As candidates pan for voters who could change the balance of power in Congress in next month’s elections, the American Arena League and Professional Arena Football have spent their autumn on a campaign trail of their own. They’ve been vying for the litany of teams whose league affiliations remain undecided and could change the landscape of Arena 3 football in 2019.
It’s a case of sports imitating life, and although nothing as dramatic as a nation’s welfare is on the line there’s a lot at stake for the two leagues. There aren’t enough resources in terms of East Coast markets that can fill legitimate arenas and appropriately-talented players that can fill rosters for two leagues to coexist in this space. Win big and the victor will emerge as the sole A3 league next spring. On the other hand, much like the lawn I seeded far too late this fall, neither league has deep enough roots to survive the killing frost of a rout at the hands of the other.
Consider the AAL. This is a league assembled with disparate parts of three failed predecessors, loosely joined by a common bond of unprofessionalism and empty promises whose exclamation point came with ESPN 3’s no-show at their own all-star game. After a disastrous inaugural year in which 16 games were canceled, two teams tapped out before the season ended, and a third opted out of the postseason, they were already a long shot to return. These antics spilled into the offseason as both the Upstate Dragons and Jersey Flight went on the lam so deep that not even their own players can find them. The Florida Tarpons seceded to start their own developmental league and Gregg Fornario defected to launch the PAF with his Roughriders franchise and another former AAL team, the New England Cavalry. He even took the AAL’s Facebook forum on his way out the door. Uncertain of the AAL’s viability, other owners were reluctant to commit. President Jack Bowman and CEO Tony Zefiretto had left the door wide open for plunder.
But the PAF has had its own issues. Finding teams has been an arduous task for Fornario, whose mantra is to get in where he fits in. As it happens, well-conceived undertakings with a clear vision of the right way to execute don’t fit in when it comes to arena football, where ownership groups often prefer their waters muddy to better cloud corner-cutting and disingenuous intents. In short, finding legitimate opportunities has been a headwind in getting this league off the ground.
The PAF business model is to cluster teams so as to avoid the pitfalls of high travel costs, thin road rosters, and frequent cancellations that wreaked havoc in last year’s AAL. Fornario was initially focused on a northern cluster but everything from cold feet to paralysis to indecision have stood in the way, so he warmed to central and southern states in response to interest shown by the AAL’s uncommitteds.
With so much at stake, the AAL’s survival instinct kicked in and it looked to protect what it could, which was its southern core. It is here where A3 supremacy would be decided. So, while the rest of the nation is focused on Senate races in Missouri and Texas, or House seats in Iowa and Michigan, the arena football world kept its vigil on Georgia and the Carolinas.
Then, something happened. Bowman and Zefiretto pulled out of their tailspin.
Whether it was a pack mentality or the comforts of familiarity, the Georgia Doom, Peach State Cats, Carolina Energy, and High Country Grizzlies all announced in late September that they would return. Soon, the Cape Fear Heroes reversed a verbal commitment to the PAF and re-upped with the AAL. But last week’s announcement by GM Steve Smith that the Carolina Havoc would stay to defend their championship is the AAL’s biggest coup to date. The Capital City Torch has stopped short of confirming affiliation plans to Fifty Yarder, but count them in as well.
With seven teams in three contiguous states, a leaner AAL is in line to right all the wrongs of its first season. For now, the tables appear to have turned on the PAF. Again, not so fast.
Fornario is only a workman’s comp policy, three venue lease signatures, and one diva’s petulance away from rolling out a well-balanced league comprised of two four-team divisions – one in the north, the other in the central. Sure, he might have to wear the hats of both visionary and babysitter over the next month, but he is unique in the arena world in his ability to bring everything together. I’d count on that happening. There’s no history to suggest otherwise.
What that now means is there will be no landslide victory, no gridiron mandate, coming this fall. And that’s not a good thing. It denies a basic law of nature that would make Charles Darwin roll in his grave. Two survivors sustaining themselves on limited rations must inevitably end badly for one. Given this zero-sum recruiting season, it’s hard to imagine two fledgling leagues cohabitating the same coast for very long.