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Who Really Killed the AFL?

by John Hahn
August 11, 2009 - Arena Football League (1987-2008) (AFL I)

Like many of us who worked in the Arena Football League, myself for 11 years, the question has been nagging: What really brought the AFL to its knees?

With numerous friends and sources in the league, I have been able to piece together the answer to that burning question.

It all started December 19 of last year when the AFL Board of Directors voted to suspend the 2009 season. The stated purpose was to create a new economic plan called the Centralized Business Model (CBM).

In all, there are many reasons but the one that continued to resonate throughout my recent discussion with AFL board members and their associates is this: There was a group of "Black Hats" who continually wanted to stop the teams which wanted to play and would not step up to the plate, pay the freight, and move on, either by playing or stepping aside so the "White Hats" could.

"I think we (all of the owners) share some of the blame because we could not reach consensus on anything, It seemed to me, the people with the most money and power influenced the others sitting on the fence," said William Niro, a Chicago attorney, who along with Jerry Kurz and the game's founder Jim Foster make up Gridiron Enterprises. "There was a lack of trust amongst the owners and we couldn't come to compromise.

"Foster, Niro, Kurz and another friend, who together saved the league from going under, founded Gridiron in the late 1980's. After the ‘Barnstorming tour' season in 1989, we put Jim's patent on the Arena Football game system and all the team and league trademarks into the company and started the league anew in 1990. Later with Jim's leadership, we crated the small-market af2 League in 2000."

"It wasn't the game or the league, it was the team owners who didn't want to make it happen," added Niro. The main problem arose when a small group of owners sought to organize under a CBM. The mantra "the economic model does not work" drove the owners to develop a plan in secrecy. "It is extremely difficult to build consensus when only a small group of interested parties participate in developing the plan." The problem arose when the group had to sell the plan to other owners. "That's where things broke down," said Niro.

Who were the "White Hats," the good guys, the "Black Hats," the bad guys, and the in betweens? Specifically, there were three people who wanted to maintain secrecy because they were paranoid about leaks.

Sources said that the Arizona Rattlers, the Orlando Predators, the five-time ArenaBowl champion Tampa Bay Storm and three-time AFL champion San Jose SaberCats "were solid and committed to play in 2010." Not totally committed, but always leaning toward playing were the Cleveland Gladiators and the Grand Rapids Rampage. "We all tried to work on a plan everyone could buy into. Gridiron, Arizona and Cleveland owner Jim Ferraro proposed alternative CBM tactics," Niro continued. "None of them ever got traction." "New York (Dragons) (2001-08) were in too much pain to discuss it," said Niro of a franchise that originally was the Iowa (Des Moines) Barnstormers (1995-2000) and was purchased (after 2008 season) by Steve Silva from Charles Wang, former chairman of Computer Associates International, Inc.

Wearing the "Black Hats" included Colorado Crush part-owner and representative John Elway for Denver Broncos' owner Pat Bolen and Stan Kronecke, owner of the Denver Avalanche (NHL), Colorado Rapids (MLS), Colorado Mammoth (NLL) and the Pepsi Center; Dallas Desperados and Dallas Cowboys (NFL) owner Jerry Jones (represented by son-in-law Shy Anderson); Georgia Force and Atlanta Falcons (NFL) owner Arthur Blank; and co-owners of the 2008 ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul Jon Bon Jovi and Craig Spencer.

Also on the "BH" list was Kansas City Brigade owner Chris Likens, Chicago Rush owners Alan and Peter Levin and Columbus Destroyers partner Jim Renacci, who served as managing board member for the new business model the league was attempting to put together.

The Utah Blaze, owned by John Garff, a prominent Salt Lake City businessman, wants to play, but may not be ready until 2011. The Blaze were back and forth throughout the meetings. New Orleans Saints' owner Tom Benson dropped his New Orleans' VooDoo team from the league following the 2008 ArenaBowl (held in New Orleans) and Los Angeles' Avengers' owner Casey Wasserman pulled the plug on his franchise before restructuring talks began late last year.

Another source said a number of team owners did, "ZERO to get the league on track" and Spencer, Renacci, Likens and Levin (the no play group) were instrumental in sealing the (league's) fate."

The "Black Hats" had a spin on why this came about and it always was "we just couldn't get the 75% majority to agree."

The first December meeting garnered a majority vote for the teams to play in 2009, but the group wanting not to play asked for another vote, which turned out to be 2/3rds majority. Niro said this group is now being disingenuous. At the initial meeting in December they suspended with 2/3rds vote - "now they say we couldn't get 75% to vote to come back? They didn't have 75% to suspend the 2009 season in December, so they turned two owners and wired the vote to 2/3 instead of three-quarters. After that, we could barely get a simple majority to do anything."

