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Friday Night Strike In Order For AFL?

Adam Markowitz
Wednesday March 7, 2012

The Arena Football League hasn't exactly been on the most solid ground since reorganizing in 2010. League attendance has been as shoddy as it has been since the 1980s, averaging right around 8,200 fans per game. There is less local coverage now, two full years into the reorganization, than there has been in decades for these teams, and the quantity of media coverage in general for the games is as lousy as it has ever been. Heck, the season is scheduled to start in two days, and how much interest is really being generated for it?

Maybe there's a good reason for that…

On Tuesday night, fellow AFL Tonight-er, Tim Capper and I sat down and had a tremendous interview with the Vice President of the AFL Players Union (AFLPU), Steve Watson. It was the first time that we have heard from a member of the PU on the record about the possibility of a strike, and after that 25 minutes, it became clear to this writer that the league and its players are at an impasse that probably isn't going to be fixed in a matter of the next 48 hours.

Now, before I begin, I must note that there are three sides to every story. In this case, there is what the players want, what the owners want, and what probably realistically should happen. At this point, we only really have a statement of any note from the players.

ArenaFan has reached out to the AFL for comment, and the league has issued the following statement: "The Arena Football League is choosing not to discuss labor matters publicly at this time in the hopes that we can come to an accord with the union. We will continue delivering the same exciting brand of football action that we have for the last 24 seasons and we hope that the union allows the players to do the same."

Personally speaking, this is a giant problem. It is no surprise that the players were making $400 per game last year, and it was widely publicized that there were three players per team that made a marketing bonus of $600 per week. This year, it is widely known that everyone aside from the starting quarterback is going to make $400 per week, and there are no more marketing players. That being said, players get a $50 win bonus, and starting quarterbacks get a $1,275 bonus for being the starting quarterback.

Anyone can do some simple math and determine that there wasn't any additional money being given to the players as a whole, though the starting quarterback is now on a legitimate wage. It is clear that players are going to have to have second jobs to make ends meet, at least in the offseason, if not during the season as well.

The fact of the matter is that Watson stated that this dispute has been going on, "for the last two years," and that the only proposal the league has sent over to the players has been, "really laughable." The AFLPU VP also claimed, "The league has been very uncooperative at this point."

Uh-oh. Don't like the sound of that.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that the 2009 stoppage of the AFL came due to the fact that matters got out of hand. The "big shot owners" infused a lot of money into the league, but the revenue just wasn't there to back inflated player salaries and other demands of the now-defunct AFLPA. (The AFLPU was founded last June and is now the official bargaining organization and union of the AFL players, just as the AFLPA was in the past.) Watson ensured that, "We aren't asking for the sun and the stars," proving that they are offering a fair deal to the league.

The big question at hand is whether the AFL is legitimately making money or not. In a list of assumptions by the players, the AFL owners are making over $17M in profits as a league. On this document, the players state a "fair pay" number of $1,351 per week. If this turns out to be the case, there is still expected to be an annual ROI of 26% for the league.

Towards the end of the interview last night, Watson stated that, "Ivan [Soto, Executive Director of the AFLPU] came out and said that he has guaranteed the league he will not take them a proposal that will cause them to get less than a double digit return on their investment."

As of Wednesday morning on the AFLPU website, it is clear that there are some issues at hand.

"League Management has released a letter from the League Attorney. It is not truthful. We did not request a $1,500 per game pay rate. We requested a $1,350 per WEEK pay rate. We ALSO removed the HEALTHCARE request which is a substantial cost savings for the League. We did not increase our proposal in fact we reduced it. The cost of Healthcare for the members would be much more than a couple hundred dollars per month! Since the League will NOT provide us with ANY financial information. At this point the ONLY numbers we have are the numbers here at the link below. Only through Collective Bargaining can we obtain a Fair Deal."

There is also a poll on the AFLPU website that states that 77% of the players have a No. 1 priority of getting an increase in weekly pay. (Total votes: 188)

The big question in my eyes is whether or not the AFL owners really can afford that type of pay raise to the players. My accounting background helps in this situation, and I just don't see how the assumptions that the players are making are totally legitimate. The $750,000 number that is in "League Misc Expenses" seems to be far too low. Just flying 30 guys out to a game can easily cost $20,000 when you factor in other expenses like per diem and the likes, and the rent for the arenas have to run the teams at some ridiculous amounts of money, though clearly, some venues are going to be cheaper than others. The players are also assuming that the league is only operating for 20 weeks, which also clearly isn't the case, knowing that there have to be employees working for the teams year-round to be able to deal with ticket sales, marketing, public relations, and the likes.

There is also clearly a fallacy in the attendance figures. Sorry, but we know that though there were 8,263 fans counted in attendance in 2012, that there clearly weren't more than perhaps an average of 7,000 fans per game actually in the seats, and that might be a very generous statement. A lot of these tickets were given away as comps to charitable organizations and others in the local communities as well, and there were promotions being run for free tickets at times across the league, including for the ArenaBowl.

The owners also have amortization and depreciation to factor into their bottom lines, and depending upon how much was really spent on the fees for the league and how much teams have in assets, those could be huge numbers on an annual basis. Sure, those are non-cash numbers, but they are still numbers that count towards their financial statements nonetheless.

Of course, the fact, at least according to the PU, that the owners aren't willing to show their financial figures, makes this all the more questionable. Obviously, the owners wouldn't be involved in this league still if they weren't making money, and obviously, not all teams are created equally with attendance and other revenues in spite of the fact that the league is now operating under single entity ownership. Perhaps that is why we have seen some of the markets like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Alabama, Bossier-Shreveport, and Dallas leave the league.

Last year at the ArenaBowl, then Jacksonville Sharks QB Aaron Garcia stated, "It's no shock. Guys need to be making more money in this league." Garcia went on a tirade for over three minutes about the fact that players need to be making more to support their families and to carry career. Perhaps we should have seen this dispute coming after the ArenaBowl.

In the end, this is just a gigantic mess. Though we clearly understand that the players are going to want more compensation after two years of playing for basically peanuts, we also know that the owners clearly aren't working with the same amount of capital and yearly income that they were making either. There has to be a viable compromise somewhere, but it is definitely up in the air as to whether that compromise will be reached before the first game of the year kicks off this Friday.

For now though, it is of this writer's opinion that we could be in for an ugly year. It could be a season in which the players that are on the field are replacements for the men that are in the PU, and that could make for some awful football. At least it would be football, though. The prospects are very legitimately there that the 2012 Arena Football League season won't kick off as scheduled on Friday, and it might not kick off any time in the near future either.

The AFLPU released an open letter to their fans earlier this week. Click here to see that letter.

As always, stay tuned to ArenaFan, and we will keep you up to date for all of the developments.

AFL Tonight co-host and ArenaFan staff member Tim Capper helped with the compilation of this report.

Adam Markowitz is an accountant and a freelance sports writer living in Orlando. As a Florida State graduate with degrees in music and history, the garnet and gold will forever be a part of him, but he bleeds the black and red of the Orlando Predators like none other. Adam has been following the AFL since 1991 and has been at well over 200 games, including 16 ArenaBowls. You can follow Adam on Twitter @AFLGuru.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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