look away for just one second and miss a touchdown pass. The intricate rules also make it a difficult game for the average viewer to understand.

While retail sales tripled this year with the AFL's partnership with Russell and arena sales of merchandise were up 25 percent, nationally it's not as easy to find merchandise. That's the kind of obstacle that has challenged other leagues like MLS and the WNBA.

"In many ways the situation is similar to minor league baseball. Teams can be profitable on the local level because they have a lot of local sponsors," said Fred Schreyer, Nike's former director of marketing. "But it is not an efficient use of dollars for a national sponsor to invest in the AFL when it is such a local sport. Most fans outside their local market would have trouble naming any AFL players. It is also questionable if football fans want to watch the AFL when they know the best players are in the NFL."

Added Bliss: "The challenge for the AFL in the future will be to stay local and act national."

"NASCAR used to be a sport that was confined to the South. It was not until sponsors featured NASCAR in their marketing campaign that it expanded its appeal to the rest of the country. Will a company like GM be willing to take a risk and make the AFL part of a big marketing campaign?

A.J. Maestas, founder of Navigate Marketing

Even though the AFL has attracted local sponsors, the league does not generate much local media coverage. When the Chicago Rush won the ArenaBowl last season, the Chicago Tribune sent only one reporter to Las Vegas to cover the game. The Tribune did not send a staff writer to cover the 2007 National Conference championship game between the Rush and San Jose SaberCats.

"Newspapers have more budget constraints every year and it is hard to devote a lot of resources to Arena Football," said sports editor Kim Pendry of the Tampa Tribune. "For us, our two most important beats are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and high school football."

That's something that the players and coaches notice.

"We have played well the last three seasons and oftentimes we are lucky to appear on page five of the newspaper," said Arizona Rattlers QB Sherdrick Bonner. "If people would read AFL stories in their local newspapers and see highlights on their local television stations, then the league would almost become more legitimate in the eyes of fans."

Still, despite the criticism, the coverage has improved since 2002, the year before the league was on NBC.

"The coverage is infinitely better compared to what it was then," said Chris McCloskey, the executive vice-president of communication for the AFL. "At same time, we continue to solicit all media organization for as much coverage as we can get. In many markets, the coverage we receive is comparable or superior to sports that are comparable in popularity. However, we are far from satisfied and continue to work on it."

One factor that can help the AFL gain legitimacy is the influx of owners with NFL backgrounds. There are Elway and Ditka, who own the Denver Crush and Chicago Rush, respectively. Other NFL owners like Dallas' Jerry Jones, Atlanta's Arthur Blank, Tennessee's Bud Adams and New Orleans' Tom Benson own their local AFL teams. Also, former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski is the president and minority owner of the Philadelphia Soul.

"It makes a tremendous amount of sense for NFL people to get involved in the AFL," said Jaworski, who also works for ESPN. "One NFL owner told me that his average season-ticket holder was 62. When I go to NFL games I see older fans and corporate sponsors. At an AFL game, I see young zealous fans."

And the league plans on keeping them.

In 2001, the AFL agreed to a salary cap, which is currently $1.82 million, along with a minimum player salary that is about $30,000. The average AFL player earns about $75,000 while top players can earn up to $200,000 a year. The agreement to have a salary cap allowed the AFL to have competitive salaries and helped the league keep its costs under control.

"If our costs get too high than we will have to raise ticket prices and that is the last thing we want to do," Orlando Predators president Brett Bouchy said.

The lingering question for the AFL is whether it can gain recognition on the national level.

"NASCAR used to be a sport that was confined to the South," said A.J. Maestas, the founder of Navigate Marketing. "It was not until sponsors featured NASCAR in their marketing campaign that it expanded its appeal to the rest of the country. Will a company like GM be willing to take a risk and make the AFL part of a big marketing campaign? That is what the AFL needs to increase the exposure of its players."

This year, McCloskey pointed out Russell and Mitsubishi both created AFL specific advertising and it's a trend that the league expects to continue.

The AFL is experiencing some of the growing pains that any relatively young league must endure. However, the AFL, now in its 21st season, has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Attendance is at an all-time high, including the first sellout of a neutral-site ArenaBowl as more than 16,000 fans will attend the game this weekend in New Orleans between San Jose and Columbus.

"There are still issues they have to face, but when you look at how difficult it is to start a new league and you look at far the AFL has come, they have reason to be proud of themselves," Bliss said.

William Bendetson covers football for ESPN.com.