Fornario’s Departure Is Completely On The AAL

The relationship between the American Arena League and Gregg Fornario has not exactly been symbiotic. Sure, it started on mutually beneficial footing when the late Jack Bowman took Fornario and his-then Richmond Roughriders into Arena Pro Football, the AAL’s predecessor. APF got a foundational franchise and Fornario got a ring in his first year. But as APF morphed into the AAL, the needle swung decisively in favor of Bowman and partner Tony Zefiretto. The pair struggled through a two-year rough patch yet still managed to grow a base of onlookers morbidly fascinated by Fornario’s ability to continually bail them out. Following the AAL became like watching Inspector Gadget bungle his way through an investigation blissfully ignorant of his watchdog Brain’s efforts to keep him alive.

It was becoming clear the risk-reward equation was getting far out of balance and something had to give. So, it should have come as no surprise to us when Fornario told Inside The Arena last Friday that he and his West Virginia Roughriders have had enough.

This is an announcement a year late in coming. After Fornario’s attempt to launch his own league last summer failed to garner enough commitments, he turned down an offer from the Indoor Football League and returned to the AAL. But lost in the excitement of his homecoming was an implied warranty that the league would hold up its end and get itself together.

Instead it was business as usual. Kevin Adkins was allowed back in despite the Georgia Doom’s unprecedented withdrawal from the previous postseason. So, too, were the Jersey Flight, notwithstanding the upheaval in ownership following the Federal indictments of two former owners. The front office then went on a land grab with a long but indiscriminate reach, pulling in an unvetted group out of Pittsburgh that lacked the facilities, equipment, and acumen to compete. Zefiretto also recruited Cynthia Hudson, a personal acquaintance who came over from the EIFL leaving a trail of red flags in her wake. Moreover, most of these new teams, not to mention most existing teams, never had to pay their league dues, leaving that financial burden to Fornario and a few equally in-the-dark peers.

For their part, the Roughriders helped the new-look AAL gain a legitimacy it never had. Along with the addition of the West Michigan Ironmen and retention of the Carolina Energy and the relocated Carolina Havoc, the league formed a nucleus arguably on par with its NAL rivals. Fornario built a 21-man roster that included 12 former FBS players, and West Virginia games were appointment television every Saturday night. Attendance at WesBanco Arena surpassed all other league venues combined when the Roughriders were in town.

“I joined up to play in a professional league and spent a ton of money to do it right,” he said in reflecting on his two years in the AAL.

And what did he get in return? He got a flaming bag of dog pooh left on his front porch with Zefiretto hiding behind the bushes waiting for him to answer the doorbell.

Fornario opened his season by hosting a hapless Burgh Defenders team clad in pinnies. Six weeks later, he had to host them again after the indoor soccer facility they called home was deemed unfit to play in. On two occasions leading up to a May 11 game in Massachusetts, Fornario contacted Zefiretto with concerns he had over the viability of the New England Bobcats. Both times he was assured the franchise was stable, then got stuck with $6,000 in nonrefundable plane tickets and an empty date on the calendar when the Bobcats folded days before the game.

On May 16, Fornario was told a Southern Division team would host the AAL’s championship game, assuming one advanced that far. In all likelihood, that stood to be the Carolina Energy. As it happens, both teams reached the championship game as undefeateds, but the Roughriders were 10-0 in league play with road wins in Cape Fear and West Michigan while the Energy were 5-0 and never left Bojangles’ Coliseum.

“The last two years under Tony, it was the high seed that hosted,” Fornario pointed out.  “Why would it be different? Why would you state this on May 16 and not before the season starts?”

The game was eventually played at the WesBanco Arena, but Fornario was forced to fork over $15,000 to the Energy for the privilege, leaving a bad taste in his mouth.

The entire 2019 AAL season was a mess hotter than the back of Jules’ car after Vincent shot Marvin in the face, and more often than not Fornario was left to clean up. In a league that canceled 43 regular season games in two years, only the Roughriders and Chris Duffy’s Havoc honored their schedules and never petitioned for a forfeit. The Roughriders played ten games over 13 regular season weeks, far more than anyone. For a league besieged with uncertainty, they were a sure thing.

The only way the AAL could have saves any semblance of face this season was for Zefiretto to present the Jack Bowman Trophy to either the Havoc or Roughriders, and Fornario saw to that. For two years, he was the league’s high tide, a kind of Piano Man playing songs to real estate novelists and stoned businessmen as we kept asking him, ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’

Well, last Friday he gave us our answer.

AAL CEO Tony Zefiretto was contacted before publication of this story, but no further comments were offered. 


3 thoughts on “Fornario’s Departure Is Completely On The AAL

  1. If Mr. Fornario had accepted The IFL’s offer in which city would they have played or would they’ve stayed in Wheeling? Do u think he’s leaving indoor football permanently?

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    1. Hi, Larry. Fornario had already committed to the WesBanco Arena in Wheeling before the IFL offer, so he would have played there. The Richmond Coliseum had an uncertain future, which forced him to look elsewhere while he was trying to launch his Professional Arena League. He told me the IFL opportunity didn’t get far because of the geography issues. The NAL is really his best alternative. He’s right in their sweet spot in terms of player talent, arena, and location. And, no, I don’t think he’ll be out of the arena space for even a year. He already snuffed out rumors that the Roughriders would fold. Personally, if I were him I’d make an offer to buy out the AAL. This league garners a lot of interest and Fornario has the acumen to make it work. He could start by keeping the Ironmen, Havoc, Cats, and Flight. Cape Fear is gone, and the Energy have been rumored to be folding for some time. All others should get cut. Then, he could award one more franchise and have a nice balanced 6-team league in a tight foot space.

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  2. That’s interesting. Geography always poses a problem for most indoor leagues (unless you have an anchor like AZ of the IFl who can assist with teams travel costs). AFL appears to be capitalized so travel cost isn’t as prohibitive though they are regional as well (for now). I’m not that hopeful for the NAL next year. NYC was a mess this year basically playing in a rec center (owner acknowledging they may lose close to $1M when they close the books this fiscal year) & Mass needs a capital infusion (if I’m correct they have been searching for additional investors). If the NAL plays next year they may do so with < 6 teams. IMO the NAL should concentrate in the south. I know when Jeff Bouchy & co created the NAL "N" meant National (they would go anywhere across the USA). I can't see that working.
    Havoc would fit the NAL, but I recently read they lost their lease (too much back rent due) so new ownership would be required to take care of outstanding bills etc. Florence,SC is the right geographic fit for the NAL. I'd like to see an NAL setup next year with Florence,SC; Greensboro,NC; Columbus,Ga; Pensacola or Tallahassee,FL; Jax,FL; Orlando,FL; & T. Bay,FL. Being a Jax Sharks fan myself I'd like at least for T. Bay to join the NAL next year, Orlando move Kenny Mac aside (get a mgr who knows how to run a sports franchise) and all 3 FL teams position themselves for a return to the AFL in 2021 (a geographical block of 3).

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