1964-1967: Joliet Explorers Inc. (numerous local investors)
The Joliet Explorers were a low-level minor league football team formed in 1964 as an expansion club in the United Football League. The UFL had teams in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and the province of Quebec. The Explorers were the league tomato can that fall, posting a record of 0-14. Their opponents outscored them 591-144.
John Amos played briefly for the Explorers during that futile 1964 campaign. At the time, Amos was a vagabond minor league running back. In the 1970’s he got into acting, and would play James Evans, Sr., the father on Good Times from 1974 to 1976. He’s been in dozens of other major film and TV roles, including playing meteorologist Gordy Howard on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Major Grant, the traitorous henchman who battles Bruce Willis on the wing of a passenger jet in Die Hard 2.
Punching bags in the UFL, the Explorers turned around their fortunes in the PFLA. After posting an 8-1-1 regular season record in 1965, the Explorers swept the Grand Rapids Blazers in a two-game championship series. The Explorers were competitive again in 1966 at 6-4-1, but finished just outside the playoffs.
In May 1967, Joliet struck an affiliation with the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League. As part of the deal, the team changed its name to the Joliet Chargers for the 1967 season. The Joliet Chargers went 10-2 in 1967 and then defeated the Alabama Hawks 31-20 in the PFLA Championship Game to claim their second title in three years.
This early Arena Football franchise played five seasons in North Carolina, splitting dates between the massive, NBA-scale Charlotte Coliseum and the smaller Independence Arena. The franchise was owned by motion picture financier Allen J. Schwalb, who backed some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980’s, including Rambo, Rain Main, Moonstruck and Thelma & Louise.
During the Charlotte Rage’s first season in 1992, the team signed Joe DeLamielleure, a perennial All-Pro offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills during the late 1970’s. 41 years old at the time, DeLamielleure was seven years removed from his last NFL game in 1985. He played in a handful of games for Charlotte in 1992 before retiring for good. DeLamielleure remains the only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to play Arena Football.
After a promising start in 1992 (13,248 average attendance for five dates), attendance plummeted to below 7,500 per game in 1993. At some point, Schwalb’s relations with AFL Commissioner Jim Drucker and his fellow owners appeared to sour. In July 1996, the Charlotte Business Journal reported that league officials were pressuring Schwalb to sell the franchise. Schwalb had discussions with groups in Salt Lake City and Long Island, but ultimately folded the team in late 1996, taking an $850,000 payout from the league to turn in the franchise. Schwalb would later file a $200 million Sherman anti-trust lawsuit against the league, asserting that his former business partners unlawfully scuttled his efforts to sell and relocate the franchise and coerced him to sell the team back to the league for a below market price. The suit seems to have been resolved in the early 2000’s, but it’s not clear what the resolution was.
Arena Football replaced the Rage in the North Carolina market with the Raleigh-based Carolina Cobras in 2000. The Cobras would later move to Charlotte in 2003 before going out of business in late 2004.
Very popular Salt Lake City-based Arena Football League team which had the misfortune to enter the league just as a massive asset bubble in franchise valuations began to deflate. The Utah Blaze packed large crowds into EnergySolutions Arena for three seasons, but vanished into bankruptcy along with the rest of the league in August 2009.
Father and son auto barons John & Robert Garff, along with partner Brett Hopkins, paid an estimated $18.0 million expansion fee for the Utah franchise in September 2004. Arena football franchise fees had skyrocketed over 350% during the past six years, since Casey Wasserman acquired the Los Angeles territory for a then-record $5 million in 1998. However, the expansion gold rush obscured the fact that virtually every team lost money every season, often millions of dollars. After the Garff’s bought in, the league would only manage to sell one more expansion franchise (Kansas City, also for $18M, in 2005) during its final four seasons of existence. Hoped for paydays from investor groups in Boston, Pittsburgh and elsewhere stalled. The Greater Fool theory ran its course somewhere around the $20M price tag.
On the carpet, the Blaze were neither particularly bad nor especially good. The team hired former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White as Head Coach and General Manager. White was one of the top coaches in the league, previously winning two Arena Bowls with the Arizona Rattlers. After two middling campaigns, White resigned midway through the Blaze’s third and final season in 2008. The club was 0-9 at the time, but rallied following White’s departure to finish 6-10 and earn a playoff spot.
Although the Blaze never finished a season better than .500, they did make the playoffs in all three of their seasons. They lost in the first round every year.
The Blaze’s top player was former Ohio State quarterback and NFL journeyman Joe Germaine. Germaine set an Arena Football League all-time record with 5,005 passing yards during the 2007 season.
Another key figure in Blaze history was WR-LB Justin Skaggs. Skagged played parts two of seasons with Utah in 2006 and 2007. After suffering headaches during the season, Skaggs was diagnosed with inoperable Stage III brain cancer on June 1, 2007. He died just two weeks later on June 15th, less than two weeks after suiting up for the final time. The Blaze retired Justin Skaggs’ number in 2008.
Following the 2008 season, a heretofore private crisis of confidence among the league’s investors came to the surface. Long-time league Commissioner C. David Baker resigned, the NFL ownership group backing the league’s popular New Orleans Voodoo franchise abruptly pulled out, and a $100M private equity investment in the league collapsed. In December 2008, the league cancelled the 2009 season and announced plans to revamp its business model. Most team staff around the league were laid off. The Los Angeles franchise dropped out during the re-structuring process. Ultimately, the league failed to emerge from the crisis and folded in August 2009.
