What Is Killing Arena Football?
I believe that the current Arena Football League is about to collapse, for the second time in its 21-year history. Even the league admits that they are playing a reduced schedule in 2016. This is a typical warning sign of a league death. There are other signs as well.
Despite the fact that Ted Leonsis’ sudden infusion of cash with a new franchise may stave off a little bit of time from the Death Knell, but it is doubtful to stop the bleeding without some wholesale changes. Leonsis’ vision is to make the AFL a game for Millennials, but the AFL might not last for the 2017 season, for his team even to take the field.
“Ghosting” Franchises Departing From 2015
This isn’t a sudden thing, but more of a gradual issue of franchises “ghosting” away from a league that they no longer feel is relevant to their issues. Eight AFL franchises, including The Portland Thunder, are gone since the new commissioner has taken over. The league owned-Portland Steel, in its first year, are resorting to free ticket giveaways for Opening Night. The Steel garnered 6,782 attendees last weekend for their home opener, more than 1,500 fans less than the Thunder did last season in the same facility. The Steel are expected to be nothing more than a stop-gap, folded in 2017 in favor of Washington, D.C.’s franchise. And they announced the Opening Night free tickets with a press release.
Now, the AFL is has 8 teams left to cobble together a 2016 season, minus its 2015 champion San Jose SabreCats (which folded). The reasoning for the SabreCats demise is an epic story of mistrust between league and ownership partners. There are very relevant issues as to why this is happening. One of the other franchises folding in 2015 was the Spokane Shock, who tried to leave the AFL, only to have a complete legal battle over their marks and logos, forcing the Shock to re-brand as the Empire.
Franchise Ownership Issues
This isn’t a disparagement of the Arena Football League (or Indoor Football League) product, but a criticism of how it is implemented. The competitor IFL is thriving, because they are taking AFL franchises that can’t afford the AFL’s exorbitant pricing structure. Part of the AFL problem is bad ownership selection, as is the case with the Portland Thunder’s Terry Emmert. He tried to hold the AFL hostage by almost refusing to play, dropping down the league to an unmanagable 7 teams in 2016. The league took away his franchise, which was awarded to Emmert in 2013, and fired his head coach. This shows a lack of scrutiny investigation into who the AFL is choosing as business partner owners. Las Vegas Outlaws were awarded in 2014, and played only half of 2015, with Outlaws owner Rocker Vince Neil, is accused of defrauding his AFL partners. This isn’t a new trend. In 2013, The Chicago Rush’s ownership was booted from the league for similar fraud accusations and plead guilty in April 2016 to fraud charges.
And it can be broken down in five key issues that are facing the AFL, which may hinder it from competing by fielding enough teams in 2017. This is really the Death Knell for a product that was once invested in by larger pro sports owners, and hit with various massive issues that it could not control by 2008. Competing indoor leagues are sparking up, and seeking out places that fit the limited attraction of the game, rather than sitting in massive arenas that they cannot hope to fill. Now, in Arena Football’s second version of the league, merging both AFL and AFL2 teams together into one brand, the 2010-15 version of the AFL isn’t relevant, nor that profitable.
What Exactly Is Killing The AFL???
Franchise instability has always been the biggest criticism of the AFL since its inception. As of today, there 8 AFL teams. Since 1987, there have been 53 defunct AFL teams, 81 total AFL markets. That’s almost 2 AFL teams per season folding. That’s nearly 3 AFL markets per year being abandoned. This is a nightmare, as it creates a resistance where no market doesn’t have a bad story of a former team screwing them out of corporate sponsorship, ticket sales or some other issue. Venues in those markets are less likely to deal with an AFL team, simply by league affiliation and past promises not kept.
Portland, Oregon will likely be abandoned for a second time after 2017. The Portland Forest Dragons lasted 1997-99, hopscotching between Memphis and Oklahoma as relocations. Consider how much damage has been made, going into a market, and leaving a market, within a 20-to-30 year period. This is astronomically bad, not only for the AFL, but for any team that represents anything close to this product, or the sports product in general. Once a team doesn’t continue on, year-to-year, it creates “drama” with season ticket holders, fans, corporate sponsors and even potential franchise investors who may not want to support 2-or-3 other versions of the same product at a later date. Franchise instability in these markets is so thin that it has likely cost the AFL in credibility to the point to where it is no longer survivable or viable long-term.
Expenses are not just about players getting $900 a game, although that is a component of it. Nor is it the goofy stories of part-time actors trying to make an AFL roster. The AFL is also housing the majority of its franchises in hugely expensive arenas that it cannot fill. Most of the franchises cannot keep up with league dues, nor can they keep up with expenses. This is a symptom of the 1990s, where the old AFL had a 1995 ArenaBowl record of 25,087. In 2014, Tampa Bay averaged 11,402 fans (Amalie Arena holds 19,200 seats) and the Orlando Predators averaged 5,421 fans per game (Amway Center holds 17,200 seats). These big, massive arenas do nothing but charge huge rental costs, which get passed onto the consumer in terms of ticket price. Coupled with that the fact that there is an AFL players union, which has set terms on expenses (per game averaging $20,000 to $25,000 in player costs per game), does not make this a viable endeavor for the league as a whole. A large portion of expenses never mentioned is the abundant travel that flying teams back-and-forth for 7 away games to major cities can endure. Let’s assume that per game expenses for both home and away are $75,000 each. A 14-game schedule would cost a team $1.05 million in player operations (excluding practice facility expenses, etc). Note: This does not include marketing, front-office staff, or any other non-operational expenses.
