Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What the AFL's demise could mean for the CFL

According to owner Casey Wasserman of the Los Angeles Avengers, the embattled Arena Football League is set to call off its 2009 season [Sam Farmer, The Los Angeles Times]. The league's official statement says a firm decision hasn't been reached yet, but it also doesn't deny outright that the league may suspend play for the 2009 season. We'll see what happens, but the future certainly doesn't look bright for the league.

This may signal the complete demise of the AFL; once you suspend operations for a season, it can be tough to bounce back, especially if the reasons are financial. Lockouts and strikes are somewhat easier to recover from, as the league itself was never really threatened; it's usually just a question of when things will get back to normal. With a somewhat-fringe league like the AFL, though, and financial issues being cited as the biggest factor, you have to wonder if they'll ever be able to return. A season away will likely alienate a lot of fans, and more importantly, quite a few players. Corporate sponsors also will become leery of associating themselves with a league that doesn't appear strong, and it becomes a vicious cycle; the league is perceived as weak economically, and thus receives less investment and attention, so it necessarily becomes weaker. Regardless of if this is a temporary coma or the final curtain for the AFL, there may be some interesting effects on the CFL.

David Naylor of The Globe and Mail had a good story yesterday about the talent that could be freed up for the CFL. His quotes from Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp are quite interesting:

"There's a small pool of players who, if the Arena League didn't play, would be interesting to teams in the CFL," Montreal general manager Jim Popp said. "At best, three to five players per team that would attract some interest."

That's actually quite a potential influx of talent. 16 different teams are currently listed on the AFL website, and Naylor's article adds that a 17th folded this off-season. Using Popp's estimate, that would be between 51 and 85 players currently in the AFL who would be attractive to CFL teams. That translates into six to ten players per CFL franchise, which could change the makeup of their rosters significantly. Salary isn't much of an issue; Naylor reports that AFL pay is similar to the CFL.

Even that estimated talent influx perhaps doesn't show the whole picture. What could be bigger for the CFL is its position if the AFL folds. All of a sudden, it's now the prime developmental league for the NFL outside of college football, thanks to the demise of NFL Europa last year [Wikipedia]. The CFL would now be a primary option for players who can't crack NFL rosters, and that could lead to even more new talent.

The largest potential long-term impact goes beyond talent, though. The NFL needs at least one player-development league somewhere. With NFL Europa gone and the potential disbanding of the AFL, the CFL is now the main alternative. Moreover, it's already rather popular and thus wouldn't need dramatic cash infusions to keep operating. That might rekindle the NFL's interest in taking an equity position in the CFL, as it's now more in their own interest to ensure the survival of the Canadian game. It's tough to see the NFL doing that at this exact moment given their recent massive job cuts [Judy Battista, The New York Times], but it might be more plausible down the road.

Regardless of if the equity interest plays out or not, the NFL would have a more compelling rationale to keep the CFL around if there was no AFL in the picture. That might lead the league to be more cautious with the Bills/Toronto idea; not necessarily canceling the games (highly unlikely) or outright ditching the idea of a NFL team based in Canada (also unlikely), but ensuring that their moves would not kill the CFL. In any case, it will be interesting to watch in the months ahead.

Update: The league is not dead yet! As Duane writes, the owners voted to carry on Tuesday night. Still not the most optimistic of times, considering that at least one owner publicly said they were suspending operations for a year before this and also that that option wasn't ruled out. Despite claims to the contrary, I'm not sure that they're getting better.


Dennis Prouse said...

The growth in the size of NFL practice rosters, plus the increase in the number of mini-camps, has reduced the NFL's need for feeder leagues significantly. This is why they ditched NFL Europe, which apparently was costing the NFL a small fortune in subsidies. (One million bucks per team per year, according to some reports.) I don't think the NFL really needs feeder leagues for talent so much as they do for legal cover. ("Why, yes, Congressman, we do have competition!")

The death of the Arena League sure did sneak up on people. (And let's face it - it's dead. If you believe it is suspended for a year, then you also believed your mother when she told you that your goldfish was just taking a long nap.) The Arena League did a great job keeping up appearances, which leads me to the NHL. Given the current ugly economic environment, would anyone really be surprised if, say, Phoenix missed a payroll, or the Panthers simply folded at the end of the year? There won't be any warning -- just like with the Arena League, it will happen pretty quickly.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

The legal cover is a very good point, Dennis: I hadn't really thought of that angle. From that standpoint, the CFL is nowhere near as useful as the AFL because of its foreign base. Your point on the subsidies shows why the CFL would be much better than NFL Europe, though; it's a feeder system that wouldn't require a lot of propping up.