Yesterday’s decision by owner Cynthia Hudson to fold the New England Bobcats creates a conundrum for the American Arena League. For one thing, it leaves a gaping hole in the Northern Division. Only the top two teams in each of the league’s four divisions will make the playoffs, and given the wide disparity between teams only two slots remain in contention. Hudson’s departure concedes one of those slots to the Jersey Flight (1-1, 1-0), who have only one league game under their belt. The North becomes the second division to fill up its postseason card; the Midwest has already been reduced to two teams after the Chicago Aztecs withdrew in March. With the Bobcats out, three berths have been decided not on merit but by the basis of last man standing. That’s a real blow to the league’s competitive credibility.
Hudson’s timing is a head-scratcher since going out in good standing seems to have been within reach. The Bobcats no longer had to travel, closing out the last four weeks of the season with three home games and a bye. Hudson was paying short money for a venue in Massachusetts she secured after the New England Cavalry, now of the New England Arena League, passed it up at a cost of $300 per game, excluding riders. Nor did she apparently foot the bill for a medical training staff, and allegations are surfacing that players weren’t getting game pay either. Operating costs were both minuscule and foreseeable, and fulfilling this commitment would have been arena football’s equivalent of a lay-up.
The Bobcats’ demise exacerbates the league’s black eye within the industry and is the latest in a series of spills Tony Zefiretto is left to mop up. He’s already contending with referee no-shows, lopsided contests, and a prevailing sentiment that games are optional. Of 40 scheduled games through last weekend, nine have been canceled. The Bobcats will be adding to this total weekly, beginning with the game against the West Virginia Roughriders that won’t be played this Saturday.
Most of Zefiretto’s headaches these days are side effects of the elixir he and the late Jack Bowman gave arena football to sustain it for a long and healthy future. Since they first met, the pair served as the industry’s incubator, and their raw materials were undeveloped players and unsophisticated organizations. They knew the risks of canceled games and talent disparity but discounted them as part of the maturation process that would eventually bolster the sport. Teams like the Bobcats were their sweet spot.
New England came to the AAL with great potential but few options. Last year they were crowned champions of the Elite Indoor Football League, but Hudson often came across as contentiousness and her welcome was wearing thin. She had higher aspirations and the AAL offered her asylum to recruit locally and play in a public skating rink all the while getting an opportunity to compete against upper-echelon franchises like the Roughriders. To appreciate what she had, just imagine a casual golfer with borrowed clubs getting invited to tee off with Tiger Woods. That’s what she wanted, and making it happen is what Zefiretto does. He doesn’t expect his clients to head back to the clubhouse after the front nine.
The real scare here is that, if this relationship couldn’t work between the AAL and the Bobcats, the proof of concept may be failing. This league needs elite teams like the Roughriders and Havoc to create interest that, in turn, provides exposure to the rest. But it also needs teams like the New England Bobcats who must be willing to take the incremental steps toward improvement that are so necessary for the advancement of the game. It’s a fragile symbiosis that can come down faster than a Jenga tower if one side falters.
So, now we wait to see if this tower can stand without the block Hudson just removed.
Cynthia Hudson was contacted about her decision to fold the Bobcats but did not respond.