ArenaFan Exclusive Interview: AFL Commissioner Scott Butera
Prior to Week 18's games, ArenaFan's Adam Markowitz had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Arena Football League Commissioner Scott Butera.
ArenaFan's Adam Markowitz: I am joined now by the commissioner of the Arena Football League, Mr. Scott Butera. Commissioner, thanks for joining us today.
AFL Commissioner Scott Butera: Thanks Adam. It is nice to be with you today.
AM: So we don’t hear a lot from you on a regular basis. Sort of like the antithesis of what we used to have when Jerry Kurz was in charge. We saw him every single week and it is going to be really good to have you at a game tonight in Jacksonville. I just want to start by taking your temperature of where you think the Arena Football League is at right now?
SB: I think the Arena Football League is very much in a transition right now. That is a transition in a very good way, a very healthy way. We’re in the process of getting a lot more stable and a lot more healthier from a financial standpoint and really developing a platform that we think we can use to grow this league in the future, both in the United States and hopefully internationally as well. When I came to the league, one of the biggest reasons I did, and what I saw was just a great product. I think the Arena Football League has tremendous football. I think we have great athletes. I think they are very well coached. I think the organizations who do it well really understand the game and do a good job of promoting the game (seagull squawk). (Jokingly) I see we have a friend here. We have a fan (laughs). But what was missing what that the league has never really been run like a business. And in terms of making sure that we have the right partners, we’re in the right city, we were doing the right amount of marketing and sales, and really outreaching to people to let them know who we are. That didn’t exist. So I thought that if we can take this platform and really create something that was a lot more stable and use it to grow the league and use it to generate revenue so that we can do those activities, we could have something that could be a really special sport, certainly in the United States and abroad.
AM: We have twelve markets right now in the Arena Football League, two of which were taken over by the league in last few weeks. What went into that decision to have to step forward and have the league take control of the VooDoo and the Outlaws?
SB: First. It was all a part of cleaning ourselves up. Since I have gotten here, we have done a lot to get the league in really fundamental, sound conditions. So we have redone all of our books and records. We’ve taken all of the liabilities that have been hanging out for years and gotten those settled. And we started looking into who our partners in the league were and who we wanted to attract as new partners. Clearly said, we can get people who have ownership interests in NBA teams or NHL teams. That is really attractive to us because not only do they have the financial wherewithal to support a team, but they also have the structure. They understand how to run a sports team, they understand marketing and sales, and particularly in the NBA and the NHL, you really have to go out and sell those seats. Sometimes it is a little bit of a luxury to be an NFL owner because you might have a five year waiting list, or something like that, and in your marketing and sales. They do a lot on the sponsorship side and might do a little less on the ticketing side. Whereas, in those leagues (NBA and NHL, they really need to know what they are doing. And obviously to the extent that they have arenas, that’s beneficial for us. If you look across the board, for example in the NBA, those are very very bright, articulate, well spoken, and successful business people that own those franchises. I am just impresses with the way that league is run. I think the NBA is run like a great business, not just a sports business, but any business. And that is a model that I think we would really like to emulate. So we started looking around and saying, “do we have the right group of people who can attract that type of ownership to our platform?”. And by and large, we do. We have a lot of really strong owners across the board who run good franchises, have a lot of good experience, and pay their bills. In the case of New Orleans and Las Vegas, we didn’t have that. We had ownership that really was struggling both financially and operationally. That led to certain activities that were not good for the teams and were not good for the league and just were not the type of entities that I thought would be attractive to the people that we are trying to bring in. So our choice was to bring those in house. We thought it was important to maintain those franchises for a couple of reasons. One, we like both of the markets. We do think that New Orleans is historically a great football town. There have been times in New Orleans’s history that they have had record attendance of 15, 16, or 18 thousand when Tom Benson owned the team. We would like to get that back. So we know the potential there. And in Las Vegas, Vegas sports is a little unproven, but you know I live there and our headquarters is there, so I know there is a market, I believe, for a quality team there as well. Also, we wanted to finally bring some stability to the Arena Football League. One of the biggest things that I see with the Arena Football League and why we haven’t gotten to where we wanted to get to is we have sort have taken steps in and out of markets without really doing it in the right way. So we go into a market, we might not have the right owner, we might not have the right platform, and inevitably that entity would fail, the league would take it over, and then disband the city. So when you are out talking to new owners or new sponsors or advertisers who want to get involved in the league, they want to know the cities that you are going to operate in. They want to know if the city is going to be there for a while so they can establish a presence. So we said we have got to be stable, but we’ve got to have the right people. We’ve talked to our existing ownership base and we agreed to take over these teams and let’s incur the costs financially, but we will be better off for it in the long run. And that was the thought process behind that.
