- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Arena Football League rarely, if ever, gets game highlights on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” There is no regular, splashy coverage in USA Today. Sports Illustrated checks in every few years or so. No massive legion of frenetic AFL fantasy league players exists.

Yet AFL is ever so quietly posting some of the strongest growth figures in the entire sports industry, regardless of particular sport or size. Average attendance for the 2004 season, which started Feb.5, is 12,503 — 12 percent above last year and on pace for the league’s highest mark in its 18 years. Sellouts in several markets, including Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio and Denver, are regular occurrences. Television audiences for AFL games on NBC average around 1.7 million households, more than the NHL on ABC and competitive with CBS’ regular-season college basketball coverage.

Franchise values have soared from $375,000 to $16million in less than a decade. Merchandise sales have increased by more than 50 percent. The league has attracted a star-studded lineup of team owners including NFL legend John Elway, rock star Jon Bon Jovi, and current NFL team owners Jerry Jones, Tom Benson and Pat Bowlen. And rather than just taking a passive interest or simply posing for photo ops, even a pampered star like Bon Jovi has inserted himself knee-deep into the day-to-day operations and relative anonymity of indoor football.

“I said I’d be more Wellington Mara than Al Davis [upon buying the expansion Philadelphia Soul],” Bon Jovi said. “I lied. I’m considering restraints in my box.”

So how is it that such off-field performance gets so little regard on a national scale? Some of it owes to AFL’s ever-so-humble beginnings in the mid-1980s, a period when the league was known more for its goofy marketing stunts, cheerleaders in hot tubs, and players who were far more skilled at driving forklifts during the week than playing football on the weekend. There is also plenty of fan fatigue for even fully established entities such as the NHL and NBA, making outreach to fans even harder for lesser leagues such as AFL.

That makes today a coronation of sorts for the AFL. NBC will broadcast a highly touted matchup between the Soul, owned by Bon Jovi and his investor group, and Elway’s Colorado Crush. There is no doubt CBS coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will do some crushing of its own in terms of ratings. But with millions of fans already set to be in front of the TV, both AFL and NBC executives expect this afternoon’s Crush-Soul game to be an important showcase for the league.

“We’ve grown at a time when nobody else is, and we’ve done it in spite of the lack of coverage we receive,” AFL commissioner David Baker said. “But it’s all really because of the fan. Because of the situation we’re in, we’ve had to be very patient, very methodical and deliver what the fan wants, which is exciting football and good entertainment at a reasonable price.”

A mission statement to that effect is printed on the back of every AFL business card.

Baker, however, concedes there still is much work to be done and promises that need to be fulfilled. A much-discussed deal three years ago in which the NFL would have purchased 49.9 percent of the league never happened. The current lineup of 19 AFL teams is five less than what was envisioned by now, a situation largely the result of the recent economic recession. Several franchises, including ones in Iowa, Nashville, Toronto, Milwaukee and Houston, folded or relocated due to fiscal distress. The pipeline of players graduating from the AFL to the NFL remains slow.

There also is the unresolved state of the Washington AFL franchise to be owned by Dan Snyder. When Snyder announced his Arena Football intentions in 1999, the goal was to start playing by 2003. That did not happen, and where a local AFL team would play remains a riddle. The two local arenas most obvious for an AFL team — MCI Center and Comcast Center — both appear, at least for now, unworkable due to scheduling, monetary or operational issues, not to mention a less than optimal working relationship between Snyder and Abe Pollin.

Snyder also has considered on several occasions building his own arena to house his AFL team, dubbed the Warriors in 1999. But neither the economics nor the available real estate has made that a reality.

AFL, meanwhile, continues to look at other expansion markets as the economy rebounds. Cities on the latest list include Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Miami and Minneapolis.

“Washington is obviously a place where we need to be,” Baker said. “It’s a top-10 market [in population], and it’s a terrific football city. The issue still out there is which building is the right one for us. It’s not an easy situation. We’ve been working a lot with [Snyder partner] Fred Drasner on this effort. There will be a Washington team in either 2005 or 2006. We just don’t know which one yet.”

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