First, understandingly so, the VooDoo suspended its franchise after Hurricane Katrina devastated and flooded the Big Easy (the team becomes the Kansas City Brigade), but now there's no apparent cataclysm forcing the team out. Though the economy is down, the VooDoo is owned by the New Orleans Saints, which is in the cash cow known as the National Football League. The VooDoo's entire budget is far less than what the Saints are paying Drew Brees in a single year (in fact, maybe twice or three times over), so money is not an issue. Overall, three of the last four AFL teams to cease operations or fold outright have been NFL owners (New Orleans twice and the Tennessee Titans dumped the Nashville Kats before the 2008 season).
The two cities that have hosted the only neutral-site ArenaBowls lost their respective AFL teams within two years of last hosting the championship game. Las Vegas, which hosted in 2005 and 2006, lost its team when the Gladiators moved to Cleveland prior to the 2008 season. And New Orleans hosted the previous two title tilts before folding Monday morning. Will this be the kiss of death for the host city for ArenaBowl XXIII?
Now for all twenty-three seasons the AFL has been around, there has been movement within its teams of sort (be it a team folding, a team moving or expansion). As suggested by my last article, no news was in fact good news because this is devastating to the league, its image and its future.
The timing of the VooDoo's move is very perplexing with the free-agent signing period beginning in a week. Now the league will likely have to rush through a dispersal draft (the second in as many years) for New Orleans' 17 players under contract. However, the AFL did mention that it would "examine all possibilities regarding the future of the team. This development will not prevent or delay the AFL from continuing to examine new structure possibilities." That being said, the league could still have the VooDoo compete next season under a new ownership or even move the team to potential future expansion markets like Pittsburgh or Boston.
This apparently caught everyone off guard, including VooDoo head coach Mike Neu, who was watching game tape on potential free agents. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that "I never saw this coming…We had been working so hard this offseason, trying to give our fans the kind of team they deserve. Every day has been so exciting. I feel so guilty because I didn't give our fans enough. I still can't believe there will be no more VooDoo."
In fact, the VooDoo had agreed to terms with Michael Lewis, who first electrified the AFL in 2000 with the New Jersey Red Dogs and spent many years in the NFL including time with the Saints when he was selected to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner.
Last Friday, the league held a AFL Board of Directors conference call that detailed some plans and ideas about the future of the league and Saints/VooDoo owner Tom Benson must have heard something to spur this decision. The team was on the verge of making a huge announcement about Lewis and had a bright future with quarterback Danny Wimprine also about to re-sign. The move is especially surprising since Benson, the first NFL owner to sign up for an AFL team, has been a huge supporter of Arena Football for over a decade. He could have used Hurricane Katrina as a permanent excuse to quit prior to 2006, but he did resurrect the VooDoo a year later and the fans responded with an AFL-record 13,000 season ticket holders in 2007.
The Times-Picayune suggested that the sudden success of the New Orleans Hornets, a playoff team last year, was a part of the VooDoo's decision because the arena gave the NBA franchise better game dates and more beverage & food revenues, but I find this odd since every single AFL team is at the very least the secondary resident in their respective arenas. The Los Angeles Avengers are fifth on the pecking order at STAPLES Center behind the Lakers, Kings, Clippers and numerous concerts, yet they have not voiced any issues regarding this issue.
Benson claimed that he folded the VooDoo because of "circumstances currently affecting the league and the team" and that it had nothing to do with the New Orleans marketplace or economy. What exactly are these circumstances? Do they have anything to do with the real reason David Baker suddenly quit as commissioner two days before ArenaBowl XXII, which was held ironically in New Orleans? It's been three months and there's still no word on a new commissioner or even an update on potential replacements for Baker.
No matter the actual reasons or circumstances, what message does the VooDoo leaving send to the other league owners, especially the ones that didn't have as much success as New Orleans had? Last season, New Orleans' turnstile was nearly as much as the combined totals for two teams at the bottom of the league in attendance: New York and Grand Rapids. What's next for the league? Does this snowball into more teams folding in the coming days?
Andy Lopusnak is an 11-year AFL front office veteran, spending time with the Tampa Bay Storm, San Diego Riptide and Grand Rapids Rampage. He works as a statistician for NFL and college sports for CBS Sports and is a freelance photographer. Lopusnak received two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of South Florida and has been a fan of ArenaBall since its inception.