At the end of 2009, a group comprised of former owners from the AFL and its smaller-market minor league, Arena Football 2, purchased the intellectual property of the defunct AFL from the bankruptcy court. This acquisition included the rights to the Utah Blaze name and trademarks. The Garff family elected not to continue with the “new” Arena Football League. Instead, a much thriftier owner named David Affleck took over the rights to the Blaze name and re-launched the team in 2010. This re-booted version of the Blaze muddled along for four seasons from 2010-2013, enduring arena moves, ownership turmoil, and eventual insolvency and was a pale imitation of the original franchise. The new version of the Blaze will be covered in a separate FWIL entry.
2014: Matt Shaner, Lynn Swann and Trib Total Media (Ralph Martin, et al.)
The now-defunct Pittsburgh Power were the second attempt to establish an Arena Football League franchise in the Steel City. The Power followed in the footsteps of the Pittsburgh Gladiators (1987-1990). Both teams lasted for four seasons before departing the Pittsburgh scene.
The Power started out relatively strong. Ex-Steelers legend Lynn Swann was a minority owner in the team and made numerous community and press appearances as the face of the franchise. The Power debuted in Pittsburgh on March 11, 2011 against the Philadelphia Soul. The Soul rivalry seemed to have great promise. Like the Power, the Soul were fronted by a local NFL hero, Ron Jaworski. The Philadelphia franchise was founded in 2004 by Jon Bon Jovi (though he was no longer involved by 2011) and had enjoyed a large and passionate following for many years. 13,904 fans showed up in Pittsburgh for the home opener and were rewarded with a high-scoring overtime thriller. The Soul escaped with a 58-52 win.
Attendance – at least the announced figures – stayed relatively strong in Pittsburgh during the 2011 season. The Power veraged 9,802 fans for nine dates, although the team would never again top the crowd for the franchise’s first game. The Power finished 9-9 and narrowly missed the playoffs.
Whatever good feeling carried over from the debut season, it all evaporated at the dawn of the 2012 season. The AFL was embroiled in a clumsy struggle with its nascent player union over player pay and benefits. At the time, most non-quarterback AFL players earned $400 per game – the same paltry paychecks that players got a quarter century earlier when the league formed in the late 1980’s. Just hours before the Power’s 2012 season opener on the road in Orlando, Florida, team owner Matt Shaner fired the entire team of 24 players during the team’s pre-game meal at a central Florida Olive Garden. A handful of players who agreed to renounce the union were re-signed right before game time. The rest of the roster was filled out with local scabs that were secretly working out in Florida for both the Power and the Predators during the week.
Busting labor unions with scab workers might not be the best look in a city like Pittsburgh, where the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was born in 1881. Whether because of the Olive Garden fallout or simply the novelty of a new team wearing off, attendance plummeted 44% in 2012 to just over 5,000 fans per game. The team was also terrible finishing in last place with a 5-13 record.
2013 was another grim season for the Power, with a 4-14 record and attendance again languishing near the bottom of the league.
2014 seemed to bring a reinvigoration of the Power franchise. Trib Total Media, owner of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and other papers, acquired a “multi-million dollar” ownership stake in the team, with Shaner and Swann staying on as well. A lease extension with CONSOL Energy Center was announced. The Power turned over virtually the entire roster, acquiring a group of talented league veterans led by 2012 AFL Most Valuable Player Tommy Grady at quarterback. The team had a fantastic turnaround on the field, going 15-3 and earning a first ever postseason berth. The Power were upset by the Orlando Predators in the first round of the playoffs.
The circumstances around the demise of the team are murky. In October 2014, the main news outlet still covering the AFL, the well-sourced fan site ArenaFan.com, reported that new league Commissioner Scott Buterafined the Power $100,000 for salary cap violations. The league later sort-of denied the report. One month later, on November 17, 2014, team owner Matt Shaner abruptly announced that the team was disbanding after four seasons. No reason was given for the closure.
Chicago apartment developer Tom Origer was the first man to buy into the World Football League in October 1973, paying a reported $440,000 to acquire his Chicago Fire franchise. It did not turn out to be a happy investment for the 41-year old builder.
The Fire featured a handful of names familiar to local football fans, including ex-Chicago Bears Virgil Carter (QB) and Jim Seymour (WR). Rookie receiver James Scott was a breakout star. After the demise of the WFL Scott would play seven seasons for the Bears from 1976 to 1983. Another rookie – Chicago native Mark Kellar - was one of the league’s most productive running backs until a mid-season injury.
The Fire started out hot, winning seven of the first nine games in 1974. The team was also a fairly popular draw, averaging 29,220 fans for 10 home dates at Soldier Field, despite competing for fans with the Bears during the WFL’s fall season. But injuries and bad luck took their toll and the Fire lost their final 11 games to finish 7-13 in what would prove to be their only season. Origer, fed up, forfeited the team’s final contest rather than travel to Pennsylvania to play the Philadelphia Bell on November 13, 1974.
The team muddled along in semi-existence until January 1975, when Origer laid off the Fire’s final few staff members and closed up shop. The World Football League quickly put a new team into Chicago – the Chicago Winds – for the 1975 season. But the Winds went belly up after only 5 games in 1975, and the league itself closed down on October 22, 1975 without managing to complete its second campaign.