Thursday, December 11, 2008

McCown, Brunt and Mitchell on the AFL's potential demise

Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt discussed the AFL's potential collapse and its implications for the CFL on their radio/TV show Prime Time Sports this afternoon with Hamilton Tiger-Cats president Scott Mitchell, and there were plenty of interesting points made. Several of them were in line with my speculation yesterday, but there were some unexpected questions and responses as well. The audio file of the interview can be found here on the Fan 590 home page. Some of their key comments are after the jump, along with my analysis.

In the opening segment, McCown and Brunt discussed the AFL for a while, and both seemed to come to the conclusion that its demise would probably help the CFL in some way. As McCown said, "The presumption is that it probably would be a good thing for the CFL". Mitchell disagreed, though, arguing that if the AFL cancelled its season, the impact would probably be "negligible." He thought that the relatively small crossover rate between the two leagues meant that most AFL guys weren't cut out for the CFL and vice versa. "It’s a different skill set, a different type of player," he said. "Even without that league there, I’m not sure you’re going to see a large migration of players up here."

I don't buy that argument, though. Yes, the game is a bit different, but there are certainly those who could play in either league. As Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp told The Globe and Mail's David Naylor yesterday, there are probably three to five players on each team who would attract some CFL interest, representing 51 to 85 players total by my calculations. Popp is also actively involved the football operations side, while Mitchell primarily oversees the business end, so I trust Popp's evaluation more here. There's also some good talent in the league: check out this list of some notable arena football alumni who have made it to the NFL.

Furthermore, the historical lack of players transferring between the two leagues does not mean that situation would hold if one league collapsed. The salaries are quite similar for many players, so the AFL was a chance for Americans who couldn't crack the NFL to stay in the U.S. and still play football. If it goes under, there's much more incentive for them to come to the CFL (and less alternative options as well). Thus, you'd probably see more Americans willing to come north. As McCown said, "If that option is removed, now where do these guys go?" His conclusion was that a bunch of them would come to Canada, and that seems plausible from here.

The next subject of discussion was Arena League quarterbacks in particular, as the league's known for its quarterback play (the Arizona Cardinals' Kurt Warner got his start in the AFL). Mitchell admitted that quarterback is "one area that could be interesting," but then dumped a little cold water on it by suggesting that "it’s a very quick pass league and arm strength isn’t the prerequisite for the quarterback." Well, arm strength is great, but many NFL and CFL teams have proved that it isn't always necessary; just ask Bill Walsh, Jon Gruden and Chad Pennington. Reading the defence and making good decisions can be just as important.

Another interesting point that was brought up was the idea of suspension versus completely dissolving the league. Mitchell seemed to think that a one-year suspension wouldn't kill the league, but Brunt made an excellent point to the contrary along my own lines of thought. "It seems to me that if something goes away right now, the notion of trying to bring it back 12 months from now in what's probably going to be a worse economy is a non-starter," he said. Personally, I don't see how the AFL could expect to come back after sitting out a year; you'd lose all of your players and contracts, and not all of them would come running back if they found a better situation. You also lose your TV deals, your corporate sponsorship and a good deal of your fan base. It would likely be extremely difficult to revive the league after a year-long suspension.

Brunt also raised the issue of the AFL folding potentially strengthening the CFL's negotiating position vis-a-vis the NFL, as the NFL would still need to develop their players somewhere and investing in the CFL might make more sense than trying to start their own league again. As he said, "The NFL is loathe to put money into developing leagues in general." Mitchell downplayed this idea as well, though, saying, "The European league, that going out of business was probably more advantageous for us than the Arena League [going out of business]."

Next, they discussed how the absence of the Arena League would make CFL scouting more difficult. McCown said "The downside to this is that it makes it more difficult to find those guys who kind of fall off the radar," and there was pretty much consensus on that point. It makes sense from here, too, and means that the CFL would probably have to focus more of their efforts on nabbing potential players when they come out of college. From here, though, that's a pretty small drawback compared to the gains that could be in store in other areas.

Also interesting was their discussion of the idea of a new American league arising, such as the "New USFL". I'd heard rumours about this before, but hadn't really considered what the AFL's demise could mean. It certainly could pave the way for a new American league, though, as the AFL's existence (and that of the old USFL) has shown that there's an appetite for more pro football in the States, especially in the spring. That kind of a league might be problematic for the CFL, especially if they go with a relatively high salary cap and draw CFL players away. As Mitchell said, "If there was a league that came out and was operating at a 30 million dollar cap, that would be the one that’s going to affect us and concern us the most." I'm not sure that any of these leagues will ever get off the ground, though; it's awfully hard to try and launch a new professional sports entity during an economic recession.

The last point raised was a discussion of if the absence of the AFL would allow the CFL to reduce player salaries due to a lack of competition. As Brunt asked, "If you’re the only game in town other than the NFL, shouldn’t that allow you to operate at a less expensive level?" Mitchell replied that the current bargaining agreement locks the players' cut in at 65 per cent of revenues, so that wouldn't change for the moment. However, the lack of an alternative might help the owners' bargaining position in the next negotiations.

Overall, it was a very interesting segment. McCown and Brunt have obviously put some thought into this, and most of their conclusions seem logical. Mitchell seemed reticent to read too much into this, but a good part of that may be his position. It would be bad form for a top executive to gloat publicly about the demise of a competitor, especially when the competitor isn't quite dead yet [Duane Rollins, this blog]. Thus, the impact on the CFL might be more profound than he's willing to admit at this juncture.

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