A half-dozen new leagues got beyond the drawing board across arena football this past offseason, and it should come as no surprise that four of them were plotted by disillusioned teams fleeing the American Arena League.
Notwithstanding the considerable resumes of CEO Tony Zefiretto and President Jack Bowman, the AAL was literally a vaudeville act in its first year: a series of loosely organized games performed up and down the East Coast that sometimes did and other times did not count toward the postseason – in a competitive sports first, one even had a winner but no loser – all staged under one common billing designed to bring laughter to your day. Except that it wasn’t always funny, like the time a player tried to attack fans in Richmond, or the numerous occasions when Upstate Dragons ownership reneged on paying players and vendors. Nor was this a circus you could depend upon to come to town; 12 of the 64 scheduled regular season games were canceled after one team backed out, and another two were saved only by last-minute understudies.
It’s no wonder so many teams wanted out. Of the league’s 15 full and affiliate teams, six in fact did get out. Two disappeared from the face of football. Another four separately declared their secession within a month of each other, casting the AAL into a civil war and shattering any indivisibility delusions it may have had. It was Fort Sumpter all over again at league headquarters.
One of the four to secede – the Richmond Roughriders – did come back into the fold when Professional Arena Football failed to launch. However, the Florida Tarpons, Austin Wild, and New England Cavalry never looked back, and they’re now the cornerstones for the A-League, International Arena Football League (IAFL), and New England Arena League (NEAL), respectively. It’s a triad that is inventing out of necessity as they attempt to forge development league efficiencies with a best-in-class organizational approach, and success here could lead to a paradigm shift in arena leagues to come.
If past mistakes really are the basis for learning, these newbies got an Ivy school education during their year in the AAL. Now they’re putting that education to good use. Each is a leaner, more mission-focused improvement over their former affiliate to the point where any resemblance has slipped away quicker than Ralphie after Santa kicked him down the slide at Higbee’s. It’s not a case of the apple falling far from the tree since they maintain there was never much of a tree to begin with.
“I really don’t want to be categorized as a spinoff,” says A-League Commissioner Gary Tufford. “The AAL didn’t do anything to spawn this [new league] or negate it. I don’t want to be associated with them in any way.”
Nor does Kevin James, whose New England Cavalry were saddled with what he still terms an unfair blame for a forfeit in Rochester last year. As an AAL travel-only team, James took pride in his willingness to go anywhere for a game. He saw firsthand the logistics difficulties inherent in a league that was too sprawled out given its resources. In the NEAL he now sees the boon that will come in redeploying financial resources from travel into what matters most: player development and advancement.
“A lot of teams can’t afford arena football because of the crazy travel,” James said. “The NEAL is taking all that away. There’s no hotels, no buses, no plane trips. Just teams in New England, playing football every Saturday. Everything is provided for [the players].”
A concentrated footprint is one key theme the new leagues have in common, very much unlike the AAL. Team proximity has its advantages. In addition to financial economies, Tufford sees a unique marketing opportunity in what he describes as “some of the best football country in the USA.” In its first year, the A-League will be rolling out a season ticket add-on that gives so-called super fans admission to every league game. It works in Florida, where the passion is high, the talent home-grown, and the pride regional. And it really helps that arenas are within a couple of hours of each other.
“People just love hometown heroes,” he said, “and that’s a niche that has not been fulfilled.”
IAFL co-founder Keith Clay thinks the Southwest, too, is a hotbed for arena football, an advantage the AAL never availed itself of despite a presence in Texas. His Austin Wild had a premier venue available to them in the 6,400-seat Leudecke Arena inside the Travis County Exposition Center, but the Wild were relegated to a travel-only team as AAL peers were unwilling to travel to Austin. Clay now looks forward to staying in his own space, a key to harvesting everything his unchartered market can yield.
“We’re going to keep it small this year,” he explains. “You really have to stay regional at this level. It’s hard to get good quality players when you can’t play in front of your home team.”
Unlike the single-entity paradigm of the A-League and NEAL, IAFL teams are individually owned, perhaps owing to complexities of operating in two countries. With franchises in Mexico City and Tampica filling out their seven-team card, they are the only international arena league playing in 2019. Overnight, the IAFL has become the principal conduit for Mexican and Mexican-American players making their way into higher levels of indoor and outdoor football and it’s a welcomed responsibility.
“We want to get guys up to the AFL,” says co-founder Tim Cook. As if underscoring the importance of maintaining the delicate balance between offering these services and being able to deliver them, he adds that the league will “try not to get too big for our britches.”
But player advancement may be an even taller order in New England, a region that hosts only three FBS and ten FCS college programs. There, interest in grassroots football is thin and home-grown talent thinner. For NEAL Commissioner Cam Savoie, that’s all the more reason to be in the space.
“The goal with the NEAL was to create a league that . . . gets used as a stepping stone for players to get to a higher level,” says Savoie.
He, too, will be bringing out all the stops when it comes to getting eyes on New England players, and that will include livestreaming and up-to-date player stats. But this comes with a price that most developmental leagues cannot afford. In response, the NEAL has gone beyond the doubleheader concept built into A-League and IAFL schedules by becoming the first to incorporate tripleheaders. That’s right, all six NEAL teams will play on the same field on the same day. The arena cost savings alone will help fund better-quality field turf, boards, and pads, all contributing to a better on-field product. It’s part of a shared philosophy across the NEAL: cost containment as a means of redeploying resources into player development and advancement.
“I take pride in knowing we are giving teams who may not regularly explore the arena option a chance to compete and give their players a stage,” boasts Savoie.
“Family, fun, food, and football – all at the same location,” adds James. “Every weekend [will be] an arena football carnival.”
Except, of course, without the clowns. Those were left behind last year.
And what could lie ahead is a new generation of arena leagues that marry economy, logistics, and professionalism in a way neither top-tier or developmental leagues have thus far figured out how to do.
In our annual disclaimer, New England Cavalry owner Kevin James prefers to be referred to only by his first and middle names for reasons respected by Fifty Yarder. His full identity is well known to all within the arena football landscape.