Many in the group wouldn't put up money to pay the debt former commissioner David Baker had accumulated. Owners enabled Baker and didn't rein him in. They let him borrow money because he had stacked the executive committee in his favor and finally they just let him do what he wanted, several sources indicated.

However, when a proposal was floated by the "White Hats" to pay up or shut up in June, the discussion got heated. A "dust up" between several board members and Elway started when the "White Hats" told the former Denver Broncos quarterback to, "Get out, quit and just move out of our way."

Elway, whose ego may be bigger than Broncos Stadium, was the force behind changing the game's "Ironman System" a few years ago to "free substitution" with each side being allowed players to go one-way instead of the six of eight players under the original rules to have to play on both sides of the ball. There was a lot of discontent with the move because it changed the integrity of the game, which Foster originally envisioned.

"The control group would not get out of the way and let others move forward," Niro added. "Our plan included a situation where the league office could be done for less than $4 million, and that would break-even in 2010."

Some owners complained that Baker spent beyond the league's means to try and take the league "big time" too fast. Facing mounting debts and owners dissatisfaction, Baker resigned two days before ArenaBowl XX in New Orleans after meeting with the board of directors. It was in that July 2008 meeting that his authority to reorganize and seek outside investors was challenged. Under pressure to preserve his authority, he resigned.

Baker was a "master politician" said one board member who answered some of our questions on the condition of anonymity, primarily because of his position on the board. "After the fifth year of his tenure, David got carried away with the idea the league could be next to the NFL. We were beginning to get NFL ownership and celebrity ownership, and he thrived on that aspect. The over zealous spending was ludicrous, considering we still wanted to keep some perspective. "

Another board member pointed out, "The owners couldn't decide on what to order for lunch, let alone keep this league running."

"We also lacked leadership, consensus and commitment. What business can succeed under that situation?" Niro asked. "Maybe it's for the best that this group disband and go their separate ways. It's clear to me they do not trust each other enough to commit to the enterprise. A very sad end to the story."

The following is an examination of each team. This includes a summary of what each owner, managing partner, coaches or other former administrators know about their own situation; executives quoted from other publications, etc. "WH" is for White Hat, or Good Guy, and "BH" is Black Hat or Heel.

ARIZONA RATTLERS (Phoenix) "WH" - One of the premier markets in the AFL, managing partner Brett Bouchy told The Arizona Republic, "I believe there is a chance the Rattlers will be back in 2010, but not the AFL. I'll try to sell this with my partners and see where this goes." This franchise deserves another chance. Some of the most loyal fans in the league, and enough fans and sponsorship to make it in a market of "big time" sports.

CHICAGO RUSH Semi "BH" - The Levins demonstrated a willingness to support Hohensee and allow him to spend money for outstanding players. They brought in Mike Ditka as a "celebrity owner" and increased their visibility throughout the Windy City. However, they changed their vote from "play" to "no play" and this was another instrumental dagger in the heart of the league. Former head coach Mike Hohensee, 15 years as a coach in the AFL and last 8 as the only head mentor of the Rush, won 83 games with Chicago, including a 2006 ArenaBowl championship. Another franchise that built a solid fan base in the Rosemont, Ill, All State Arena.

CLEVELAND GLADIATORS Semi "WH" - One owner told me. "Jim (Ferraro) wants to play but he came in late." Ferraro moved this franchise from a disastrous situation in Las Vegas after floundering in New Jersey under several other ownerships. The Cleveland/Miami based attorney then hired the highly respectable Mike Wilpolt, brought in "celebrity" owner Bernie Kosar, the former Cleveland Browns quarterback and things went well as the team made the first round of the playoffs in nearly 10 seasons. Ferraro told The New York Times, "Some of the owners wanted to play in 2010, but not enough would put up the money necessary to continue. There isn't a majority to fund; I'd even fund more than my share, if I could get it back."

COLOARDO CRUSH "BH" - The Denver-based team was one of the three NFL affiliated teams (not including the New Orleans Saints Tom Benson whose Voo Doo bailed after last season). Elway represented the team and had aspirations of running the league, but found himself running the league into the ground instead. He didn't return phone calls to the Denver media. This franchise, led by Elway's decision making, was the original architect of, "if we don't get certain things, then we won't play." Kind of the childish evolution of ‘taking your toys home if you don't get your way,' which I had explained in several previous columns. However, when a proposal was floated by the "White Hats" to pay up or shut up in June, the discussion got heated. A "dust up" between several board members and Elway started when the "White Hats" told the former Denver Broncos quarterback to "Get out, quit and just move out of our way." Elway was the force behind changing the game's "Ironman System" a few years ago to "free substitution" with each side being allowed players to go one-way instead of the six of eight players under the original rules to have to play on both sides of the ball. There was a lot of discontent with the move because it changed the integrity of the game, which Foster originally envisioned.

