In mid-December, the National Football League announced that 10 to 15 percent of its staff would be laid off and the effort to expand the game beyond our shores into China would be scrapped.
A few days later, the 21-year-old Arena Football League voted to cancel its 2009 regular season. It was the culmination of several peculiar circumstances affecting the league last year including the folding of a wildly successful franchise (the New Orleans VooDoo) and the abrupt resignation of long-time commissioner C. David Baker.
The AFL Board of Directors initially denied media reports of the league’s demise and issued an official repudiation of the rumors. It was also reported that the AFL’s players union was ready to approve a pay cut for the players in order to keep the league afloat through 2009. However, such a pay cut was unlikely to make up for the apparent fall-through of a $100 million deal with Platinum Equity that was supposed to pump much-needed funds into the AFL’s apparently dry coffers.
The most – perhaps only – robust economy in pro sports these days belongs to the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers picked up 28-year-old lefty hurler C.C. Sabathia – winner of the 2007 AL Cy Young award– for a mere $161 million over seven years. And that’s nothing for a team like the Yankees, which boasts it’s own TV network and a new stadium worth more than $1.6 billion. For you casual baseball fans out there, THIS is why everyone hates the Yankees.
Pinstripers aside, pro sports are taking a pounding nationwide as fans are giving up their tickets and Cracker Jack in favor of televised games and extra folding money. Even the NFL, which culminates its season with the single most telegenic event in the history of the camera, cannot stay ahead of the New Great Depression. Part of the reason is lost revenue from flailing advertisers like General Motors and Budweiser.
The Arena Football League, which spent the vast majority of its existence as a niche sport living well within its means, decided to go Hollywood on us. Celebrity owners like Jon Bon Jovi, championship games in Vegas, EA Sports video games and a big fat contract with ESPN projected an image that the league was experiencing a modern day gold rush.
That was never the case for the AFL. Yours truly is as close to an expert on arena football in this berg as you’ll find, having worked for six years with the now-defunct Birmingham Steeldogs of arenafootball2 – the minor league suckerfish for the large-market AFL empire. We learned through the grapevine that the television deal the league had entered into was not as lucrative as it seemed. In fact, the league was receiving virtually no compensation at all from the ESPN deal.
Instead of money upfront, the league figured that increased exposure from being on television would pay off better in the long run. What they didn’t count on was an economic recession, which kept folks at home in their La-Z-Boys hoarding their money – regardless of how much exposure indoor football was getting on the tube.
What’s better was that the AFL regarded its minor league – af2 – with unabashed disdain, dismissing us as utterly dependent upon our mother sauce for sustenance. As a result, the af2 became completely self-reliant and financially independent from the AFL. Its stingy player compensation formula never grew beyond its means; never went “Hollywood.” For that reason alone, while the AFL’s lungs fill with water, af2 is high and dry. Stew on that, mother sauce.
It just goes to show that all that glitters is not gold. Flashy TV displays, worldwide marketing expositions and sparkling new stadia do little to impress a single mom who makes less in a full year than C.C. will make in half-day’s worth of work. Nope, pro sports franchises will have to tighten their belts and wait out the rough times with the rest of us poor folks.
Well, most of them will. Damn Yankees.