Revenue: Aside from ticket sales and small corporate sponsorship, there is little revenue to be had for the AFL in its current form. There are no national sponsors, as well as media outlets carrying games live on local television in most markets, which of the remaining 8 markets, are some of the most expensive to paid-broadcast games in the United States: Los Angeles (No. 2), Philadelphia (No. 4), Phoenix (No. 12), Tampa-St. Petersburg (No. 13), Cleveland-Akron (No. 17), Orlando (No. 19), Portland (No. 22), Jacksonville (No. 47). All of these locations have other major sporting events going on, therefore AFL games are not going to captivate as well as control media coverage for a week, let alone a night.
Social Media: This is the new age, where social media translates to buying fans and attention for the product. A lack of social media presence means fans don’t really care about the product. This bypasses the issues of the traditional media and completely makes it up to the league itself to promote their schedules and franchises. Even at social, the AFL has missed the mark, focusing on large markets where they are irrelevant compared to the small markets where they can dominate. Here’s where the AFL as a league and per each team are in terms of social media followers. They have a lack of interest in their markets. The majority of which have over 1-3 million in population.
Notice the vast difference between the AFL and all other major sports league social accounts. The AFL is only above the ECHL in terms of followers per social media channel. They are also vastly behind the American Hockey League and Minor League Baseball. And yet, the AFL attempts in all junctures to suggest that it is a major sports league.
Notice where the LA Kiss are in terms of social media attention in the large Los Angeles marketplace. They aren’t even comparable to anyone, including the LA D-Fenders, only beating out the Ontario Reign and UC Riverside. This leads to a very big question of attention, within the league, for some of the places where the AFL has placed franchises.
Notice that in the Portland market, it is still tough to gain traction amid an NBA & MLS franchise. However, the Thunder do have more social media traction than the minor league baseball Hillsboro Hops, Portland Vikings and Portland Pilots. Yet, the Thunder were (now the Portland Steel) are playing in an NBA arena with way too many seats to fill.
This is where the Spokane Shock (now defunct, rebranded as the Spokane Empire) come into play. Their franchise was the third-highest social media attractant in the marketplace, only beaten by the Washington State Cougars and Gonzaga Basketball. They were heavy players in the market (No. 91), and sold out their games routinely at 10,000+. By definition, this explains why the AFL is failing. The league is placing way too much importance on media markets that are both too expensive with other major competitors (Portland & Los Angeles) and neglecting those markets where they would dominate in (Spokane).
Where Did The AFL Go Wrong???
The Arena Football League has franchises playing in venues that are too big, thus creating no ability to sell-out their games during the season. There is a minor-league, bare-bones level staff at each location, despite the fact that it is a major league venue that each AFL team is playing in. And the AFL sought to expand in so many big markets, that it eliminated the actual allure of the league itself; being the biggest fish in town. The AFL went bankrupt in 2008. And in turn, the AFL’s decision ended up destroying the AFL2 as well.
The AFL2 was actually a successful model of the Arena Football League brand. Sought initially as a minor league system for the AFL, the AFL2 teams were located in small 4-5 team groupings, which weren’t that far apart from each other. One of the more successful was Boise-Spokane-Tri-Cities-Fresno-Stockton. Each team played in smaller venues (closer to 6,000-to-8,000) capacity, and were the largest event in town over the spring-summer schedule on a Saturday night. One of the more successful, the Spokane Shock, routinely sold out their 10,000+ seat arena, and dominated its media market (No. 91). The Shock won several championships, and were competitive within the field, thus becoming a mainstay of AFL2. When the second version of the AFL formed, the Shock jumped up, and were immediately competitive. However, the costs to travel, and the lack of a local rivalries (the Tri-Cities Fever, Boise Burn, Fresno & Stockton teams all left or disbanded), it made it tougher to compete. Also, the ability to attract free agents signings, against those franchises now located in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Philadelphia, diminished the returns for the Shock which became a cellar-dwelling team.
This goes into a direct conflict with the original AFL model. Instead of learning from its mistakes, the AFL rebranded with the AFL2 teams, and continued to separate out franchises from their core-travel partners.
What Is The Solution???
The brand of the Arena Football League is very unhealthy. It has a players agreement requirement standard, low ticket sales, and no corporate sponsorship amid a high amount of travel between cities. The AFL should have been the minor league system for the NFL, for those players who wanted to prove that they deserved second or third chances, long after their college football days and initial draft days are over with.
The Arena Football League can be saved in several facets, but it needs to reformat its overall intentions and structure.