AM: Now those two teams, as interesting as it was, happen to be on the schedule this week against each other. The league elected to cancel that game last week. Why was that particular game cancelled as opposed to any of the other games that the VooDoo and the Outlaws are playing?
SB: Just for that reason because they were playing each other. They are two league owned teams, so there was an opportunity from a fiscal responsibility standpoint to cancel that game. We do award teams playoff positions based on winning percentage, so there was a way that we could do it without impacting the playoffs, per se. But really it was a mechanism for which we could help control some of the costs of taking on the ownership of those two teams while looking for new owners.
AM: Now what happens in the situation that the Outlaws end up either a half a game in front of Spokane and L.A. or a half of a game behind them where playing that game may have been the difference in one team getting into the playoffs and one team not getting into the playoffs. What do you tell the fanbases of, whichever team it is, that ends up on the short end of that stick?
SB: We have communicated to the fanbases already . Each team was awarded a tie to try to keep those percentages as close as they would have been. But in sports you can never assume a win. So New Orleans beat Tampa last week. No one expected that. So I can’t sit here and say that Vegas would have won or Vegas would have lost or New Orleans would have won or New Orleans would have lost. It is what it is and teams will be awarded playoffs based on their win percentage and if somebody falls short or gets a benefit because they played one less game, that’s the way it is. In college you have leagues and teams that don’t play an even amount of games and that is going to be the case this year. It is not ideal. It is not something that we want to replicate. It is kind of a onetime shot, hopefully. But that’s the way it is. We’ve been very open with the teams and the players and the fanbases in each of those cities so they know exactly what the deal is. My best advice to them is if you want to make the playoffs, then go out and win (chuckles).
AM: The Arena Football League has only had one year in its history, and you have touched on this a little bit earlier, where all of the team s that played in the season came back the next season in the same market. How confident are you that next year we will not be able to replicate that?
SB: I would say that I am fairly confident. That having been said, hopefully there will not be some fallout. There always could be. So I can’t sit here and say with complete certainty that the platform that we have and the cities that we have now are necessarily going to be the cities going forward and the foreseeable future whether that is next year or the year after because we are still trying to sort through some of that. I do feel good about all of the owners. I feel good about all of the teams. I will tell you from a league standpoint, we certainly want all of the teams that we have now in the cities that they are operating, but we are definitely going to change the way that we do business. We are going to require more from our teams. We are going to require them to be more astute in terms of how they run their operations. We may require them to invest more capital so that we can spend more money on marketing and sales and there may be some ownership groups that decide that is not right for them. And if that is the case, then we will move on and look to find new ownership. But we really want to be in all of these cities with all of these owners. So ideally it would work out, and like I said, I am fairly confident that we will have all of them, but if one or two were to drop off, it wouldn’t surprise me and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
AM: Let’s talk about expansion a little bit. I know we spoke about this when we had the pleasure of interviewing you earlier in the season. You were sort of targeting regions, and obviously we can’t talk about specific markets at this point. What is a realistic goal for expansion in the next year, two years, and down the line for the Arena Football League?
SB: I think if we can get two or three teams for the next season, that would be a pretty good start. But really I would like to double the size of the league, from twelve to twenty-four teams, in let’s call it a three year time frame. Now I am not, and my partners are not, going to support bringing on a team just because we want a dot on the map or we are trying to hit some kind of goal. It really has to be finding the right owner. So if we are able to secure the right ownership group with the criteria we’ve discussed, then we will move forward on that. If we’re not, then we will wait. But ideally, we would like to see the league double in size domestically over the next three years. And then if we can also add some international expansion, that would be great too. And international isn’t necessarily just China. We think there are some good opportunities closer to home, particularly in Mexico and Canada, which we are pursuing as well.