COLUMBUS DESTROYERS "BH" - Renacci, the president/general manager/partner, found himself hiring long-time AFL coach Pat Sperduto in July of 2008. During a six-year tenure at Nashville, Sperduto took the Kats to ArenaBowls in 2000 and 2001. He never got to coach the Destroyers and remains a scout in the NFL. Renacci's leadership as executive director of the AFL board was marginal at best, several insiders told me. "He had an agenda that did not offer us a chance; he was powerless," said one board member. "He did not assert leadership and should have stepped aside."

DALLAS DESPERADOS "BH" - Shy Anderson, who ran (COO) the Texas team and also was the son-in-law of Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones, was also a co-chair of the "reorganization committee," but bowed out late in the "game" as Jones pulled the plug on the franchise and did not want to spend anymore time or money. "I've always thought the game was an attractive game," Jones told, "but, we all know when you get the kind of pressure we're in - in these economic times - then you have an economic model that really doesn't work, then it is not surprising to see it stop play." Jones also told an audience of owners and administrators at a meeting (of another league) a number of years "indoor football will continue to grow and become international someday."

GEORGIA FORCE "BH" - The Atlanta/Gwinnett-based team owned by Falcons' owner Arthur M. Blank was one of the first to eliminate its staff and concede that the team would not be playing following the 2008 season. Blank in a prepared statement Aug. 5, 2009, said, "We are disappointed in this outcome, but there was no other viable choice. Despite significant efforts on the part of many AFL and team representatives, the League was unable to create a sustainable business model that the teams could support." In four seasons, the Force under head coach Doug Plank compiled a winning record and made one ArenaBowl appearance.

GRAND RAPIDS RAMPAGE "WH" - Owned by Dan DeVos (of Amway and the NBA Orlando Magic) and under the direction of COO Scott Gorsline and GM Scott Woodruff, the team made significant strides in rebounding from winning ArenaBowl 2001 in the smallest venue in the AFL. In 2008, after hiring long-time AFL coach Steve Thonn, the Rampage made it to the playoff semifinals, winning against difficult opponents on the road. "Anything's possible," said Gorsline of the Rampage joining another Arena style league. "We're open to putting Arena Football back on the field," he told the Grand Rapids Press. "It could take any different number of forms. We haven't given up hope. Knowing our ownership and Mr. DeVos' love of this unique sport, I'm sure something else will take its place."

KANSAS CITY BRIGADE "BH" - Owner Chris Likens told the Kansas City Star newspaper: "It's been very, very difficult trying to get the 75 percent vote needed. You can't have more than three no's (votes)." Despite Likens saying a "vast majority" of owners "are planning on coming back," one board member said Likens was one of the cogs that stopped any proposal from passing. Despite mild success on the field, the Brigade was playing in the new Sprint Center, which could have made a difference to the organization's future. Likens was described by many as the "architect of demise and put a cog in everything" the group wanted to do.

LOS ANGLES AVENGERS (Non-Combatant) - Owner Casey Wasserman pulled out of the league before any of the committees were developed for reorganization. Several sources told me that Wasserman wants to come back, but would not make a commitment until the remainder of the league owners settled their differences. Wasserman is one of the forces behind getting an NFL franchise back in the Los Angeles area, so it appears he has little time for the AFL.

NEW ORLEANS VOODOO (Non-Combatant) - Owner Tom Benson, who also has the New Orleans Saints, has no intention of returning a team to the AFL.

NEW YORK DRAGONS "WH" - Steve Silva, definitely in shock over the "indefinite suspension of the AFL," spent a lot of money revitalizing this franchise after purchasing it from Charles Wang. Silva changed the color scheme of the team with new uniforms and a new playing surface for the 2009 season. Silva wants to play and would join the four to six who have indicated they will proceed with some type of league.

ORLANDO PREDATORS "WH" and "BH" - Brett Bouchy was affiliated with the Predators from 1996 to 2007, but had gone on to become the managing partner of the Arizona Rattlers in 2008. Even during this time, he attempted to regain control and had purchased the interest back from Ron Howse of Orlando. However, the AFL Board had not okayed the deal and so after Howse stepped back from the franchise, one of the minority owners, Bob Gries, had the vote. Gries, who at one time was part owner of the Tampa Bay Storm, was "very critical" to the white hats. He first voted to play and then on the second ballot voted not to have the Preds participate in 2009. Bouchy still remains confident that he will gain approval and retain his majority ownership. This has been a highly successful franchise since 1991, and the Preds have been in the AFL playoffs 17 consecutive seasons, winning ArenaBowls in 1998 and 2000. Its most recent coach, Jay Gruden, who had won AB's with both Tampa Bay and Orlando, now is the offensive coordinator for the Orlando team in the new United Football League, which kicks off this fall.