Here are some musings that I came up with, if I were running the AFL. No one hired me as an AFL consultant, but I gave it my best shot. Something’s got to give with the league.
Here are my recommendations:
- In June 2016, the AFL needs to announce that they are expanding by 80-to-100 franchises by 2019. Each application will be a $20k non-refundable, with an application awarded for a $100,000 buy-in. This is going to take a maximum effort of 2 1/2 years off, in order to do it correctly. No more illusions about what it takes, or shady ownership groups.
- The AFL should create its own National Sales Center, similar to Major League Soccer, running all pricing, sales and operations for every team through that center. This means that owners are not involved in flood markets with free tickets, or shorting corporate sponsors. Ownership groups should be vetted, specifically, and “trained” as they are with Minor League Baseball, where you essentially have to go to through a course of league standards class, in order to be a part of minor league baseball’s affiliation.
- All arena deals are negotiated by the AFL, not the ownership groups. No more buying into mega arenas with bad contracts that end up weighing down the rest of the league.
- At the end of the 2016 season, the AFL folds all current 8 franchises and completely restructures its brand. The AFL should stop worrying about national TV contacts, instead focusing on getting every small town arena filled on a Saturday night throughout the summer.
- The AFL should be the minor league feeder system for football journeymen and undrafted free agents, utilizing player development contracts similar to minor league baseball.
- Establish an agreement with the NFL to expand the NFL Draft to 12 rounds, thereby asserting draft rights of collegiate players, sign them to slotted multi-year contracts worth $25,000-to-$100,000 each and assigning them to specific AFL teams for development. Not only would this eliminate the idea of draft busts, it would also avoid the AFL being a cost-prohibitive league because of player salaries – thus putting most of the players under the NFLPA in conjunction with the AFL. It would allow certain players to become fan favorites, as well as have them introduced into NFL camps with specific brands, helping increasing both awareness and interest in the NFL preseason as well as the AFL season.
- In August 2017, the new league should announce a massive expansion of 80-to-100 markets (all above market No. 50 Louisville) to start play in the 2019 season. Franchises will be set in league systems that are 100-to-200 miles apart from each other, with a playing level classification system (League 1-League 4, with 4 being the highest level). Each franchise should play in venues with less than 6,000 seats, and have an investment guarantee of $3 million in operation/market dollars from operators. This gives each franchise nearly 18 months in order to invest in actual sales, prior to the fielding any team or game.
- Each new franchise should have a unique, but fun identity for each franchise, along with a league-mandated marketing & sales plan. The league itself will tightly control market and sales efforts, overseeing both from the league office. One of the current criticisms of the AFL is that there is no marketing plan for the league currently, nor any actual way to determine success beyond the ego of the individual owners. No free tickets, no comping out corporate sponsorship, no folding a team after one year. All of this should be focused on a long term solution.
- The new league system should institute relegation system for its franchises. Bottom 2 franchises in each level will drop down into the next, and the top 2 will be moved up into the next. This type of model will allow an excitement which does not exist in current American sports. Despite being a European soccer model, it has not existed with USL to Major League Soccer, but would likely be something perfect for indoor football. And it would generate a meritocracy format for indoor football. The better you play, the more reward you earn.
Kill The AFL Brand, Start Over Completely
The Arena Football League brand has been ruined. It is obsolete, should be scrapped and/or retired. It is a relic of the late 1980s and has been abused for a vast amount of time. In its place, let’s call it “The Indoor Football Superleague” should arise in its place. Pick the league name, I don’t care, but the Arena Football League brand should be dead. It’s been tortured so long, that it is dead and has no brand integrity left in it.
What Would Be The IFS?
Merge the remaining 80-to-100 teams, in every minor league market from west-to-east coast, with teams that are only 100-to-300 miles apart from each other. Think Fresno, Reno, Bakersfield, and Stockton. Think El Paso, Amarillo, Tulsa, Albuquerque. Each league has a maximum of 8 teams, expended out to a single-A to triple-A system, with a relegation mechanism in place. This would create workable system for competitive balance, and ensuring that the big fish in a small pond becomes a viable factor. This also cuts down the travel, considerably, for each franchise.
The IFS would avoid all major markets, instead focusing on the top 80-to-100 minor league markets in order to foster a continual growth. There would be a specific sales & marketing plan for each franchise investment, and detail how to ensure that the IFS succeeds through new technology, as well as with good partnerships, by vetting its potential ownership groups.
Will It Happen?
Doubtful. Way too many of the celebrity-driven owners, the Jon Bon Jovi types, want to see a major football league as their ownership. The issue is that minor league baseball’s organization and revenue is astronomically better. MiLB draws 45 million people annually. Each stadium is essentially a virtual ATM for ownership groups. The problem remains that the idea of owning a professional major league team is what holds the AFL back, and why it will fold again. The AFL should have never been pushed as a major league. Wasn’t the likely intention. Yet, it is on the path to hell, and as it nears folding in the summer of 2016 or 2017, the ownership groups and the league itself will have only themselves to blame.