AM: What type of time frame are you talking about for the international side of this?
SB: I would say that we have started working on those fronts right now. If we could have something that would at least show that we are moving along those lines next year, that would be great. But really when you are looking at new franchises, I believe that it should be a two year lead time. I think it kind of takes about a year to put your team together, put your structure together, unless you are somebody, or an entity, that already has an existing operation. For example, our Cleveland franchise. They run four teams. So if you have a situation where you have an owner that runs multiple teams and can just plug in, then they can certainly start a team within a year or if somebody buys an existing team, that can happen. But if you are really starting from scratch, it really is two years. And internationally there are some things that we would need to figure out in terms of how the players are hired, cross border travel, and how people get paid. So there are some complexities in doing that that we would have to figure out. So I think realistically it is a couple of years down the road.
AM: The fans who come to ArenaFan; I normally get two questions and they usually go hand in hand with one another. The first is, “who is this Scott Butera guy? We haven’t heard from him and is it a good thing or a bad thing that we have not heard from him?” And the questions that almost always come along with that, especially from the cynical fans, are “is the Arena Football League going to be around for the 2016-2017 season and beyond?” To sort of wrap this up, I know you have a lot of positive views on this, I guess I would like you to sort of, I don’t want to say hush the naysayers, but give the cynics something to look forward to about the coming years of this league.
SB: Sure. First I would like to start by saying that it is not good that you feel like you have not heard from me. I want to be as communicative as possible and I want our fans to know where the league is heading and what we are working on and really be part of what we are doing. So we have done a fair amount, and by the same token, it has been one of those transition years where we have had a lot of internal work to do as well and we have been sorting through some things. I think you are going to see a lot more communication from the league office going forward, so hopefully that changes in a positive light. I’ve been involved in many businesses throughout my career. I’ve been involved with many businesses that have struggled and turned themselves around and I’ve been in situations that have been successful that were far more difficult than what we are talking about here. This league us here to stay for a long time. It has been active for a long time despite the fact that it has been run so poorly. So I think that by bringing some sound business practices to the league, not only is it going to survive for years to come, it is going to hopefully thrive and continue to grow and I am very confident about that or I wouldn’t be here. But I think that the key to doing that is just really looking at yourself in the mirror and saying “who are we?”, “what are we today?”, “and what does it take to be successful?”, “who do we sort of model ourselves after?”, and then just taking appropriate steps and making progress every day. There is no silver bullet. There is nothing that is going to magically come down and all of a sudden the Arena Football League is the NFL. We have to build it up over time in a very fundamental and sound way, and for the first time, we are doing it. So I have great confidence in the league. I think that we are definitely going to grow our fan base. I think we have a sport that is very relevant. Obviously football is loved throughout America. The numbers for football, whether it is NFL football or college football, are growing every year. We hope to be a part of that and we do have, despite all of our problems in the past, we do have quality people that work with us. Our game tonight will be on ESPN. ESPN has been a great resource for us to show our games as well as CBS Sports Network and we are looking at other networks for next year. We are excited about our product, which is great. So I am very confident about where we are going. I think we have attracted some really good people and I can tell you that some of the people that we are looking at to come in as new franchisees or new team owners are people who have a lot of experience who wouldn’t be looking at us if they did not think that there is something. So I would just tell the fans to just bear with us and enjoy the rest of the season. I think it has been a great season football wise. It is very competitive. We are here in Jacksonville. You have a great division here in the south. You have a great rivalry with Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tampa. All the fans go to all of the games, get excited, and get rowdy. Our teams are doing fun things like Star Wars night, and you know what kind of crowd that always attracts. A block party and just all kinds of cool stuff. I think it is a fun sport, with a fun venue, fans come and they see great entertainment and see a heck of a contest, and I think that there will always be a home for that.
AM: Commissioner, thank you so much for your time today.
SB: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.