For Some Arenas, AFL Was A Summertime Staple

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The Baltimore Brigade took on the Cleveland Gladiators in June 2017 at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, now Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
The Arena Football League, which survived over a span of 33 years despite a series of financial struggles and temporary shutdowns, finally called it quits. The league filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, according to a league statement issued in late November.
The filing came after the AFL, which fielded up to 19 teams over the years, had shrunk to six clubs competing for the 2019 season.
“We’re always looking for new product, so when something doesn’t quite work, it’s certainly not good for our industry,” said Peter Luukko, executive chairman of the Florida Panthers and co-chairman of Oak View Group’s Arena Alliance (OVG owns VenuesNow and Pollstar).
Bottom line, amid the wreckage, the AFL helped fill dates at arenas during the summer months when business slowed down except for a few concerts, according to arena managers and executives involved in the sport. 
“It was those summer months that allowed them to have optimal dates in arenas,” said Doug Logan, a retired sports executive who staged the first arena football game in April 1986 in conjunction with Jim Foster, the sport’s inventor. The exhibition took place at the Rockford (Ill.) MetroCentre, now BMO Harris Bank Center. Logan ran the arena.
“There is an audience for football year-round,” Logan said. “The NFL proved that with its media strategies.”
Back then, Logan, who later became Major League Soccer’s first commissioner, owned the rights to one arena league franchise and he offered Foster $1 million for the rights to multiple cities under 100,000 population with midsize arenas. Logan had a vision to grow arena football in secondary markets and develop a following among kids before expanding to larger cities. Logan’s plan never materialized. The AFL launched with teams in Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington, and grew from there with most teams playing in top 50 markets. Some teams survived, many didn’t. 
“What happened to it happens frequently with properties that are underfinanced and have too high an expectation,” Logan said. “The stronger your ownership, the better off you are. They did not have the luxury of being discriminating like we were with Major League Soccer. The board I inherited in MLS prior to the first season, five of the nine members were billionaires. Arena football never had that degree of strength.”
Over time, the AFL had its share of billionaires. NFL and NBA team owners Jerry Jones, Tom Benson, Dan Gilbert and Jerry Colangelo owned AFL clubs. In addition, rock stars Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora (Philadelphia Soul), Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (LA Kiss) and Vince Neil (Jacksonville Sharks) became owners, and they all got a taste of the red ink tied to a niche sport with razor-thin profit margins.
A few teams were sustainable, such as the Tampa Bay Storm and Orlando Predators, both of which existed for 25 years in the AFL. The Storm, in fact, initially outdrew the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning when the old Palace Sports and Entertainment acquired the Lightning in 1999, said Sean Henry, now president of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
In Tampa, Palace Sports ran the Storm’s business operations, said Henry, who served as chief operating officer. The NHL and AFL teams were essentially joined at the hip. If things went really well, they both made a few dollars, and if not, they both lost a little money, Henry said.
“So many sponsors that we brought in through the Storm became big partners for everything we did,” he said. “The St. Pete Times (which held the Tampa arena’s naming rights for 12 years) was a situation where we first sold them a deal with the Storm. Same with our hospital deal. It allowed people to come out and have a great time in the building at a much more affordable price. We distributed a lot of comps too, so that maybe they would come back for a hockey game, concert or family show.” 
Tampa Bay historically led the AFL in attendance, drawing on average 14,000 to 16,000, and developed a strong rivalry with Orlando, named the “War on I-4” after the highway connecting the markets. The teams would bring 3,000 fans to the other’s arena, Henry said.
In Tampa, the Storm would practice outdoors on a makeshift field set up on the arena plaza, part of a grassroots effort to promote the game. During a Harlem Globetrotters game, Storm quarterback John Kaleo threw a football the length of the court into the basket, resulting in free tickets to a Storm and Lightning game for all attendees, Henry said. 
“The coaches, owners and players realized the more they got involved and the more they sold it, they more successful they would be,” he said. “Apart from the field of play, they worked together to grow the game.”
The same was true in Philadelphia, where Jon Bon Jovi was part of the Soul’s ownership group from 2004 to 2008. As co-majority owner, Bon Jovi worked diligently to promote the team and the sport, Luukko said. At the time, Luukko was president and chief operating officer for Comcast Spectacor and Wells Fargo Center, the Soul’s home arena.
At one point, the Soul generated $4 million in sponsorship revenue, which was unheard of in arena football, Luukko said. The deals were driven by Bon Jovi’s commitment to make personal appearances at the request of sponsors. As a perk for season-ticket holders Bon Jovi as a band performed a concert at the old Spectrum exclusively for those patrons.
During the initial negotiations for Jon Bon Jovi to become part of the team’s ownership group, Luukko informed him that it would be difficult to make money in arena football. Bon Jovi understood. He was intent on becoming a team owner and proudly wore his Philly Soul jersey on stage during Bon Jovi concert tours. His AFL interest came a few years before he tried unsuccessfully to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. 
“I’ve never met somebody who was a rock star work a business as hard as he did,” Luukko said. “Jon brought other stars (such as Bruce Springsteen) to the games. One of the funniest things he did after the first season was calling me and saying ‘See, told you I would make money,’ which was a few hundred thousand dollars.”
In Dallas, three AFL teams came and went through the doors of American Airlines Center and old Reunion Arena, including the Dallas Desperados, which made it through six seasons before folding under the ownership of the Jones family, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. 
The city’s first AFL team, the Dallas Texans, played four seasons at Reunion Arena before the team folded.
“We thought it was going to be great programming for us,” said Dave Brown, general manager and chief operating officer at American Airlines Center and GM at the old arena. “It was fast paced, and at the time, we didn’t have the (NHL’s) Stars yet, so we had plenty of good dates to provide to the team. We had some crowds of 12,000, but they dwindled over the years.”
The Desperados played from 2002 to 2008, followed by the Dallas Vigilantes, who folded in 2012 after two seasons.
“If football can’t make it in Dallas, you have to wonder about the product,” Brown said. “There was something missing. I don’t think the fans could ever accept it as real football competition. I still get a few calls from folks inquiring about playing arena football here. I tell them we’ve already put three teams out of business. Do you really want to be the fourth?” 
As it stands now, a few other leagues such as the Indoor Football League remain in operation. The Iowa Barnstormers and Arizona Rattlers are part of the IFL after leaving the AFL. The Orlando Predators have committed to play their second season in the National Arena League in 2020, said Allen Johnson, chief venues officer in Orlando, which includes Amway Center.
Both Luukko and Logan think the AFL, given the right business model, could resurrect itself.
“I’m not convinced that at some future point in time, somebody smart with sufficient resources won’t revive it again,” Logan said.