Arena Football Gone For Season

Matt D’Orazio heard the rumors every year he played in the Arena Football League.

“There’s always grumbling about potential teams folding or something not going as planned,” said D’Orazio, the league’s reigning MVP for the champion Philadelphia Soul. “But it always seems to start up and always do better than the year before.”

Not this time. The 22-year-old AFL announced Monday it’s canceling the 2009 season as it seeks to mold a better business model in tough economic times. The decision was pending an agreement with the players union.

League officials hope to return in 2010.

“That is the plan,” said Jim Renacci, the Columbus Destroyers’ co-owner and vice chairman of the AFL executive committee, who will lead the restructuring process. “Every owner is committed to coming back in 2010.”

Renacci left open the possibility the 16-team league could play in 2009 with an abbreviated schedule.

The more than two-thirds of AFL owners needed to approve the measure voted to cancel the season during a conference call Sunday night. The league had issued a statement Wednesday night that said the 2009 season had not been suspended.

“That was probably the longest part of the discussion the owners had: Can we still come back in 2009?” Renacci said on a conference call. “And I think the answer to that is it’s always possible, but most likely we need to retool to be fair to fans.”

The decision left clubs shedding employees and players scrambling to find work. The Cleveland Gladiators laid off six people Monday. Some players have offseason jobs, while others rely only on their AFL salaries.

“We were just kind of praying and hoping they would find a way to make it work, but apparently they didn’t,” said Utah Blaze wide receiver Aaron Boone. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time, right before Christmas and right when your savings are getting low.”

Renacci declined to address what would happen if the union didn’t agree to canceling the season. He said acting commissioner Ed Policy was talking with union officials Monday.

“We are in discussions with the Arena Football League to review proposals for play in the 2010 season,” union spokesman Carl Francis said.

Team executives listed several problems with the AFL’s structure. Players’ salaries need to be tied to league revenue, said Michael Young, executive vice president of the Colorado Crush. The AFL itself also must generate more money instead of placing most of the burden on the teams, he said.

Renacci called for the league to become more efficient by centralizing its business operations, such as marketing, sponsorships and ticket sales. Now, each team handles those areas itself. There are 17 different workers’ compensation systems in the AFL, he said; everybody could save money if they used the same one.

Renacci also questioned whether the AFL will continue to need league offices both in New York and Chicago.

The league lost money last year, he said, but it was “nothing insurmountable.” In recent months, though, corporate sponsorships have dwindled.

The AFL’s woes come as the sports world, once thought to be largely recession-proof, has felt the economic chill, including layoffs at the NFL, NBA and NASCAR.

“I’m still a little bit shocked at the conclusions that were drawn only because this league has survived for such a long time,” Blaze coach Ron James said. “I always figured the league would find a way to sustain, even through tough economic times.”

The AFL had been in limbo for weeks. With rumors swirling about its viability, the league delayed indefinitely the start of free agency and the release of next season’s schedule. The AFL has not selected a permanent replacement for longtime commissioner David Baker, who abruptly resigned in July.

Since November 2007, the AFL’s board of directors has been looking into various ways to bolster the league’s finances. Several equity firms have looked into buying into the AFL, Renacci said. He expected that each franchise would remain individually owned.

Young said the league became distracted by big-picture issues such as TV contracts in recent years and neglected improving its basic structure. ESPN acquired national TV rights to the AFL in 2006 and has a minority stake in the indoor league. ESPN signed a five-year deal to have multimedia rights that included everything from Internet to radio to publishing and international distribution.

“We had a number of high-profile ownership groups coming in, and all these things happening, but the business model was still broken,” he said.

The AFL’s attendance, TV ratings and merchandise sales increased last year. Now league officials must hope they can recapture that momentum after a year out of the public consciousness.

Chicago Rush president and general manager Mike Polisky said “we know we’re going to disappoint several thousands of people (in Chicago) today and millions across the country.”

“We’re hopeful that when we come back stronger than before they’re going to come back and give us a shot,” he said.

Renacci said the AFL could even add new teams when it returns in 2010.

“It’s bad news for the fans and for a lot of employees and players, but it’s great news for the future of the league,” Young said. “It’s very rare for a company, especially given the economic times we’re in, to be given this time to put together a model that can work into the future.”