AFL appears close to folding

Updated: August 4, 2009, 8:06 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

The Arena Football League is on the brink of folding and declaring bankruptcy, an inglorious end for the 22-year-old indoor league that has suffered through a year of turmoil.

James Guidry, the regional director of the AFL players' association, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that it "seems to be inevitable at this point" that the AFL will soon announce that it has ceased operations. Guidry, speaking by telephone, said the players' association will accept the owners' decision.

"We're waiting to see if this decision has been finalized by the AFL," Guidry said.

The AFL suspended play for the 2009 season, but some owners expressed hope that the league would return in some form in 2010.

David Baker abruptly resigned as league commissioner two days before the 2008 ArenaBowl championship game. Owners did not look for a replacement.

The Jon Bon Jovi-owned Philadelphia Soul were the last ArenaBowl champions. The Soul appear to have folded for good. Their Web site posts only a simple message thanking fans for their support during the past five seasons. The Philadelphia Soul Charitable Foundation has been renamed the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation.

Bon Jovi did not immediately return a request for comment. Craig Spencer, another co-owner, declined comment and hung up when asked about the future of the league.

[+] EnlargeArena Ball
AP Photo/Mike GrollThe AFL logo soon will be no more; the owners never agreed on a financial plan, and it is likely the league will announce it is declaring bankruptcy.

The Georgia Force, anticipating an announcement by the league, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying it had ceased operations.

"We are disappointed at this outcome for AFL fans, but there was no other viable choice," team president Dick Sullivan said in the statement. "Despite significant efforts on the part of many AFL and team representatives, the league was unable to create a new business model that we and others could support."

ESPN, which owns a small equity share in the league, said it is not involved in the management of the AFL.

A league source told ESPN that the AFL was "suspending operations indefinitely," with an official announcement forthcoming. ESPN was the last network to televise AFL games nationally.

"This is entirely an internal AFL matter," ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said. "Our telecast agreement with the league has been terminated."

Soul wide receiver Chris Jackson said the demise of the league was not a surprise once owners could not agree on long-term structural improvements that would keep it profitable.

A disagreement among owners about whether to bring in a private equity firm to invest in the league appeared a major sticking point in December.

"We weren't creating enough revenue. Salaries were going up and without revenue coming in it was a bad business model," Jackson said. "That's one thing that they wanted to focus on and change some of those things. They tried. They tried to market the league as a whole instead of small franchises likes Grand Rapids versus L.A. The owners knew there was too much money to be lost."

The last update on the AFL's Web site is an April release that said the league was finalizing a revitalized business model that would allow it to compete in 2010.

But the league's owners did not agree on a plan that would allow them to commit to a 2010 season and beyond. The Los Angeles Avengers dropped out of the league in April. The New Orleans VooDoo, owned by Saints owner Tom Benson, shut down last year.

"I knew it wasn't going to come back, especially the way we as players wanted it to come back," Jackson said.

The AFL's offshoot, known as af2, played this season and is in the midst of the ArenaCup playoffs. The AFL owns 50.1 percent of the af2. If the AFL goes under, it won't greatly affect the minor league version because the af2 is solvent, self-funded and pays its bills, Iowa Barnstormers co-owner Jeff Lamberti said.

The AFL's offshoot, known as af2, played this season and is in the midst of the ArenaCup playoffs. The AFL owns 50.1 percent of the af2. If the AFL goes under, it won't greatly affect the minor league version because the af2 is solvent, self-fundeds and pay its bills, Iowa Barnstormers co-owner Jeff Lamberti said.

The af2 executive committee has been working on contingency plans ever since the AFL announced it was suspending its season last year. Possible new plans range from combining af2 and defunct AFL teams to create a revamped league, or perhaps a new league with two tiers much like AFL/af2 with a different economic model -- or just leaving the af2 as is with a new name.

"I think the important thing that we do know as far as the current af2, whether we change our name or something to be a little more appropriate in the light of AFL, that as a league we're strong, we're going to continue, we're going to play," Lamberti said. "In our opinion, worst-case scenario, we simply become a separate entity and continue as we have."

The AFL found a niche in the sports world thanks to its 50-yard fields and high-scoring games. Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner is the league's most successful graduate. The league totaled 135,347 fans during the inaugural 12-game 1987 season, but eventually was televised on both NBC and ESPN. It received a needed image boost earlier this decade when celebrity owners such as Bon Jovi and NFL Hall of Famer John Elway served as pitchmen for the league.

"The league's not about John Elway or Jon Bon Jovi. The league's about the players and the product on the field," Guidry said. "It wasn't Elway or Bon Jovi on that field. But I don't think it was them that damaged the league, no. It was beneficial to the league for them to do what they did early on, but you have to establish some stars."

The Soul held a small championship parade in Philadelphia last year and Bon Jovi helped design rings for the players. But it appears they will not get a chance to defend their lone championship.

"I just feel bad for a lot of the franchises that did things the right way," Jackson said. "I feel bad for the fans because for 22 years it was one of the most unique, most loved, most fun sports I've ever been a part of. It's just a shame there's no more Arena Football League for people."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE