SBJ/20100517/This Week's News

Relaunched AFL struggles to gain yardage

Call it a slow build for the relaunched Arena Football League as it struggles to rebound after its yearlong shutdown in 2009.

Six weeks into its new 18-week 2010 schedule, the 15-team AFL is averaging 7,978 fans a game, compared with a 12,957 average in 2008, the last season played before the league was shuttered.

Since then, it’s been bought out of bankruptcy for $6 million and reinvented.

Through May 12, the Tampa Bay Storm is leading the AFL in attendance with an average of 13,732 fans a game. The Utah Blaze is last in the league with an average of 4,728 a game, league officials said.

Overall budgeted sponsorship revenue is down 60 percent from original projections, according to AFL Commissioner Jerry Kurz, who said he isn’t surprised by the league’s slow business start given that the AFL hit the market just a few months before its April 3 kickoff.

The AFL is back on the field with
a smaller league office and a
smaller sponsor roster.

“Our owners know that this is not a one-year process,” he said. “There is no doubt that there was resentment about the way the AFL was shut down, and every day in some markets we are fighting it.”

By design, the restructured new indoor league is a shell of its former self.

Gone are the 58 employees who worked in the former AFL New York-based office. Instead, the league office is now a seven-member staff based in Tulsa, Okla., charged with running the single entity. Player salaries are paid by the league, with each of the 15 teams owning an equal share in the AFL.

Gone is the 2008 salary cap of $2 million a team, replaced by the $400 per game salary paid to most players. Up to three players per team can be selected as “marketing players” who make up to $1,000 a week. Those players must also make promotional appearances on behalf of their teams. Each team has an annual operating budget of between $2 million and $3 million.

The AFL’s regular season ends July 31, with the ArenaBowl championship set for Aug. 21

Running the league is Kurz, who was an original investor in the former AFL, and two senior staff members. Ron Armour, a veteran of the former AFL’s AF2 developmental league, now works as AFL senior director of team development, while Sarah Gomez is the league’s chief financial officer. The league recently hired longtime Tulsa-based PR executive Pat Schnake as its director of media services. Three other staffers help support the league’s day-to-day operations.

The AFL has outsourced its sponsorship sales efforts to Shamrock Sports and is also looking to hire its own in-house sales executive. The league’s current sponsorship roster is small, with Spalding, Russell Athletics and Riddell — holdovers from the old AFL regime — signing re-negotiated deals.

“We still would like to think there is enough runway to bring on some deals and the primary focus has been finding a presenting sponsor for the remainder of the season and for the ArenaBowl,” said Shamrock Sports President Brian Corcoran. “We wish we were further down the track, but we have a robust pipeline.”

The league has licensing deals with Nifty TV, which streams AFL games online, athletic glove maker Cutters Gloves and ring maker J. Lewis Small.

“We knew that it would be a challenge because when we launched, most companies had already committed their sponsorship dollars for the year,” Kurz said.

The AFL Friday night broadcasts on the NFL Network are drawing an average of 125,000 viewers, Kurz said, compared with some 200,000 viewers during the 2008 AFL season on ESPN.

He said the current footprint of the league does not have a franchise in the Northeast, a key region for television viewership.

“We are not where we want to be in television advertising and that relates to our timing,” Kurz said. Terms of the league’s deal call for the AFL to sell the advertising inventory, with the indoor league and the NFL Network evenly splitting all revenue.

The 15 AFL teams are made up of a combination of seven former AFL markets, and seven former AF2 minor league markets. The lone new AFL market is Jacksonville. 

The strongest markets in the newly launched league have been Tampa, Jacksonville and Spokane, Wash., though some teams are facing a tough time in getting re-established after a yearlong absence. The Chicago Rush is averaging about 7,767 fans a game through May 11, compared to the 12,000 that the team averaged during its 2008 season.

“The one thing that has surprised me is how much momentum got lost in the shutdown,” said Chicago Rush co-owner Bill Niro, who owned 10 percent of the old AFL. “It was really moving along and it just dropped off the radar screen and it has had a tremendous impact on our ability to come back.”

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