A Year Without Arena Football?
by Randy Snow
Originally posted on ArenaFan.com, Saturday, December 27, 2008
After weeks of speculation and rumors, the Arena Football League officially cancelled the 2009 season on December 15. It was a sad day for me personally. As a season ticket holder of the Grand Rapids Rampage since 2001, I can’t imagine not attending a game at the Van Andel Arena this year.
The signs that something was not right in the AFL began back in July when the league’s longtime commissioner, David Baker, announced that he was resigning just two days before the ArenaBowl. To date, a new commissioner has not been selected by the league. Then, on October 13, the New Orleans VooDoo announced that they had ceased operations and would not field a team in 2009, leaving the AFL with 16 teams.
On November 10, the AFL’s developmental league, arenafootball2, released its 2009 schedule. That struck me as being a little strange because the AFL usually releases its schedule before the af2, because the af2 kicks off its season about a month after the AFL.
For Grand Rapids, however, it was business as usual as they prepared for the upcoming season. The Rampage held the final auditions for the Rage Dance Team on November 9 and as late as December 6, the team conducted an open player tryout at their practice facility. On December 9, the league indefinitely postponed the dispersal draft for the New Orleans players as well as the start of the free agent signing period, which had already been postponed a couple of times since November. About that time, I also received a Christmas card from the Rampage that was signed by several members of the front office staff.
Soon after that, the rumors really began to fly about the 2009 season being in jeopardy or worse, the league folding all together. Once the decision was made to cancel the 2009 season, it didn’t take long for me to receive a package in the mail from the Rampage. On December 20, I received a letter explaining the cancellation of the season, a beautiful 2009 Rampage team calendar and a refund check for my 2009 season tickets.
If you think that the AFL is unique in having financial troubles right now, think again. Just look at the current state of the three major U. S. auto manufacturers and the bailouts that were handed out by the government a few months ago to several major financial institutions. The NFL also recently announced that they are laying off 150 employees, or 10% of their workforce, at its offices in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles. However, back in September, Forbes Magazine reported that the average value for of the 32 NFL franchises was now estimated at $1 billion dollars each! The NFL also pulled the plug on NFL Europe in 2007 after 15 seasons. In March of 2008, just weeks before the start of its inaugural season, the All American Football League cancelled its season also, blaming the slumping economy.
Not The Same Old AFL
Apart from the financial troubles that the AFL finds itself in these days, there have also been a number of changes occurring in the league the last few years, and not all of them have been for the better. In my opinion, things started going downhill when the league decided to begin playing the ArenaBowl at a neutral site in 2005 rather than playing it at the home arena of the team with the best record. They had taken the game away from the fans and turned it into a corporate event that tried to mirror the Super Bowl. Just who is the championship game being played for anyway, the corporate sponsors or the fans of the two teams involved in the game? Yes, sponsors are important, but did the league honestly expect fans to travel across the country to see their team play in the championship game? After all, this is supposed to be an affordable, fan-friendly league, right?
ArenaBowl XIX in 2005, which was played in Las Vegas, had the lowest attendance of any AFL championship game ever. It was even smaller than the crowd in Grand Rapids for ArenaBowl XV. The Van Andel Arena was packed with a record crowd that day, but it is still the smallest arena in the league. The af2 also held the ArenaCup championship game at a neutral site from 2005-2007, but abandoned the practice last season in favor of having the game once again hosted by the team with the best record.
I will never forget the feeling of being in the Van Andel Arena for ArenaBowl XV in 2001 and cheering for the Rampage as they defeated the Nashville Kats. It was truly a special day. But what chance did Grand Rapids have of ever hosting a championship game again under the neutral site system? None. You know it was always going to go to a big market city somewhere. For the AFL, it just makes sense to have the best team in the league host the game. You know fans will always pack their house for that.
Things continued to go downhill in the AFL when free substitution of players was allowed following the 2006 season. Sure, a few players continued to play on both sides of the ball, but it basically marking an end to the Ironman football that had been such a staple of the game.
The AFL was beginning to lose some of its most unique qualities. It was becoming NFL Junior and no true AFL wanted to see that happen. The AFL began in 1987 as an alternative to the NFL, a kind of a rouge league, and fans loved it. It put the fun back in football, but in recent years it was beginning to become something else. Celebrity owners got more press than the players on the field. The AFL should not be about Jon Bon Jovi, Mike Ditka, John Elway, Jerry Jones, Tim McGraw or Arthur Blank. It should be about people like Mike Hohensee, Tim Marcum, “Touchdown” Eddie Brown, Clint Dolezel, Barry Wagner, George LaFrance, Hunky Cooper and Kurt Warner. These are the people that fans came out to cheer for, not the man in the luxury suite watching the game.
Hopefully, the AFL will weather this financial storm and return to the playing field in 2010. And when it does, I hope that it will remember its roots and the fans who have loved and supported the game for 22 years.
Different League, Same Arena Football
Luckily, 2009 does not have to be a year without Arena Football. The af2 season will go on as scheduled and kicks off on March 20. It will be the league’s 10th season. Why is the af2 able to continue to operate when the AFL cannot? Well, for one thing, there is a lot less overhead involved in operating the af2. AFL teams have a salary cap of $2 million, while af2 teams pay their players about $250 per game. Teams in the af2 also travel by bus to most of their games, not airplane.
I encourage all AFL fans to support the af2 this upcoming season. Go out of your way and attend a game, cheer for a new team and hold on to Arena Football with all your might in 2009. Take this opportunity to embrace one of the 25 teams located across the country. Teams like the Green Bay Blizzard, the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgs, the South Georgia Wildcats, the Corpus Christ Sharks and the Amarillo Dusters. I am already making plans to attend at least one home game of the expansion Milwaukee Iron this season. If you can’t travel to see a game in person, you can still catch all the games live on the Internet for free through af2tv.