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Volume 23 No. 8
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AFL copying MLS with ownership model

Washington won last year’s Arena Bowl despite losing 10 of 12 regular-season games in a four-team league.
Photo: getty images
Washington won last year’s Arena Bowl despite losing 10 of 12 regular-season games in a four-team league.
Photo: getty images
Washington won last year’s Arena Bowl despite losing 10 of 12 regular-season games in a four-team league.
Photo: getty images

The Arena Football League, scheduled to start its 32nd season this Friday, has no team ownership for the first time. Instead, two shareholders — Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports & Entertainment and Trifecta Sports & Entertainment — co-own the league, which then operates the teams.

The AFL, an indoor football league, has long been plagued by shaky ownership groups and a changing number of teams. It peaked with 19 teams in 2007, did not play at all in 2009 after filing for bankruptcy protection and was down to four teams last year. Now the league is embracing the unitary ownership model used by a different American sports league. 

“It’s copied from MLS,” said Randall Boe, the AFL commissioner, who worked with Leonsis at AOL and Monumental before taking his current post 13 months ago. “We have come up with a model that is designed to produce scalable, sustainable growth. We are going to have a nationwide footprint in a couple years, but we know from the past history of the league that its efforts to expand too quickly and then to questionable ownership groups gets you into trouble.”  

The AFL added teams in Columbus, Ohio, and Atlantic City, N.J., this season, and Boe projected another two next season at locations yet to be determined — and all will follow the same ownership model. 

Like other sports leagues, the AFL is focused on sports gambling.  

“We are building ourselves around being data-centric and enabling sports betting,” Boe said. “We are developing a platform so that eventually you will be able to stream AFL games and at the same time and in the same app be able to place bets.”

Boe, who described the current AFL as akin to a startup, did not have TV deals in place for the season openers. The league does expect coverage at some point this season. Games last year were on CBS Sports Network. 

Asked if the focus on sports gambling and an app mimicked the approach of the Alliance of American Football, which last week filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, Boe credited the AAF for starting to collect historical game data. However, he critiqued the consumer-facing part of the league’s app.

“It was pretty rudimentary,” he said. “What we are envisioning doing is kind of the mobile version of looking at the board in a sportsbook, that’s the look and the feel. Not just icons on a field and guessing the next play.”

The AFL is also continuing to work with Vegas Stats & Information  to create weekly VSiN video segments and articles previewing games and listing betting odds. And the league is talking to ViSIN about what Boe described as a betcast stream of the games, the details of which are still in development.