With the dust settling on the Silver Anniversary season of the Arena Football League, several challenges lie ahead for the league in the offseason. Near as I can tell, here are the major ones.
The labor issues that wreaked havoc on the 2012 season have been resolved, if Ivan Soto, executive director of the Arena Football League Players Union (AFLPU), is to be believed in his tweet from Aug. 19. "It is official! We have a 5yr deal!" he announced.
Of course, arena football fans have heard this song and dance before, and the league office has yet to announce anything about a deal being reached or what the specific terms are, so I'm not popping the cork on any champagne just yet.
A deal has got to get done, though. The already-dwindling fan base can't take another season of uncertainty, replacement players, forfeits, and lost live coverage on the NFL Network.
How Many Teams Return?
The specific terms of any labor deal that's reached are likely to impact how many of the 17 teams return to the Arena Football League in 2013. Already, rumors are swirling among fans as to who will be back and who won't return next season, for a variety of reasons.
AFL commissioner Jerry B. Kurz made indirect reference to the potential that some teams may not return next year in his Aug. 9 letter to fans. An upcoming owners' meeting will likely address this issue, according to Kurz's letter, and when teams can start signing players in September, fans will get a better indication as to who may or may not be part of the league.
My hope is that the league handles things differently than it did when the Dallas Vigilantes vanished without a trace after the 2011 campaign. Silence is not golden in that kind of situation, and if teams are leaving, I'd rather just know upfront.
Back in May, Kurz announced during Arena Football Friday that the league is bringing back a developmental league, which I found to be a very exciting prospect for a number of reasons. The buzz surrounding that idea kind of died out as the season progressed, however, and I'm left wondering if that's something that the AFL is still going to pursue.
Again, the owners' meeting will probably shed some light on this concept. Perhaps some of the current AFL teams will choose to participate as a developmental team, instead. Perhaps some teams from other indoor leagues would join a developmental league. Perhaps it's too much to expect that a developmental league can get up and running by 2013, and that it's more of a long-term goal.
As with any scenario in which one or more teams leave the AFL next year, it would be nice to hear from the league one way or the other about the plans for the developmental league, even if it's not going to happen in 2013. If it has turned into more of a long-term thing, that's cool. Just let us know, please, as there are some rabid fans in some large metropolitan areas (cough, cough ... INDIANAPOLIS ... cough, cough) who would love a developmental team and just want to know where to set expectations.
Replacing the buzz about a developmental league has been the buzz about international play. Openly discussed at the Silver Anniversary Gala Event right before ArenaBowl XXV, the league is quite interested in tapping into the international market--specifically, China and its population of over 1.3 billion.
Given Ron Jaworski's excitement at the gala event about international play and what I heard players and fans discussing while I was in New Orleans for ArenaBowl XXV, my money is on the Philadelphia Soul as one of the teams that is likely to be taking the game to China in the form of an exhibition game or two.
The concept of international play is exciting and scary at the same time. I certainly understand the desire to expose the sport to the most populated country in the world (although road trips from Indianapolis to Beijing to cover games there might be a little lengthy--and wet--but that's my problem, not the league's).
But a part of me also thinks that we're on pretty shaky ground right now in the U.S., so maybe now's not the greatest time to be footing the bill for trips to China. Maybe we should get things squared away stateside before we try expanding to international markets.
Again, though, the owners know their financial situation better than I do, and I'm sure they'll hash this idea out at their meetings. In what is becoming an ongoing theme here, I simply hope that the league keeps us fans informed as things progress.
A couple of recent events lead me to believe that the AFL may consider altering the 2013 schedule--perhaps starting the season earlier and/or shortening the season.
The first was the NFL Network's decision to delay broadcast of ArenaBowl XXV until the ridiculous hour of 10:30 p.m. ET so that the Tim Tebow worshippers of the world could watch him play backup quarterback for the New York Jets for the first time (he finished with a dismal 18.2 QB rating, in case you're wondering, and his Jets were stomped by the Cincinnati Bengals).
The second was the news that renovations to New Orleans Arena are going to mess up the 2013 schedule of the New Orleans VooDoo.
Among the options cited by Kurz for working around this hurdle are an earlier start time--Kurz mentioned the possibility of starting the week before the Super Bowl--or front-loading the VooDoo's home schedule. Sources close to the VooDoo have told Paul Murphy of WWLTV.com that the teams is also considering playing home games in alternative sites such as Baton Rouge, Biloxi, Bossier City, and Lafayette.
Given the trouble that the league ran into this year with Tebowmania, it might be prudent to just start the season earlier. The VooDoo wouldn't have to have their home schedule front-loaded--or at least, not much--and they could continue playing at the location with which fans are familiar.
On the back end, the ArenaBowl wouldn't conflict with any NFL preseason games, and we wouldn't be playing our championship game into the wee hours of the morning for much of the country.
Wait and See
I'd love to be a fly on the wall for these owners' meetings, but something tells me that I can wait by my mailbox for an eternity and my invitation will never arrive. Oh well. It's probably not the best place for a fan to be, anyway, if any league business is to be done.
So I'll join the rest of AFL fandom and just wait to see how things shake out. The owners have a lot on their plates this offseason--and probably even more that I'm not aware of--so there's no point in getting antsy in anticipation of how everything will be resolved.
Arena fans know that patience and flexibility are required in buckets in this league. It's just the way things are. I'd much rather wait and hear from the league when something is official than give myself an ulcer anguishing over what may or may not happen regarding any number of things that are important to me.
Please, AFL, just don't leave us fans in the dark.
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