SBJ/March 14-20, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

AFL back with new teams, owners

The Arena Football League kicked off its 2011 season last week in 18 markets, which includes two relocated teams.

This season marks the second campaign for the league since emerging from bankruptcy. It has had a full year to build its business this time after a hasty, three-month relaunch leading up to its 2010 season, which featured 15 teams.

“We proved we could bring the league back and complete a full season, and it has made a tremendous difference,” said AFL Commissioner Jerry Kurz, who pointed to franchise and sponsorship growth and a stable TV package.

The AFL this season puts new teams in Pittsburgh, San Jose, Kansas City and Philadelphia while shuttering its Oklahoma City franchise. All but Pittsburgh played in the old AFL that shut down in 2009. Former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann is an owner of the AFL’s Pittsburgh team, while former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski returns as a co-owner of the relaunched Philadelphia Soul franchise. Jon Bon Jovi, who was an owner of the previous Soul team, is no longer connected to the AFL.

One other offseason ownership move saw Jeff Vinik, owner of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, buy the AFL’s Tampa Bay Storm.

The AFL also moved its Bossier City, La., team to New Orleans and its Huntsville, Ala., team to Atlanta.
Each of the 18 franchises will play an 18-game schedule.

The added push into larger markets, Kurz said, should help increase viewership on the NFL Network, which renewed its deal to cover the league. NFL Network will televise an AFL game every Friday night throughout the league’s regular season, which continues into late July. NFL Network will also air AFL playoff games and the ArenaBowl championship game.

The AFL averaged 8,154 fans a game last year. The 2010 season began in early April after the league was bought out of bankruptcy for $6 million in late 2009.

Kurz said the quick turnaround to relaunch the league last year prevented it from signing new sponsors, but the league this offseason set a goal of signing four founding sponsorships.

To date, the AFL has signed Aaron’s for its first founding deal, and while Kurz would not disclose the value of the deal, he said it includes dasherboard signage, a media buy on the NFL Network and a jersey patch on all AFL team jerseys. Other pending founding deals are with the National Guard and with NAPA Auto Parts, which was the presenting sponsor of the 2010 ArenaBowl.

The league is looking to expand its sponsorship base, as other, lower-tier league sponsors include Russell, Riddell, and Spalding in the uniform, helmet and ball categories, respectively.

Maine-based Shamrock Sports Group assists the league in selling sponsorship inventory.

The AFL this offseason also added to its front office. After hiring Stuart Layne as chief marketing and revenue officer in September, the league hired Christie Cook as director of team services; Sarah Brown as marketing and client services manager; and Evan Vladem as media services manager. Cook previously worked as general manager of the league’s Oklahoma City franchise, Brown is a former marketing director for Downtown Tulsa Unlimited and Vladem previously worked for the Tampa Bay Storm.

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