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Return of Arena Football League in ’10 looks doubtful

With each passing moment, the chances lessen that the Arena Football League will be back for the 2010 season. The lack of a solid business plan, the lack of any sales efforts and disenchantment from owners are all combining to bring the league down for next season, if not for good.

One truism in professional sports: once a league suspends operations, it’s virtually certain to stay dead – no matter what its owners say.

The Arena Football League was supposed to buck that trend. After owners suspended operations following the 2008 season, they vowed they’d be back with a new business model, a new structure and a new attitude in 2010.

As we approach July, though, that pledge is in serious doubt. If anything, the league has regressed in the last several months: the players’ medical insurance was discontinued by the league, most teams remain with skeleton staffs (San Jose, for instance, is down to a single employee apart from the coaching crew), and the league has gone through three commissioners since the plug was pulled on the enterprise.

It’s not just us questioning whether the AFL can come back: league owners, who say they’re not privy to planning, doubt whether the indoor circuit is viable.

"I would love to see the AFL come back. But if you ain't heard anything by now saying they will, I don't see them coming back because there were too many weak sisters," Chicago Rush owner Mike Ditka told the Chicago Sun-Times. "If the league does (return), it will probably have to scale itself down and make sure it has more solid ownership and much better team management."

In other words, the future of the AFL may be to act more like AF2, which is indeed playing this season and by all accounts hanging in there despite a poor economy. But it takes months and months to sell a season, even if all the sales are taking place in a central league office. And right now there’s no selling going on for the 2010 season: owners and league management still haven’t worked out a working structure for the season. Owners aren’t stupid: sales are the backbone of any pro sports operation, but that’s the activity that’s totally dormant right now – and from what we’ve been hearing that’s a sore spor among owners.

In a way, it’s all about expectations. Will AFL ever be a competitor to a major league? No. It operates under several disadvantages – a small number of dates, a very limiting format, the lack of a star system – and the league plays at a time when most folks just don’t want to be inside.

But there is a hardcore group of fans who will watch a football thrown under any circumstances – AF2 proves that. The challenges facing AFL management is how to structure a league around that group of hardcore fans and whether there’s enough of them to fill a 15,000-seat arena. With every day that passes, it will be hard to see whether those challenges are met for the 2010 season.

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