Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Now the AFL's dead...

As Neate mentioned this morning, the Arena Football League finally got around to suspending their 2009 season [AFL press release] late last night. Sounds like someone finally whacked it to stop the protests. For those keeping track, this came five days after Los Angeles Avengers owner Casey Wasserman told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times last Wednesday that the owners were going to call the season off, prompting this analysis post from myself. That night, though, the league's owners voted to keep going for a season. Apparently, the owners held another conference call Sunday night and voted [The Associated Press, via Yahoo!] to shut the season down then.

You have to wonder what changed in those four days. It's hard to think that it was that much. The economic mess didn't change drastically, and there wasn't a lot of news on the football front in other leagues that would have made a difference. It also doesn't seem to have been changes on the player relations front, as this move is apparently still subject to union approval [AP, via The Globe and Mail. What seems more likely is that Wednesday's move was a snap decision not necessarily to keep the league up and running but to further explore the possibililty of playing in 2009. That's logical; as I previously wrote, taking a season off makes it tougher to come back, especially in this economic climate. Thus, it's understandable that they wanted to preserve the possibility of playing for as long as possible (in fact, the Globe story says there's still a chance of an abbreviated 2009 season; that doesn't seem too likely though, as most of the players are probably going to look for work elsewhere).

This still doesn't look good on the AFL, though. Essentially, the same group of people voted twice on the subject within four days. The first vote was unanimously in favour of not suspending play; the second one doesn't seem to have been unanimous, but a majority of owners voted in favour of suspending play. This leaves an appearance of amateurism, and it certainly leads to poor perception in the media; you can bet that the LA Times, Yahoo! and the vast number of other news outlets that ran with the original cancellation story only to pull it when the league's denial came out aren't too happy about this reversal because it makes them look bad. Editors from coast-to-coast are probably cursing the league, and those memories will have an impact on coverage if and when the league resumes play.

The implications are interesting. In the short term,, we'll likely see an influx of talent to the CFL. The scope of that influx is up for debate, but there will certainly be a lot of football players looking for a job this year, and CFL executives like Jim Popp have commented publicly that there are Arena Football players who would be very interesting to CFL teams.

We might also see more broadcasts of CFL games in the U.S. The AFL was broadcast on ESPN2 [ESPN.com] every Monday, and the CFL has a pre-existing deal with ESPN to have some of their games regularly webcast on ESPN 360. There will be Americans looking for football to watch in May and June, and it could be a logical move for ESPN to show some CFL games in the old AFL slot on ESPN2.

In the long term, we'll likely see either the AFL return or another new league like the USFL take its place. There's too much interest in football in the U.S. for there not to be another pro league of some kind, especially if it's focused on spring games. The AFL also has a lot of big names and big money backing it. It will be tough either for the AFL to come back or a new league to start in the current economic state of affairs, though, as they would be very much an alternative, fringe league. The big leagues in the U.S. are struggling to some degree, as shown by the recent job cuts, but it's been shown before by various economists that there's still a considerable demand for sports during a recession. However, that demand is usually more for mainstream sports, which makes sense. People have to prioritize their spending, and it's easier to rationalize giving something else up to buy tickets for an event if you're a passionate fan of the team or the league involved. Thus, these tickets are sometimes regarded as more essential. For leagues such as the AFL, the NHL and even MLS, though, a good deal of their fans don't necessarily put that sport first, and thus they may find it hard to justify spending the cash for tickets to those games.

Some quotes from the AFL press release to wrap things up:

- Jon Bon Jovi, co-owner of the defending champion Philadelphia Soul:
"We, the owners of the Arena Football League, realize we have the most fan-friendly, affordable and accessible sport anywhere. These are trying economic times. The revamping will ensure that the AFL continues to provide value to its fans and not only survives but thrives in the years to come."

- Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Desperados (and some other Dallas team):
"Our involvement with the Arena Football League was always geared toward promoting football on a year-round basis. Our experience with the Desperados has accomplished those goals and has been very positive. As we move forward we will explore all of the options that are available in regard to the future of the AFL and the Desperados."

- Arthur Blank, owner of the Georgia Force (and the Atlanta Falcons):
"As a four-year owner of the Georgia Force, I have enjoyed our affiliation with Arena Football. In addition, our club is very proud of its leadership position in the league in many areas on and off the field. We want that to continue for our fans, so we support the decision to focus our energies on securing the long-term success of the Arena Football League."

- John Elway, co-owner and CEO of the Colorado Crush:
"Although it is disappointing to suspend the 2009 season, the Arena Football League and its owners feel it is essential to reevaluate the current business model to ensure the livelihood of the AFL in the future."

That's what the league should have done to survive: put out more releases with comments from those kind of names!


Duane Rollins said...

The AFL was making noise about coming back as a single entity league--i.e. the league owns the teams and pays them directly. It's the model MLS uses and it has helped that league stabilize itself to the point that no one talks about it folding up shop anymore.

I could see a situation where the league was able to come back with a reduced footprint as a single entity. I'm an optimist, however. I don't think this downturn will last as long as most think.

Dennis Prouse said...

The problem that the AFL has is that there is a rival league, AF2, that is still operating and has a workable business model (i.e. the players play for peanuts). Is there really room for two indoor spring leagues? I don't see it.

Part of my skepticism stems from the fact that pro football leagues in the U.S. not named the NFL have a very sketchy history. From the WFL, to the USFL, the WLAF, and now the AFL -- all of them were based on the premise that Americans had an unlimited appetite for pro football, and all of them went belly up. Between the NFL and NCAA, I would argue that American football fans are pretty set in their ways, and finding a niche for anything beyond a fringe league like AF2 is going to be a struggle.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Dennis, you make a good point about the sketchy history of other U.S. football franchises. However, I think you can look at it the other way as well: the reason people keep trying new leagues like the XFL and AFL despite the history of failure is because there is an appetite for this stuff. All of those leagues have done reasonably well at drawing fans, but have run into other problems. The AFL actually had pretty respectable attendance, and as Duane points out, it might be able to come back under the MLS model.
(By the way, I believe AF2 is run by the AFL: I've heard that it will keep operating though thanks to the smaller salaries).