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AFL board of directors votes not to suspend season, but league still in limbo

12/10/2008

PHILADELPHIA -- The Arena Football League's 2009 season is on -- for now.

The AFL's board of directors met via conference call Wednesday night but "despite rumors and reports to the contrary" did not suspend the upcoming season.

"The Board will continue to meet regularly to examine any and all long-term structural improvement options for the AFL," the league said in a statement.

The meeting came amid a tumultuous week in which the league seemed poised to cancel the season.

The 16-team league repeatedly has delayed the start of free agency and the release of its 2009 schedule after an offseason of uncertainty. No replacement has been named for longtime commissioner David Baker, who abruptly resigned in July two days before the ArenaBowl championship game.

"I have yet to hear anything from our ownership, but I am happy for the league and happy to possibly have the opportunity to defend our championship," Philadelphia Soul coach Bret Munsey said Wednesday evening.

"We all know there are some things that need to be corrected, and that's what they're working on. They're working on the economic model, and it needs to be corrected. Maybe this makes the league stronger. We're looking to be around for another 20 years."

The AFL's woes come at a time when the world of sports, once thought to be largely recession-proof, has felt the economic chill. The NFL has said it would cut 150 jobs, while the NBA and NASCAR also have laid off dozens of workers. The NHL is in a hiring freeze while the Internet operation for Major League Baseball also has trimmed positions.

It's still possible there could be big changes to the arena league.

Avengers owner Casey Wasserman told the Los Angeles Times that the AFL needs to take the time to become more efficient because of the poor economy. Wasserman is a former league chairman and one of the AFL's major power brokers.

"It's important for the Arena Football League to think about the next 20 years," Wasserman told the Times. "And the economic model, combined with the economic environment we're in currently doesn't allow us to take that perspective. By suspending play for the year -- in cooperation with our players and our partners -- it allows us to get the perspective to try and make the decisions that are in the best interest of the long-term viability of the league."

Philadelphia Soul wide receiver Chris Jackson told the AP that the league's players had agreed to take pay cuts and had been told Tuesday that the season likely would be canceled.

Jackson said he still isn't convinced the AFL will play in '09.

"I'm still reluctant to get too happy," he said. "There's still a lot to plan out. We need to figure out how many teams are going to be in it, the finances of it all, and a working financial model for the future. There's still a lot to be done."

The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press reported earlier Wednesday that the players' union, in a conference call Friday, voted to cut the salary cap from $2 million to $1.4 million in order to help save the coming season.

"I'm one of the top-paid guys and I was the first one to say I'd take a pay cut," Ahmad Hawkins, union rep for the Grand Rapids Rampage, told the newspaper. The Press said Hawkins, a defensive back, earned $75,000 last season.

"We agreed to take the salary cap lower. The players want to do anything we can to play this season," Hawkins said, according to the paper.

Players' union spokesman Carl Francis declined to discuss specifics about the 2009 season.

"We definitely are in discussions with the Arena Football League on these issues," he said.

Officials from several teams said they were proceeding with business as usual for the time being.

"We're readying contracts right now for when we're ready to move forward with free agency," said Luke Stahmer, vice president of operations for the Colorado Crush. "We're buying helmets and jerseys as if it's a regular season. We don't want to get caught with our pants down, so to speak."

The 22-year-old Arena Football League has lasted longer than the American Football League, World League, USFL and XFL combined.

Since November 2007, the AFL's board of directors has been looking into various ways to bolster the league's finances.

One proposal involved individual franchise owners ceding control of the league to new investors. Sports Business Journal reported in October that AFL owners had approved a tentative deal with Platinum Equity in which the company would invest up to $100 million and assume management control of the league.

That deal, however, has yet to be completed.

There are still no clear answers when the AFL's 16 teams might be able to start signing free agents. The dispersal draft for the players of the New Orleans VooDoo, also delayed indefinitely, was originally scheduled for October.

New Orleans dropped out of the league despite being in the top five in the league in attendance. Saints owner Tom Benson, who also owned the VooDoo, said the decision was based on "circumstances currently affecting the league and the team."

The AFL's minor-league operation, AF2, is still in operation.

ESPN has a minor, nonmanagement financial interest in the AFL. The network acquired national TV rights to the league in 2006 and signed a five-year deal to have multimedia rights that included everything from Internet to radio to publishing to international distribution.

"We've always admired the AFL fan-first philosophy, but we have no comment on their business activity," ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.