No real Shock: Spokane's pending move to IFL leaves AFL in lurch
In one of the least -- ahem -- shocking... developments of the 2015 AFL season, the Spokane Shock are very likely to become the second team in as many seasons to leave our 50-yard indoor war for Indoor Football League.
According to a Tuesday night report by Sam Adams of SWX, the Shock are going to end up taking the drop into the IFL barring what he classified as a "last second Hail Mary."
I'd love to be the one to argue with owner Nader Naini, but it's tough to suggest anything but this being the right move for his franchise.
Just during Naini's short tenure as the managing partner of the Shock dating back a mere 18 months, he has had to help pick up the bill for struggling teams in Orlando, San Antonio, New Orleans and Las Vegas, only one of which has found an owner to mend the broken pieces of floundering franchises taken over by the league. League debts have been in place since basically right at the very beginning of the AFL v2.0 era starting in 2010, and those debts are only now being cleaned up by new commissioner, Scott Butera.
The bills have been racking up at a bad time for the Shock. Their attendance has hit an all-time low of 8,034 fans per game. Meanwhile, travel expenses are up. The Shock don't have a single game which they can bus to (and they have to fly out of the smallest airport in the AFL), and they are finding themselves struggling mightily to field a competitive team after knowing nothing but success both in the af2 and in their initial days in the AFL.
Naini has insinuated many times that there is cheating going on in the AFL, and though he hasn't pointed a direct finger at any franchise, clearly, he has taken some shots at the three-time defending ArenaBowl champions.
The move to the IFL -- which, as an aside, would give that league more active teams than the AFL -- makes complete sense from a financial perspective. The fans in Spokane have already proven that they will support this team at a lower level, packing the bandbox in Spokane time and time again for af2 games. Players' salaries in the IFL are a third to a quarter of those in the AFL. Furthermore, there is a natural rival for Spokane in the IFL, the Tri-Cities Fever, who could really cut down on travel expenses for both franchises with games between them. The two teams are separated by about two hours in a bus.
Whether Nader will get to bring the Shock trademarks with him to the IFL is a completely different story, but that might be the only hoop left for him to jump through to complete the move. It wouldn't be unfounded for the Shock to keep their name in what is becoming a legitimate rival league to the AFL. The Iowa Barnstormers did so last year, while the Green Bay Blizzard kept their name when the af2 ceased operations. Heck, there's even a team in the IFL called the Colorado Crush, though there is no relationship between that team and the one which won the ArenaBowl in 2005.
But of course, there's still an elephant in the room. There's this little matter of what the AFL is going to do now that it is essentially down to just nine teams.
On one hand, this might not be the worst thing in the world for the AFL. Butera is clearly making a conscious effort to more or less trim the fat of the league. That's not to say that Spokane was dragging the AFL down the way that New Orleans and Las Vegas did this year, but the Eastern Washington market isn't a vital one to the success of the league. Not having to travel to Spokane will cut out what is, for many teams, the most expensive road trip they have to make. Furthermore, Spokane, the 75th largest television market in America, isn't going to be a make or break proposition for national advertisers.
The Shock don't fit the model Butera wants to push towards either. The next wave of expansion is almost certain to come with common ownership to NHL and/or NBA teams in cities where infrastructures for major league teams are already in place. Spokane just isn't that type of a market.
However, this isn't a net gain for the AFL for sure. If no other reason, the value of each of the existing nine franchises just took a major hit. Many of the operating expenses of the AFL are what they are regardless as to whether there are two teams in the league or 20. Thanks to the single-entity ownership model put in place, these bills are going to be divided evenly between the league owners. With three more teams headed away, that takes the pot of expenses which was divided by 12 in 2015 and has it being divisible by nine instead.
It would be perfectly reasonable to question whether the nine owners still in play would want to move forward or not in what seems to be a losing financial proposition to stay afloat for the time being. Any further defections could be the straw that broke the camel's back, if that camel is even still upright at the moment.
Jacksonville has one of the most well-run organizations in the league, but even its managing partner, Jeff Bouchy admitted that his team has lost money in at least four of the six seasons it has existed. Losing Spokane is only going to hurt the chances of the Sharks being profitable, and if a team like Jacksonville can't make money, it's tough to see how any team is doing so under the current conditions in the AFL.
Usually by now, leaks have come out regarding expansion for the next season. This year, we have heard no such talks for any markets. Of course, that doesn't mean that there is no expansion on the horizon, and an announcement could reasonably come at the ArenaBowl next week. Fans though, have nothing tangible to latch onto at this point in terms of growth.
The last time the AFL had fewer than 10 teams was in 1991. The eight teams played a 10-game schedule, and four of the 10 got into the postseason. There were no divisions or conferences, as all eight teams played under one set of standings and were merely seeded 1-4 for the postseason. Those 10 teams though, were all rather centrally located. The only somewhat difficult location to travel to was Albany, and the longest road trip in the league sent the expansion Orlando Predators out to Denver.
This league, if it proceeded with nine teams, would really be split apart. Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay make perfect sense together, but with New Orleans gone, the next closest team to any of those three would be Philadelphia. Cleveland and Philly are close enough, but if you just account for those five teams, the team most west of the bunch is actually Tampa Bay. The teams out west aren't anywhere really near each other with Las Vegas out, the most isolated of which is Portland, some 650 miles away from its next closest rival from San Jose.
2015 was always meant to be a year of transition for the AFL. Butera needs time to start forging his own path independent of the one the league was on under Jerry Kurz, and many would quietly tell you that the only thing that mattered in 2015 was surviving to get to 2016.
The transition though, is clearly a tough one, as a quarter of the league is defecting in some way, shape or form. Assuming that Spokane does leave, that's now 15 cities which have lost their AFL teams since the end of the 2010 season, a number which is increasing by leaps and bounds every single year.