Commentary

AFL status raises questions for players

Updated: December 11, 2008, 7:25 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

He threw 117 touchdown passes in one dizzying season, and now Chris Greisen is polishing his résumé and referring to the book, "Who Moved My Cheese?"

In the AFL, life can move that quickly.

Less than five months after its commissioner gushed about rising TV ratings and the league being as strong as ever, the Arena Football League is scrambling to survive. Greisen, a quarterback with the Georgia Force, said Wednesday that the players recently agreed to a 25 percent reduction in pay "just so everybody could keep their jobs and make it, hopefully, profitable. Or at least for the owners not to lose as much money."

[+] EnlargeChris Greisen
Jimmy Cribb/AFL/Getty ImagesQuarterback Chris Greisen loves the AFL for the camaraderie and the closeness between fans and the players. He now wonders about feeding his family, though.

On Wednesday night, the league's board of directors gathered for a conference call, which led to a late-night statement:

Despite rumors and reports to the contrary, the Arena Football League board of directors has not suspended the 2009 season at this time …

The board will continue to meet regularly to examine any and all long-term structural improvement options for the AFL.

Despite the third reassuring statement in a week, rumors have swirled, Plan B's have been hatched and various media outlets have reported that America's second-longest-running pro football league might be on the verge of shuttering.

The AFL's winter of disarray seemed far-fetched in July, when it prepared for ArenaBowl XXII at the New Orleans Arena. In what might have been a foreboding sign, longtime commissioner C. David Baker resigned two days before kickoff. Since then, the New Orleans VooDoo have folded, and plans for a dispersal draft have been pushed back repeatedly. The league has not yet set a schedule for the 2009 season, which is supposed to start in March. Free agency and general livelihoods also have been put on hold.

"The thing that's different from mainstream America is that we make our money over a five- to six-month time span," Greisen said. "So we budget for that time, and you certainly save for the worst. But you expect to come back the next year. You never figure that that league is going to fold.

"Personally, I think it speaks to the lack of [league] leadership we've had over the last couple of years, starting at the top."

[+] EnlargeDavid Baker
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesFormer AFL commissioner C. David Baker resigned two days before the 2008 ArenaBowl.

Baker did not immediately return calls from ESPN.com. Chris McCloskey, executive vice president of communications for the AFL, has declined to comment on the league's future, referring to a statement issued recently that said the AFL is working on "long-term structural improvements that have delayed some important events."

Those improvements were supposed to include Platinum Equity Group, a Los Angeles-based firm that -- according to the SportsBusiness Journal -- tentatively agreed to invest $100 million this fall in a deal that would've given it a 40 percent stake in the league and control of its business operations. But those plans have yet to be finalized, and McCloskey declined to comment on whether talks with Platinum were ongoing or dead.

The league took another hit last month when EA Sports decided not to renew its deal with the AFL, ending the "Arena Football" video game.

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.

The events have unfolded under the backdrop of a sagging economy and an atmosphere that sports economist Andrew Zimbalist says hits "secondary" sports leagues such as the AFL especially hard.

"They're very vulnerable," Zimbalist said. "They're kind of an afterthought for advertising. … One of the questions to ask about the AFL is, does it give companies an access to a consumer group they don't already have access to? I'm virtually certain the answer is no. If that's the case, they're a tertiary outlet for promoting products, and companies are cutting back on advertising dollars."

Zimbalist says the AFL also is at a disadvantage because the economy took a significant turn for the worse in the league's offseason, when it began its push for 2009 season-ticket sales.

But higher attendance -- in the AFL, at least -- can't necessarily save a team. The VooDoo were near the top of the league attendance list in 2007 and '08, and their hosting of the ArenaBowl was seen as a way to help bring sporting events back to the city in the post-Katrina era.

In October, VooDoo owner Tom Benson, who also owns the Saints, made the surprise announcement that the VooDoo would cease operations based on "circumstances currently affecting the league and the team." Benson didn't elaborate and wasn't immediately made available to ESPN.com for this story.

"It was a surprise to me," said Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation.

"It certainly casts a question mark on the league that a team that was one of the more successful franchises folded. But I don't know all the inside workings of what it takes to run and manage and support an Arena Football League team."

Neither does Greisen. His AFL salary paid him $90,000 in 2008, enough to support his wife and three kids in their home in Green Bay, Wis. He is one of the higher-profile players in the league. He compares the AFL to what the NFL was like in the 1950s and '60s, a time when some players made a decent living but many others spent their offseasons moonlighting as insurance salesmen or construction workers.

Greisen loves the AFL for the camaraderie and the you-can-almost-reach-out-and-touch-them closeness between the fans and the players. The former Arizona Cardinals backup says the league has allowed him to do three things he loves: play football, coach football and talk about football.

In the fall months, he helps coach high school football at Green Bay Southwest with former NFL linebacker Bryce Paup. But the money he makes from coaching isn't nearly enough to pay the bills. He worries about the rookies who made $35,000 for a half-year's work and casually spent their paychecks, assuming many more would be on the way.

He wonders about health insurance and feeding his family in a volatile job market.

"I know there's a lot of rumors floating around out there about what's going to happen," Greisen said. "What I've heard is that the league is going to be suspended for the '09 season. It's all speculation. My [union] rep just says, 'Hold your horses, they're still trying to figure it out.'

"If I'm going out and applying for jobs and football decides to continue playing, great. But I'm not going to sit around and go back and forth on this roller-coaster ride of rumors. I can't wait around for the Arena League to make decisions. I don't think anyone can."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.