Following Gregg Fornario’s August 15 launch of Northern Arena Football, the prevailing sentiment is that this sport needs a new league about as much as the world needs to invent another way to make doughnuts. There’s an inherent fear about diluting its limited talent pool with a broader base of teams, or by over-saturating the market. Indoor football is already plentiful, and it’s now running beyond the third weekend of the NFL preseason. The greater the supply, the less the demand, right?
But from all indications, Northern Arena Football is not a quantity play looking for its sliver of a stagnant market-share pie. Rather, it’s a quality improvement process that resurrects the footprint of Can-Am Indoor Football and displaces the slummy façade upon which the American Arena League was founded with a makeover of common sense and sound business practices the AAL has never known. Fornario, it seems, is baking a fresh pie.
He started by announcing the New England Cavalry as his first team this past Monday. It’s a move that is surprising only in its utter logic, considering that logic has never been a compass guiding decisions in the AAL from which Fornario comes. Cavalry owner Kevin James has forged a strong business relationship with Fornario that dates back to April, when the Cavalry traveled to Richmond to take on the Roughriders. Moreover, James is outspoken in his condemnation of weak ownership and dysfunctional front offices, and that’s something else he shares with Fornario. He presents as a polarizing owner who will draw the attention of many an otherwise casual arena football onlooker. He is also energetic, as his plans for developing a football facility in southern New Hampshire will attest.
With James now an anchor tenant, Fornario has boots on the ground where he wants to be, which is north and east of Pennsylvania, Keystone State included. As Fornario recently told Arena Football Talk, “being geographically correct is huge.” The economic and logistics advantages are obvious to anyone familiar with the failures of the AAL, whose unrestrained wanderlust for the East Coast was a contributing factor in the league canceling 14 of the 64 scheduled games during its inaugural season. But there’s an added benefit in tight geography: proximity breeds contempt, and that fuels rivalries.
Enter the New England Bobcats, the reincarnation of the former Can-Am’s New Hampshire Brigade and this year’s EIFL champions. They could be the powder keg to James’ spark, and this would be nothing but upside for a new league looking to supersize passion for the game.
There have been preliminary discussions between Fornario and Bobcats owner Cynthia Hudson, and speculation about the Bobcats’ entry into the NAF is fueled by confirmation from the EIFL that Hudson will not be returning. With the AAL receding to the South, there may be no better place for the Bobcats to land. That pits Hudson against James, whose self-described abrasive personality already lends itself to natural rivalries with any team that joins him. In this case, the acrimony is exacerbated when there’s preexisting bad blood and the other owner’s hometown lies in the shadow of the megaplex James is constructing. This has the ingredients for a twice-a-season showdown that will make the Columbus Lions and Jacksonville Sharks look like high school sweethearts.
“There is a rivalry there,” James acknowledges. “Nothing friendly about it. [Hudson]’s been trying to steal my players since Day One. I 100% expect to play [the Bobcats], and my goal is to hang 80 on them.”
If that’s not throwing down the gauntlet, nothing is. Kudos to Fornario if he can pull this off.
There are two other disembodied Can-Am franchises roaming the Northeast that could also be on his radar. The Glens Falls Gladiators succumbed to the State of New York’s demand for exorbitant workers comp premiums after their 2017 season, but Fornario’s business clout might just be the elixir that gets them back online. And in Vermont, a cadre of Can-Am champion Bucks fans who regularly stocked the Gutterson Fieldhouse in 2017 have a healthy supply of pent-up demand to release, but it looks like they’ll have to wait another year. New owner Joanna Morse is still mopping up the mess former ownership left behind, and renovations to the Gutterson Fieldhouse would force her into a marketing nightmare of trying to barnstorm Vermont. She’d need a significant capital infusion to go live in 2019, making a 2020 entry more likely.
The Rochester Kings are the only other remaining Can-Am team still in existence, and with the AAL headed south they will undoubtedly be looking for a new home. But this doesn’t feel like a value-adding proposition. The Kings are a nation-state more reclusive than North Korea. It’s easier to get into Pyongyang than to play a game in Bill Gray’s Iceplex, where half of the Kings’ home games last season had to be canceled in what Iceplex workers described as a “typical” occurrence. Poor communication and reliability make owner Felix Joyner a net detractor. Here again, the NAF can help out arena football’s cause through some addition by subtraction and let the Kings go independent or fold.
Then there are Fornario’s Roughriders. They’re a wild card that could test the NAF’s geographic boundaries. The Roughriders are currently scouring the Mid-Atlantic in search for a home that could return them to the AAL or bring them into the NAF, depending on its outcome.
The NAF is ideally looking for six teams, so more are needed. As for remaining Northeast inventory, the Jersey Flight by all accounts are finished, with existing owners Samuel Davis and Kyna Ruiz facing legal battles. Repeated inquiries about their 2019 plans have gone unanswered. In Allentown, where the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks are up for sale, a prospective new ownership group could look to the NAF as a cheaper alternative to the NAL, not to mention a gentler field than the one that beat them 15 times in 15 tries by an average margin of 36 points this past season.
So, new blood is needed. Fornario has received initial interest from at least three potential franchises that can bring him to the quorum he needs. He promises a more extensive vetting process that will ensure the financial health of ownership groups, and he’ll lock them in to commitments to players, fans, and community partnes. That sounds like a lot of due diligence, but he’s a fast mover who plans to announce a full slate of teams in the next month. When that happens the NAF will be a strong and compelling league that relegates the AAL and its sophomoric antics to Page Two.
As Fornario says, it’s all about getting in where you fit in. If that means forcing others to fall back where they ought to have been in the first place, so be it. The NAF is a rising tide that can lift other arena leagues that follow its blueprint, and the incremental demand it will attract is well worth the additional room it takes up in this space next year.
The New England Cavalry owner has been referred to by his abbreviated first and middle name of Kevin James throughout this story. It is the name he is best known by, and Fifty Yarder has chosen to utilize it for reader clarity.