PHILADELPHIA SOUL "BH" - Founded in 2004 with Bon Jovi and Spencer as the majority owners, the team finally got to the ArenaBowl last year and defeated the San Jose SaberCats for the league title. When it came down to getting things done in the conference calls, evidently there was little participation from Soul ownership. Also, Bon Jovi requested a meeting with one of the more successful franchise owners in the league. Sources said this meeting may have happened, but nothing was substantially decided. "Spencer did all the talking; but did nothing," said another insider, who said he also was part of "The Gang of Three" that included Renacci and Anderson. Bon Jovi, on the other hand, was exasperated with the proceedings, but Spencer had the floor most of the time. He made some behind the scene attempts but they didn't result in much movement.

SAN JOSE SABERCATS "WH" - The most successful franchise in the last 10 years with three championships, SaberCat ownership and administration is determined to continue playing. In a recent press release, the team's VP Hank Stern said, "The San Jose SaberCats remain committed to playing football, and we are actively exploring other options for putting the SaberCats back on the field in 2010." John Fry, the team's principal owner, said in the release he was hopeful the league and sport could be revived. Stern is still on board as VP and head coach Darren Arbet, one of the most successful coaches in the AFL, could be working on scenarios of where the ‘Cats could play in 2010 or along with ownership organizing some of the other teams seeking to play as early as 2010.

TAMPA BAY STORM "WH" - Dr. Robert Nucci of Tampa became majority owner before last season. He has spent a lot of money (nearly $10 million up front to the league) and wants to see some payback by the team staying on the field in the AFL. The most devastated head coach of all has to be Tim Marcum of the Storm. The most successful coach in the league with seven championship rings, five of those with the Storm, Marcum was saddened by the news of the "indefinite suspension" of the league. He had been a part of its history since 1987 when he took the Denver Dynamite to the league's inaugural championship. "We only have ourselves to blame," Marcum told the Tampa Times. "It's our leadership's fault. We owed $14 million and when you owe that much something's wrong. You did it the wrong way." He said the debt was the reason the league wasn't playing.

UTAH BLAZE "WH" and "BH" - Blaze owner John Garff said in a release, "(The Board) was unable to reach any consensus of restructuring the League over the past eight months," but he refused to acknowledge to The Salt Lake City Tribune that the league was completely finished. Utah was a solid franchise, with a tremendous fan base. Former Cowboy and Arizona head coach Danny White was successful but did not take the team deep into the playoffs as he had done with the Rattlers. The Garff family is committed to playing in the AFL, according to most sources. But when that might actually be is unknown. Some say in 2011, they could come back.

ARENA FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION "WH" - AFLPA regional director James Guidry, a long-time AFL player himself, said he was hopeful the league could right itself as soon as possible because of the jobs lost by the players. The players association made tremendous concessions, agreeing to a rollback of the salary cap to the 2001 level of $1.1 million, nearly $1.5 less than what it was to be in 2009. They agreed to a minimum team salary of $935,000, or 85%, of the cap to for players. All players would have been free agents in 2010, able to negotiate new contracts and the roster minimum would have been 18 with a maximum of 20. Guidry points out the league is not about "celebrity" ownership but about the players and the product on the field. "It was beneficial to the league for them (celebrities) to do what they did early on, but you have to establish some stars."

PITTSBURGH (Non-Combatant) - Steel Town was to field an expansion team as part of the restructuring of the AFL. Former NFL great and Hall of Famer Lynn Swan was to head a group which would have paid $10 million to join the league. The Pittsburgh Gladiators were an original team in the league in 1987 and played through the 1990 season (4 years) before becoming the Tampa Bay Storm. With only four teams in 1987, the Gladiators tied the Denver Dynamite, coached by Tim Marcum, with 4-2 records each. The two met in the first ever ArenaBowl with Denver coming out on top, 45-16. Again in 1989, the Glads played the Detroit Drive (coached by Marcum) in ArenaBowl III and lost, 39-26. Overall, Pittsburgh compiled a 16-12 record under head coach Joe Haering, a long-time scout coach in the NFL who presently is the linebackers coach at Southern Methodist University.

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Arena Football League (1987-2008) Stories from August 11, 2009

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