Arena Football League (1988)
Born: 1988 – Arena Football expansion franchise.
Folded: Posteason 1988.
Arena: Madison Square Garden
Owner: Russ Berrie
League founder Jim Foster sketched his idea for a 50-yard indoor football game on the back of a manilla envelope while watching the Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game at the Madison Square Garden in February 1981. Foster layered a 50-yard carpeted football field over a hockey rink and dispensed with punting, most rushing, and practically all defense. Teams would play eight-on-eight, with all players except the quarterback and kicker playing “Iron Man” football – offense and defense. Taut 30-foot wide nets placed on either side of the uprights kept kickoffs, missed field goals and errant touchdown passes in play.
Armed with an ESPN television deal, Foster launched a preview season in June 1987, featuring four league-owned franchises playing a six-game schedule. Cable TV ratings and attendance were promising, so Foster expanded the league in 1988 by selling limited partnerships (i.e. franchise rights) to five new investors groups.
New Jersey toy marketer and philanthropist Russ Berrie was the investor behind the Knights. A self-made millionaire, Berrie started his toy company in garage in 1963, selling inexpensive and often sentimental toys such as Fuzzy Wuzzies, Sillisculpts and troll dolls. By 1988, Berrie’s firm was a public traded company with over $200 million in annual revenue, a sizable chunk of it generated as the exclusive toy licensee of Snuggles The Fabric Softening Bear.
The Knights featured an eclectic cast of pro football castaways. Quarterback Jim Crocicchia was a Wharton School grad from U. Penn who played for the New York Giants as a replacement during the 1987 players strike, as did his favorite receiver Edwin Lovelady. Running back-linebacker Johnny Shepherd was the 1983 Rookie-of-the-Year in the Canadian Football League, and a strike player for the Buffalo Bills. Vince Courville, Derek Hughes, Eric Schubert and Peter Raeford were refugees from the United States Football League, as was Head Coach and General Manager Jim Valek, who once served in a senior executive role for Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals franchise.
Knights players earned $1,000 per game for the 12-game season, plus a bonus of $150 for each victory. But the Knights didn’t win much. They defeated the Los Angeles Cobras twice on the road, but lost their other ten games, including all six home games at Madison Square Garden, to finish in last place at 2-10. 13,667 curiosity seekers turned out for the Knights debut at the Garden on May 9th, 1988, but the team’s remaining games all drew announced crowds of 7,500 or fewer.
Following the 1988 season, Foster’s limited partnership structure fell apart. For their investment, the limited partners received operating rights to their local franchise, but little of the financial and marketing discretion typically accorded to professional sports owners. Player personnel and league marketing decisions remained the domain of Foster, the league’s Commissioner. As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman:
“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys. We tell ‘em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’ That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”
Tom Rooney, director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena where the league-owned Pittsburgh Gladiators played, gave a different take on the arrangement to The Pittsburgh Press in November 1988.
“You don’t tell someone who puts in millions of dollars how to run their team. Jim Foster was naive. It’s impractical because of the way of human nature and especially the human nature of people who are worth millions of dollars. They don’t throw in millions of dollars and say ‘Jim Foster, you run the league’.”
The limited partners attempted to buy out Foster during the fall of 1988, but he refused to sell. In February 1989, Detroit Drive officials announced to the press that the 1989 season would be cancelled as a result of the dispute. Ultimately, Foster retained control of his creation but most of the limited partners departed. The Knights pulled out and shut down prior to the 1989 season, as did the Los Angeles and Providence, RI expansion franchises.
Russ Berrie passed away suddenly at the age of 69 on Christmas Day 2002. After his Arena Football investment collapsed at the end of 1988, Berrie turned his attention to the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a Florida-based winter league for ex-Major League players aged 35 and over. At one point, Berrie traded 500 teddy bears from his toy & gift company to the Winter Haven Super Sox for 48-year old pitcher Luis Tiant.
Former Knights Head Coach & General Manager Jim Valek died in 2005.