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An open letter to Commissioner Baker: Donít Sell Out the AFL

Dave Carlson
Thursday June 9, 2005

We have once again made it to another ArenaBowl weekend, and once again this season, weíve had some "spirited" (to put it lightly) debate amongst the fans on our message boards. Fans chattering about their teams. Debating who should be winning the year end awards. Talking about the anemic TV ratings. And warning about the end of the world.

The end of the world? OK, maybe I was a bit dramatic there, but, to many fans, some changes this year have shaken their level of fandom to the AFL. Many fans are not happy with the current playoff structure. While I donít agree that the new system (basically the NFL system, and how most other sports leagues with 20 or more teams work their playoffs) is inherently bad, I do agree that it was put in a bit early, and without a proper ratio of in-conference to out of conference games.

My theory on that though is that the AFL instituted the conference playoff system to start in conjunction with the neutral site-ArenaBowl in Las Vegas, another thing fans arenít too happy about. Many believe that earning the home field for the championship is something that shouldnít have been tinkered with. Again, on this one, I donít think a neutral site ArenaBowl is inherently bad, but I think once again it was done too early. I just didnít think the league was at a national level of acceptance yet (in things like TV ratings and media/general sports fan attention) to warrant a neutral site ArenaBowl.

But, at least to me, all of those things are peripheral, "outside the lines" one could say. Whatever these TV network, neutral site, playoff race changes were, they were LEAGUE changes. The game, the SPORT of Arena Football, which is really what was invented by James Foster coming on 25 years ago now, was still the same. But, recent announcements by the commissioner and others about rule changes make me think that maybe some of these fans on the message boards arenít all just wearing tin foil hats when saying that the AFL is heading towards being "NFL lite".

Recent newspaper articles have said that one of the changes being discussed for next season will be a "relaxing" of the substitution rule. Now, "relaxing" could be taken many different ways. That could be just two substitutions per quarter instead of one. Or it could be a total dissolution of the rule, which is the way Ron Jaworski made it sound with his statement that many owners who have come into the AFL are interested in making the games more similar to the NFL.

This, in my and MANY fans opinion (many more than who were troubled by playoff changes and TV issues) is a "canít touch" area. These are the core "rules" that make Arena Football the unique sport that it is, different than "outdoor football". Granted, with the 20 man rosters, there wonít be enough depth to truly get "rid" of the "ironmen".

But, remember, the new owners want the AFL to be "more" like the NFL. So, add in a roster size change to 28 or 30 players in another year or two, and all of a sudden, you do have enough players to effectively have 17 positions on the field (8 offensive, 8 defensive, and the kicker), rather than the current 11 (2 offensive, 2 defensive, 6 "ironmen", and the kicker).

"Our goal isn't to be like the NFL," Baker says. But, the ironman is at the heart of what makes "Arena Football" more than just the "NFL minus 50 yards and 3 players a side". Take the ironman, and thatís basically all it is. His statement that defenses could improve by having true defenders play on that side of the ball, sounds like heíd rather have more 20-14 "NFL Score" games than 65-59 AFL "scorefests". I simply canít believe heís asked true "AFL Fans" whether they wanted this, and they all said "Yes, much less scoring", or rather that Baker thinks that getting rid of ironmen and lower scoring will bring in a hoard of NFL fans to the AFL, when, clearly the examples of the WFL, USFL, WLAF and XFL have proven otherwise. NFL fans as a whole arenít, over the long haul, interested in a "sub-NFL". But, the AFL has built over its 20 years a solid fan base, and now entering into a "generation" of having Arena Football existing, comes an opportunity to have an explosion of adult fans who became fans as kids and teenagers. Making the AFL "NFL jr" seems to be throwing all of that away, on the "chance" that a larger group of NFL fans will want "NFL jr".

The league has a good, core group of true fans that truly "enjoy" the Arena Football "Ironman" style of fast-paced football. I interned with the league years ago, so I have had various discussions with the commissioner, so, Iím not one to lay into him immediately like many other fans. At his core, Iíve found him to be a very nice, generous guy. I am just interesting in knowing what his message is to the large group of long time, dependable fans, some of which who have been with the league for 10 years or more, who Baker HAS to know heíll lose if the AFL rules and structure get too "NFLlized". Is his opinion that they are "disposable", or that their opinions are "trivial"? Or are they even being thought of at all?

Obviously, Baker and the rest of the league honchos think that they will gain multiple times more "NFL fans" than theyíll lose in AFL fans who lose interest in the league. For Bakers sake, I hope so, because the old fans wonít care either way once that happens, and if the expected new fans donít "hop aboard", there wonít be any fans left to play for.

Dave Carlson is the Technical Director of Arenafan Online. Dave graduated with a degree in Computer Information Systems, and has been a member of the Arena Football Internet community since 1991. He is currently a professional web programmer, and has a history in programming sports statistics. Dave is married and lives in Indiana.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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