“They’re running out of space in the graveyard of failed football leagues.”
The opening line in an article in the online sports news forum, The Ringer, nailed it with the force of a quarterback getting sacked. And now, it’s looking like yet another obituary is going to be needed: for the Arena Football League. Less than two weeks ago, the league announced it would be closing down its team services and business operations in its remaining markets: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Columbus, Ohio; Washington, DC; and Albany, New York.
And that might mean that venue operators in those cities will now find themselves with some open dates next year, at least if teams have already contracted for space (which could present another thorny problem if they have to incur cancellation fees).
Not that the loss of Arena League comes as an enormous surprise. Over the years, the league, which was founded in 1986, had seen its fortunes rise and fall – it even cancelled its entire 2009 season – but at one point, it did reach a high of 19 teams and close to 13,000 attendance per game. From 2000-09, it even had its own 25-team developmental league, known as the af2. Most recently, however, the AFL, operating on low power and bereft of its developmental league, was down to only six teams, drawing on average, a little over 7,000 fans per game.
But AFL commissioner Randall Boe, is nothing if not optimistic, saying that although staff positions have been eliminated, the league itself is still operating – for now.
“We have not yet made the final determination that it will be necessary to suspend all League operations, but we expect that decision to be made within the next few weeks. We are exploring every possible avenue to continue bringing AFL football to our fans, including further evolutions to the current business model,” Boe explained in his statement. He later told The Albany Times Union that the league will consider a business model in which teams travel around the country to play games in different cities, similar to what the Premier Lacrosse League, founded by former Johns Hopkins star Paul Rabil, did in its inaugural season.
Pundits, however, are saying that Boe is simply whistling past the failed football league graveyard and trying not to admit the inevitable: his league is kaput. It is, after all, facing down a lawsuit from a vendor that provided its workers compensation from 2009-2012; in the suit, the vendor alleges that it is owed millions of dollars in unpaid premiums, and is seeking $2.4 million in compensation.
That amount wouldn’t be a problem for the deep-pocketed NFL – but this is not the NFL, and the imminent demise of Arena Football is yet another piece of evidence that the NFL is an almost impossible market to compete with.
History continues to repeat itself in this respect. Most recently, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) suspended all operations in April 2019, unable to finish even its first season. In 2016, Major League Football (MLFB) went belly-up before it even kicked off. The United Football League (UFL) played from 2009 to 2012, mainly in markets where the NFL did not have a presence at the time. However, the small league (it had only five teams) was trying to play in the fall season, meaning it had to compete with NFL, as well as with high school and college ball.
The XFL league, founded by World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) owner Vince McMahon, debuted in 2001 with eight teams. It was intended to be another off-season league but failed to gain traction with audiences and ceased operations after only one season – more on that in a minute.
The United States Football League (USFL) played for three seasons, 1983 through 1985 in a spring/summer format. A fourth season, to be played in a traditional autumn/winter schedule, was set to commence before the league folded. (Trivia point: one of the league’s backers was Donald Trump.)
That doesn’t mean people aren’t still trying. Pacific Pro Football, the pro league expected to feature athletes too young for the NFL, generally meaning players right out of high school, is supposedly set for a July 2020 debut with four teams in Southern California. And then there’s a reboot of the XFL, which is expected to kick off its 10-week schedule less than a week after the 2020 Super Bowl LIV. Oh, and the
gluttons for punishment diehards in charge of the defunct Major League Football announced last month that they had purchased virtually all the gear owned by AAF and were planning a 2020 launch with six teams.
In the meantime, the six markets where the Arena Football League still had teams will be tasked with filling holes in venues that were earmarked for regular season games next year, plus any practice facilities they might have been using, along with office space.
Hypothetically, Arena Football isn’t dead—at least not yet. If Boe is to be believed, it’s just taking a break while it retools its business model. And while it’s difficult to imagine the league could regain investor confidence after this (particularly in Atlantic City and Columbus, cities where teams were in their inaugural year), it likely won’t stop Boe’s optimism – or that of others who continue to try to compete with pro football.