As season starts, AFL starts to look, feel stronger than 2008
In case you missed it, yet another league which made big promises to potential players never played a single down. Yes, Major League Football has ceased operations for the time being and won't play a game in 2016 after a bunch of pomp and circumstance over how much money there is backing the league.
And in case you missed it, today is the start of the 29th season of the Arena Football League.
And no, none of this, including the headline, is some cruel April Fools joke. Today is Opening Day, and I could make the argument that the AFL will kick off its 29th season on stronger ground than it was on heading into Week 1 of the 2008 campaign.
In 2008, the handwriting was already on the wall that things were going to start to fall apart. Player salaries were out of control, arenas were starting to look emptier and emptier on television, and the quantity of overpaid big shots in New York and in team front offices was at an all-time high. I'd venture to say that there wasn't a team in the league which made money in 2008, and most had seven-figure losses. Something had to give, and it finally did at the end of the season when the league effectively folded.
When the AFL was resurrected in 2010 under the Jerry Kurz regime, it was really nothing more than a glorified version of the af2. Teams came and went at a ridiculous pace, the league had to run teams which had no chance of ever surviving or finding ownership, and players were unhappy with the lousy pay of $400 per game with terrible amenities.
Sure, we only have eight teams in the AFL in 2016, and one of those is owned by the league. The difference between the Portland Thunder – or if you will, the Portland Steel – and the Las Vegas Outlaws, New Orleans VooDoo, Chicago Rush and the likes before it is that there really is a chance that franchise lives to tell the tale of league ownership. Will the Portland Trail Blazers ultimately own this team? No one is truly sure yet, but even if the answer ends up to be not, I can say with 100 percent assurance that there's certainly a chance that it happens starting in 2017.
Even if the Steel do end up going by the wayside though, is there really another team which you look at today and flat out know that they're going to be folding or leaving for other indoor leagues any time in the near future? You always had a sense that teams like the Iowa Barnstormers, Spokane Shock, etc. were never really going to make it in this league, and outside of the surprise that was the San Jose SaberCats leaving, it's hard to say that the league did anything but vet out its weakest owners and weakest markets.
The structure of the league office is significantly better than it was back in 2008, and it's got stronger leadership than it's had in quite some time with Scott Butera and Tom Goodhines leading the way. Teams have much smaller and much more manageable staffs, and though the players would surely argue that their pay isn't high enough at this point, at least there's more money in the game now than there was in 2010, and the figures were collectively bargained by both the league and the union.
Our games are still being televised on the ESPN and CBS families of networks, and the Univision contract is the worst-kept secret in the league. In case you're keeping count, there will be a higher percentage of games nationally televised this year than at any point in the history of the AFL. Think about that for a second and tell me that's not impressive.
It's clear that at least one team, and perhaps as many as three will be joining from Mexico in the years to come with the news of Univision broadcasting games, and the first of the new NBA/NHL owners has committed in 2017 with Ted Leonsis officially being named the owner of the newest franchise in Washington D.C. Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio could all be following suit at some point soon as well, whether that be for 2017 or 2018.
Big time sponsors have come on to the league this year such as New Era and Under Armour, and those are better deals in a smaller league than the Kurz regime was ever able to draw up. With apologies to Net10, NAPA and the other sponsors we've had over the years since 2010, none are as big as these deals.
I understand if you're reading this in Spokane, San Jose, New Orleans or Las Vegas, it's no consolation to you that the AFL is set to kick off tonight, and I apologize for that on behalf of all of the fans of this great league. But for those of us who are still around, even amidst a swarm of problems that have come up and the fact that this league is as small as it's been in 25 years, we're still on the best solid foundation we've been on in years.
I do find it funny that for years, I was called out for being a "Doomsday" person who was forecasting this league's demise. I was on the record in 2013 saying that I didn't think the league would make it three more seasons, and I, like so many others, really felt like the Kurz-led AFL was eventually collapsing under its own weight.
Now though, Butera has brought all sorts of reasons for optimism. (And I'm being called out for being too rosy now. Go figure.) Whether you're a believer in all of these new NBA/NHL owners and Mexico being a thing or not, one can't deny that at least the league has a direction now, and that direction is more sensible than any one we've had in years and years, perhaps even ever.
Regardless, in just a few hours, a ball will be kicked off at Amalie Arena, and the 3,000th game in the history of the Arena Football League will begin. Four and change months from now, the Foster Trophy will be awarded for the 29th time.
Touchdowns will be scored over and over again. Balls will take funny bounces off the net. Games will prove time and time again to never be over until they're over. And we're all going to love every single second of it.
Welcome to Opening Day, my friends. May the ball bounce right for all of your teams in 2016.