Arena Football Returns To US Airwaves

By Ross Everett

Though it enjoyed solid fan support and was popular among sports betting enthusiasts, arena football fell off the map with the demise of the Arena Football League. The AFL suspended play under the weight of a poor business model in 2009 and later pulled the plug altogether. Since then, a new league has announced plans to take its place. Arena Football One (AF1 for short) will begin play in April and on Thursday secured a TV contract to broadcast games on the NFL Network in the United States. The TV deal should help the new arena football entrant to get off to a successful start as they attempt to revive the sport. Obviously the long term goal is a deal with a major network like Fox or ESPN but a good relationship with the NFL never hurts.

Superficially, there are many similarities between the defunct Arena Football League and the upstart AF1 circuit. Several former AFL franchises have joined the new league, with several others having previously played in the AFL’s developmental ‘minor league’ known as Arena Football 2. The new league’s organizers are hoping that the similarities remain superficial, and have taken great pains to avoid many of the high salaries and dimwitted business decisions that doomed their predecessors. They’ve also learned from a crucial error of the AFL and will coordinate promotion and publicity of all teams as well as the league as a whole at the corporate level. Ultimately, they’ve realized that the product wasn’t the problem; management doomed the original AFL.

The original Arena Football League also made the mistake that many growing companies make in trying to grow too big too fast. Though the league prospered for years by keeping a tight rein on player salaries and team budgets, in the past few years there had been a drastic upward spiral in the cost of player contracts. A division between old line owners dedicated to fiscal responsibility and deep pocketed newcomers (including 80’s rock idol Jon Bon Jovi) anxious to spend as much as they wanted further exacerbated a business model that became more and more unsustainable. They lost touch with their average fan, a fact evidenced by downright bizarre choices in halftime entertaining including poetry readings, figure skating exhibitions and wombat racing.

The AF1 deal with the NFL Network is for one year, with a network option for a second year. The NFL Network will air a ‘game of the week’ every Friday night beginning in April. In addition to providing a good broadcast outlet for the fledgling league it also provides some much needed off season programming to the NFL’s 24/7 cable network. One can only watch so many ‘classic games’ (the NFL euphemism for ‘re-runs’) and an emphasis on arena football during the summer months would be a win/win for everyone involved.

Though Arena Football 1 is the largest and best known arena football league, there are actually two other leagues that will begin playing in the coming months. While most are focusing on smaller markets than AF1, the American Indoor Football Association (AIFA) and the Indoor Football League ( IFL) are also in the mix. Eventually, the AF1 will prevail as the top level arena football league with the other two circuits serving as minor league developmental partners.

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