It takes guts to launch a new sports league in the depths of a recession, but the organizers of Arena Football 1 say they'll absorb the financial lessons imposed by the collapse of the Arena Football League and take what works from af2.
The most important lesson to be learned from the collapse of the Arena Football League: a 16-game regular season in a small venue will not yield unlimited revenues for team owners, who dreamed of becoming a feeder system for the NFL. The stubbornness to work within budgets and a constant wishing for NFL-style TV revenues were twin curses on the circuit. But at the end of the day, there just wasn't enough money to fund everything the owners wanted to do.
Which is a shame, because at its roots indoor football is a sport with a solid and passionate fan base — a smaller one than hockey, to be sure, but one that can easily fill arenas. This isn't always enough to ensure success, of course, as arena teams rarely control their venues. It's a rough road to profitability, to be sure.
But the owners banding together to create Arena Football 1 seem to have priorities in the right place: they're not looking to score an ESPN-style contract and seek national branding revenues. Instead, they're concentrating on midsized markets and larger markets where indoor football worked in the past. If you were picking markets for a TV contract, you wouldn't put franchises in Fresno, Des Moines or North Little Rock; heck, you surely would put them in Bossier City, Spokane, Kennewick or Tulsa. But if you were looking at markets where there are solid ownership groups from the AFL and af2 already in place, these are the cities you'd seek.
Currently there are 16 teams in place for 2010: in addition to the seven markets listed here, there are teams planned in Phoenix and Orlando (where the AFL owners are reviving the Rattlers and Predators, respectively), Chicago, Jacksonville, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Lexington, Huntsville and Oklahoma City. League organizers say they have eight other applications to review; undoubtedly there are a few other AFL and af2 teams in the mix.
Games will launch in April and run through the summer, a traditionally slow time for football and arenas. Indeed, this was one of the big selling points of arena football: It could run as an alternative on many levels.
Indoor-football insiders have said all along the money was to made on the af2 side of the equation; with larger payrolls and bigger marketing budgets it was impossible to turn a profit on the AFL level. On so many levels — midsized markets, salary caps, modest expectations — Arena Football 1 bears a much stronger resemblance to af2 than the AFL. And that fact alone may be enough to ensure the long-term viability of the circuit.