- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2018

When the Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade play for the Arena Football League championship on Saturday, Ted Leonsis knows he can’t lose. He owns both teams.

Mr. Leonsis, the majority owner of the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics and former president of AOL, has never been shy about his sincere investment in the troubled AFL, a perennially overlooked indoor football league.

Leonsis‘ management firm, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, owns half the four remaining teams in the league, which has shrunk dramatically in recent years and nearly folded altogether last spring.

Some may consider it a pet project for the prolific sports executive, whose company was granted two AFL expansion franchises in 2016. But Mr. Leonsis sees the league as a “fallen angel,” even in the face of some skeptics who have told him he’s actually grabbing for a falling knife.

“Maybe 30 years from now there may be people looking and going, ‘Can you believe that they allowed owners to have multiple teams in the Arena Football League? And look at what each team is worth now. That was brilliant,’” Mr. Leonsis told The Washington Times. “Or they’ll say, ‘The league didn’t make it.’”

The Valor and Brigade will turn ArenaBowl XXXI into a new installment of the “Battle of the Beltway,” though a more fitting nickname might be the Leonsis Bowl.

They play Saturday at 7 p.m. at Royal Farms Arena, Baltimore’s first time hosting the championship game, and CBS Sports will televise it live. Both teams are in their second year of operation in the AFL and playing in their first ArenaBowl.

The game will wrap up a 2018 season that Mr. Leonsis said was focused on stabilizing the league. Much of that was accomplished under new commissioner Randall Boe, Monumental’s executive vice president and general counsel. Mr. Boe helped negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement in March that helped the league avoid a work stoppage or, worse, a collapse.

After a year of stability, the league has an eye toward the future, with goals of expanding from four to 10 teams and negotiating a new media partnership when CBS Sports’ contract is up this year, Mr. Leonsis said.

“There is so much work to be done in what I’ll call the workout cleanup from all of the previous owners that were involved, who were frankly trying to make arena football like real football, like the NFL,” he said.

The AFL previously had more mainstream interest in part due to broadcast deals with ESPN and NBC.

But Mr. Leonsis is interested in over-the-top distribution, a la his Monumental Sports Network which streamed Valor and Brigade games for free this year.

In addition to “reinventing” media coverage of the AFL (which also includes mounting cameras in helmets), Mr. Leonsis feels that the demographics of the millennial population in the region will drive growth in the league, as well as an overt wagering element.

“(Gambling is) vitally important to the health of the sports industry, and frankly the sports media industry, because it gives you the ability to really care about every play,” Mr. Leonsis said.

In the AFL, “you will soon be able to do in-game and multi-play kind of gaming and wagering.”

Average AFL attendance declined this season from 9,248 to 7,767 fans per game, according to data from arenafan.com. The Valor saw the greatest drop from 11,041 to 6,742, while the Brigade had the lowest mark in the league for the second straight year at 5,113.

Mr. Leonsis anticipates those rates can turn around with more expansion teams, more media coverage and better marketing, specifically in Baltimore. He is further excited the ArenaBowl will be played in Baltimore because he feels the city gets bad press and suffers an undeserved reputation for violence.

“We said we can make this event and make an imprint in Baltimore because most people in Baltimore don’t know we exist and play,” Mr. Leonsis said.

What should football fans expect Saturday? The Valor went 2-10 in the regular season but still advanced to the title game, a wrinkle made possible by the league’s new playoff format. All four teams played a two-game semifinal round — a home-and-home series so that every team could host a playoff game. The winner was determined by aggregate score across the two game.

It hardly looked last spring like it would be Washington’s season. The Valor lost newly-signed quarterback Nick Davila, a three-time AFL MVP, to a neck injury in their second game and fired head coach Dean Cokinos midway through an 0-7 start.

Defensive coordinator-turned-interim head coach Benji McDowell and new quarterback Arvell Nelson, both a dynamic player and personality, helped turn things around. Now the Valor might be the best example in sports history of getting hot at the right time.

“We’re not scared of anybody. We’re not worried about anybody,” linebacker Jimmy Gordon said. “Obviously it took us a little time to get everything situated and get the team rolling in the right direction. Once you get that one win and then another one, it’s contagious and it keeps going and going.”

Nelson is a dual threat as a passer and runner, perhaps providing Washington a unique advantage in a league dominated by the aerial attack.

“I was blessed with legs and I like to use them when necessary,” he said. “I don’t run every single play, but when something breaks down and I get a lane, I use what God gave me.”

Now, in a year local fans will remember for the Capitals‘ first Stanley Cup championship, Monumental’s lineup is guaranteed to win at least one more league title.

Mr. Leonsis hopes the ArenaBowl enters overtime, because rooting for one team over the other would be like choosing between a son and a daughter, he said.

He also recognizes the competition in the area Saturday night — the Baltimore Orioles play at home, the Citi Open tennis tournament kicks off in Washington and Beyonce and Jay-Z are playing a concert at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

“But I say, bring it on!” Mr. Leonsis said.

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