NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The Arena Football League -- generally regarded as one of the better-run leagues in the country, with a salary cap and cooperation from the players, a fat TV contract with ESPN and high-profile owners such as rock star Jon Bon Jovi -- was forced to cancel its 2009 season today due to the sluggish economy.
While the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Nascar race teams and Major League Baseball Advanced Media have all struggled due to the economic environment, the AFL has become the first professional sports league forced to shut down. The suspension of the 2009 season is pending the agreement of the AFL players' union.
"Every owner in the AFL is strongly committed to the League, the game and, most importantly, the fans," Acting Commissioner Ed Policy said in a statement. "Owners, however, recognize that -- especially in light of the current unprecedented economic climate -- the AFL, as a business enterprise, needs to be restructured if it is to continue to provide its unique brand of this affordable, fan-friendly sport."
Cancellation a surprise
That a viable pro-sports league would have to cancel a season is actually quite surprising, and a further indication of the devastating effects of the economy. The 22-year old AFL -- with 16 teams across the country -- averaged a league-record 13,000 fans per game for the 2008 season, which was won by the team Mr. Bon Jovi co-owns, the Philadelphia Soul. TV viewership on Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN2 was up 12%, year over year.
The AFL had a cadre of strong sponsors, including Russell Athletic, Miller Lite, Aaron's Rents, Discover Card, and ESPN, which also had a minor financial stake in the league. ESPN, which will have to fill a void in programming, declined to comment.
Mark Rudnick, VP-marketing for Aaron's, told AdAge.com that the league had kept him abreast of what was happening and he anticipated that the AFL would shut down for 2009. "We're saddened. We've been a big supporter of the AFL, we believe in it, we like their relationship with ESPN," Mr. Rudnick said. "What we're going to do with those marketing dollars we committed to the AFL, I can't say at this point. We have an aggressive program going in Nascar and the NBA, but it's just too early to say what we'll do because of the AFL news."
Positives not enough
The AFL also had what few sports leagues have -- a hard salary cap and cooperation from the players, who last week offered to take a 30% pay cut in order to save the 2009 season. But, even with all those positive factors, the AFL was still losing money. Because of overhead costs, it is likely that it won't be able to carry 16 teams if and when it returns, but ESPN apparently told the AFL it doesn't want to broadcast a league that has fewer than 10 or 12 teams.
Earlier this year, the AFL entered into discussions with Platinum Equity, hoping the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based investment firm would take a 40% stake -- or $100 million -- in the league. The talks fell apart.
The AFL is an indoor, high-speed, high-octane version of football. The playing field is shorter, resembling a hockey rink with Astroturf instead of ice, scores are generally in the 50s and 60s, and distinctive rules such as large net behind the goal post that is "in play" kept fans entertained. The league has also been a de facto minor league as well, sending several players to the NFL, most notably quarterback Kurt Warner, a two-time NFL MVP who led the St. Louis Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
In a statement, Mr. Bon Jovi said: "We, the owners of the Arena Football League, realize we have the most fan-friendly, affordable and accessible sport anywhere. These are trying economic times. The revamping will ensure that the AFL continues to provide value to its fans and not only survives but thrives in the years to come."