Kickoff of AFL 2015 brings more hope than ever before
It goes without saying that I've been Mr. Doom and Gloom about the Arena Football League pretty much since the day the doors opened up once again in 2010. I've been the eternal naysayer, the man who has been there reporting on every transgression this league has had and calling out every wrongdoing over the last five years.
Call me the eternal pessimist if you'd like. There are 12 cities right now which should be thrilled to have AFL teams. There are 13 others who have been put into the hypothetical AFL graveyard since 2010 as well. It's not exactly a great ratio of success.
But tonight, come hell or high water, at approximately 7:35 here on the East Coast, our goofy-looking football will be kicked off into our quirky little nets, and the 28th season of the Arena Football League will officially be underway, and I'll be blessed man to be in the building at Amalie Arena watching the sport which I love so much.
This year though, the kickoff to the campaign means so much more than it normally does. I'm not sitting and wondering whether I'm watching the last first kickoff in league history. I'm not envisioning teams being owned by the league. I'm not thinking about how the talent level of this league is so much lower than it used to be back in the day.
No, for the first time since that wonderful day in 2010 when we saw the AFL in all of its glory, only to ultimately learn of all of its sins, I, Adam Markowitz, am optimistic.
I'll give you a moment to pick your mouth up off of the floor.
Since 2010, this league of ours has felt like a rudderless ship, one which was always having to have its holes plugged just to stay afloat.
Oh sure, we are still on a boat with holes in it, but now, for the first time in quite some time, it feels like we are tossing more water out of the boat than we are taking in, and we are headed in a direction full of promise.
That promise comes in the name of Scott C. Butera, the new commissioner of the AFL. Butera isn't a man who has had any history dealing with our loveable game, nor does he even have a background in sports whatsoever. But what he does know is business, and this league needs business acumen more than ever here in 2015.
Perhaps the most wonderful line that we have heard all off-season from anyone associated with this league was when Butera told our Jeff Sims in our first sit down with the new commissioner, "We know we have problems, and we're going to work hard to fix them."
They say that the first step in recovering from a problem is admitting that you have one.
No, our game isn't anywhere near perfect at this point. Twelve teams isn't enough to sustain ourselves for another 28 years. We don't have those big corporate sponsors of the major sports in the United States. We still seem to have a ridiculous unbalance of power in our game on the field.
But there's a lot of things that we do have now that we didn't have in the past.
Exposure is critical to the long-term health of the AFL. When us old folk use the term "back in the day," we talk about when games were tape-delayed on ESPN and played back at 2:30 in the morning in shortened form. That was considered "exposure" back then.
Now, exposure means having 24 regular season games out of a possible 108 televised live on either ESPN2 or the CBS Sports Network with the remainder being picked up on ESPNEWS or ESPN3.com. More eyeballs will have the ability to see AFL games just by flipping through their televisions than ever before.
One of the more underpublicized happenings of the 2015 off-season was the agreement for DraftKings to sponsor the "Boardwalk Bowl," the game between the Philadelphia Soul and the Las Vegas Outlaws which will be the first ever to be played in Atlantic City.
Though there obviously isn't any ink dry on a long-term league affiliation yet, it would be easy to ascertain that perhaps something is in the works with DraftKings. Having the ability to play daily fantasy arena football would be a massive coup for Butera and this league as a whole.
As we know, Butera's background is in the gambling world from his days at the Foxwoods, and the AFL and daily fantasy seem to go hand-in-hand for fantasy football junkies who have nothing to keep them busy during this time of year. If they can see these games on national television and successfully gamble on them in the form of fantasy sports, there is a whole entirely different set of eyes watching our great game.
Theoretically, average attendance should be up this season. The average reached 8,473 fans per game last year, but many of the markets which were bringing that average down, San Antonio (6,347 fans per game), Pittsburgh (6,370 fans per game) and Iowa (8,201 fans per game) are gone. Furthermore, Orlando has moved back to the Amway Center from its bandbox at UCF, which could double its attendance figure from last year of 5,421 fans per game.
It's never a good thing to lose markets in this league, but I've long been a proponent of bringing down the number of teams to keep the talent from getting spread too thin. We're down to just 12 teams this season, but that means we only have 24 quarterbacks in the league instead of 28, 12 kickers instead of 14, 48 or so wide receivers instead of 56 or so, etc.
The end result? For the first time in quite some time, it sort of feels like every team is in it with at least a chance. Granted, as I said earlier, there probably isn't anyone in this league competing with San Jose, Arizona and Jacksonville, at least if injuries don't strike those three clubs, but aside from that, it's really tough to split hairs between the fourth best team in the league and the worst team in the league.
Furthermore, we know that the league should only continue to get more and more competitive during Butera's watch. With apologies to the city of Pittsburgh and its amazing fans, many of which I am personally good friends with, seeing Butera rule with an iron fist against Matt Shaner and the Power, who were caught violating the salary cap both last season and in free agency in 2015 was a positive for this league. Balance of power is crucial, and having every team in this league know that it has a shot to compete for a title is paramount.
These 30+ point blowouts are bad for business, and they badly have to stop. When the AFL arguably at its peak in the mid- to late-2000s, the game felt more balanced. Sure, there were good teams and bad teams, but from 2003 through 2006, there wasn't a team which was better than 13-3. Not surprisingly, those four years were four of the six highest attended seasons in league history in terms of average attendance.
Relationships are being built again. New ownership groups like the one in Orlando headed by David Siegel seem to be built on sturdier ground than some of the other new ownership groups we have seen come in lately. Markets like Cleveland and Tampa Bay are working hand-in-hand with their NBA and NHL teams sharing their arenas, and that relationship is causing the league to blossom.
Surely by now, we've all heard about the San Antonio Spurs and their discussions to purchase the Talons from last season. The deal didn't go through this year, but there's nothing that says that can't happen in 2016 or beyond.
Cities like Charlotte, Boston, Nashville, Memphis… the list could go on and on of the possibilities here… these are all locations where the AFL could thrive if it just had the cooperation of the Hornets, Celtics/Bruins, Predators and Grizzlies respectively.
NBA/NHL owners who also own or have stake in their stadiums need dates to fill in their venues, and bringing in a team which will eat up nine of those dates is huge in otherwise empty buildings. Hourly employees who would otherwise leave their posts with their teams can be kept busier working with AFL franchises as well, and interns can have a place to hone their craft to help build the parent club's infrastructure too. It truly is a winning combination for all involved, even if not all of the AFL teams themselves aren't operating at a net positive at this point; after all, problems still have to be solved.
It's a much different conversation though, than the one that we have been having in recent years. We're actually talking about expansion instead of teams being taken over and run by the league.
And then there's all the little things that don't even go noticed. More and more teams are picking up local television contracts and radio deals. The league is helping spread the word even more about all of the good that is going on in the various markets across the league. Over 62,000 people are now liking the AFL on Facebook, and over 85,000 are following the 12 teams on Twitter, numbers which are growing every day.
On Friday, a ball will be kicked off of a net, and that will start the 28th bizarre journey of the Arena Football League. Some of those balls will be played cleanly off of the net and returned 58 yards for touchdowns. Some will result in quirky fumbles, the likes of which you can only get in this league.
Teams will win. Teams will lose. And 155 days from now, one out of 12 teams will be crowned the 28th champion of the league we love.
It's a script we have watched and loved for 28 seasons, yet it's a script which is now being written by a new author.
And for that, Mr. Doom and Gloom has once again become an optimist.