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Arena Football Season May Be On The Brink

The 2012 Arena Football League season could be jeopardized by labor strife (Photo: Parker Waters).The 2012 Arena Football League season could be jeopardized by labor strife (Photo: Parker Waters).

While the New Orleans VooDoo get set to travel to Cleveland on Friday to take on the Gladiators the next night, many players are pondering their futures in the league and wondering if they will be traveling home or to Orlando for their next game after the Cleveland contest.

On the horizon is a possible work stoppage following this weekend's games.

AFL Players Union Executive Director Ivan Soto and his membership are considering the latest contract offer from the league with a decision on both ends set for Sunday, following this weekend's games.

The league issued its open letter to fans on Tuesday regarding the ongoing labor dispute which have resulted in one forfeit and one "replacement" game this season.

The Arena Football League Players Union quickly responded in combative fashion on the front page of its web site at www.aflpu.org. The response, on a point-by-point basis, addresses the league's letter and it should be noted that it is filled with many grammatical errors.

The Gladiators already took a bold step by forfeiting last week's game to Pittsburgh, a highly questionable decision, based on Cleveland's position in the race for a playoff spot. The loss dropped the Gladiators to 6-6.

Orlando and Pittsburgh players, via the players union, went on strike, seeking a doubling of their wages prior to the league season opener on March 9.

Both team owners responded by firing their players. A few players crossed the picket line and played in the game but the two teams went on to play a farce of a contest with replacement players, choosing players for each side just before game time. Many players were not even very familiar with league rules. The game counted as a league game and Pittsburgh won the game 40-26.

Sources tell SportsNola.com that the league is again considering firing players if they balk at the latest offer from the league and that teams would again seek replacement players to carry on.

Soto is frustrated with contract negotiations seeking a new collective bargaining agreement. The players union wants a raise from $400 to $600 per game for its players while starting quarterbacks would make $1,275 per game. The league has reportedly countered with an increase to $500 per game for players and $1,275 per game for starting quarterbacks. Other rumors have the players asking for even more money per game.

At this point, the league and the union seem to be at an impasse. Three weeks ago, the AFL Players Union rejected the League's latest proposal in less than an hour. The union reverted back to its Collective Bargaining Agreement proposal made on February 24, prior to the start of the season.

After more than three months, the Union has shown no movement from its proposal formulated by AFL Players Union Executive Director Ivan Soto, who acknowledges the proposal would cost the League in excess of $15 million over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, according to the league.

Prior to shutting down for a year after the 2008 season, players made more money but the league model was broken, leading to the most influential owners in the league, including Tom Benson, pulling out and shutting down operations. The league returned in 2010 with a leaner, meaner, fiscally conservative and responsible model that pays players far less.

In 2008, players made a reported $500 to $800 per game with many receiving excessive bonuses of around $1,000 per game. Over the 25 years of the AFL, some players had personal services contracts with their teams, making even more money.

Arena Football League players, including those of the VooDoo, are good players and many are very good people. They play for the love of the game. They play for the dream of playing in the NFL. They play because they just cannot walk away from the game.

In the AFL, there is no place to hide. The small field means tremendous physical contact. The hard, old-style artificial turf is unforgiving. So are the walls that border the field.

The fact that the league is willing to increase its levels of pay shows that there is some wiggle room in negotiations. What is puzzling is that this would be going on during a championship season.

While the talks started in the off-season, the regular season should be played in uninterrupted fashion. Of course, the NFL players walked out during the regular season in 1982 and 1987 so this is not unprecedented.

The difference is that the NFL owns the sports marketplace and the narrative on a national sports basis. Fans always return to support the NFL. While AFL is a good story, in its 25th year, the league cannot afford to sustain further public relations "hits" and negatives.

Attendance has declined in many places, including New Orleans. 10 of 17 returning franchises are averaging fewer fans this season with Pittsburgh and New Orleans well off of last year's pace. Georgia, Kansas City and Milwaukee are struggling. San Antonio is up after the Tulsa franchise relocated there following the 2011 season. Dallas folded after the 2011 season.

Despite being in its second year and having a significantly better team (5-7 currently) than a league-worst 3-15 team in 2011, the VooDoo are averaging just 5,946 fans for seven home games with just two remaining.

A year ago, New Orleans averaged 8,153 fans per home game. The VooDoo drew more than 9,000 fans twice and drew more than 8,000 five times in 2011 for a woeful team that went winless in nine home games. In 2012, the VooDoo have drawn more than 8,000 just once. The VooDoo are 12th in the league (out of 17 teams) in attendance despite a fine new coach in Pat O' Hara and better players.

Awareness has decreased significantly, with a lack of advertising and marketing by member teams. Some franchises choose not to initiate local television for teams. Others choose not to have radio deals. The national television deal is a once-a-week exposure on NFL Network, which is not available to some cable subscribers, a far cry from the AFL days of national telecasts on ESPN and NBC. Thanks to the labor strife, those telecasts are now an afterthought, aired on a tape-delayed basis.

Frankly, the league should require each of its AFL members to have local radio and television deals. The exposure and awareness issues, as well as credibility issues of these franchises in their major markets, are at stake.

The league already struggles with barely sufficient media coverage in many markets while some are nearly invisible. Traveling with the VooDoo for the past two years, some media virtually ignore teams in their markets while others get fair play. Having a consistent radio and television presence clearly helps expose the product and guarantee franchise awareness in member markets.

While all of this mess continues to develop, the league recently announced plans to revive a developmental league as early as 2013. Previously, AF2 operated as a developmental league for the AFL from 2000-2009 in smaller markets than those in AFL. The current New Orleans VooDoo relocated from Bossier City/Shreveport, which was initially an AF2 franchise before transitioning into the AFL in 2010. Dan Newman moved the team here in good faith, believing that there would be greater fan support.

With all due respect, the league might want to strengthen its current primary product, on and off the field, and settle its labor issues before looking to expand.

Jerry Kurz has done a solid job in getting the Arena League back on its feet, operational and solvent. He is enthusiastic and loves the game. His heart is clearly in it. He travels to an AFL market (or two) each week. He is ready and willing to make himself available for interviews to promote the league. He was one of the founding fathers of the league and served as league president of AF2 for 10 years before taking over the AFL in 2010.

Having done AFL game broadcasts (New Orleans Night) dating back to 1991, I have always perceived the product as a fun, entertaining entity. It is a pleasure to be involved with the VooDoo and the AFL and having the team here provides entertainment and jobs for the community. ArenaBowl XXV is set for August 10 at New Orleans Arena. I would love to see the VooDoo here for many years to come.

Arena Football is not on life support but its support will continue to wane if the league cannot settle its differences with players and improve its visibility.

 

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