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June 23, 2012 – Kansas City Command vs. Chicago Rush

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Kansas City Command vs. Chicago Rush
June 23, 2012
The Sprint Center
Arena Football League Programs
38 pages

The Arena Football League lost its first franchise in what many observers expect to be a grim offseason last Friday when the Kansas City Command quietly pulled out of the league on August 23rd.  Also purportedly in trouble: the Georgia Force and Milwaukee Mustangs, both of whom have pitiful followings in their markets, and the league-run Chicago Rush, which has been adrift since its previous investor group walked away last fall.  The Pittsburgh Power (more on them in a moment) saw announced attendance decline over 50% in their second year of action.

It’s been a weird year for an increasingly weird league. The AFL’s tag line this year was “Year of the Fan”, but “Year of the Scab” would have been more like it.  The season was dominated by a protracted and disorganized labor dispute that saw players and owners squabbling  publicly over the handful of pocket change left in the sport after the recession and a disastrous 2009 bankruptcy.  Some (or all?) of the players may (or may not?) be represented by Ivan Soto, a mysterious financial adviser from Ohio who rails against ownership to his tiny army of 200 Twitter followers.  Soto’s questionable tactics included persuading a single team – the Cleveland Gladiators – to strike on their own for one game, resulting in a forfeit that helped knock them out of the playoffs.  Whoops.

Owners and league execs have seen and raised Soto’s buffoonery on several occasions, most majestically when Pittsburgh Power honcho Matt Shaner fired his entire team during dinner at Olive Garden and abandoned them in Florida a few hours before the first game of the season.  Shaner’s theatrics drew more attention to the AFL than any other story in this Year of the Fan, including the league’s showpiece Arena Bowl XXV championship game, played before a comically inflated announced crowd of 13,648 in New Orleans two weeks ago.

The AFL promoted the 2012 season as the league’s 25th Anniversary, harkening back to the founding of the original Arena Football League in 1987.  But that’s rather disingenuous.  It’s kind of like saying you’ve seen Motley Crue in concert, when what you really mean is that you saw a tribute band called Shout At The Devil play in a South Carolina bowling alley.  While the sport (and some of the intellectual property) is indeed a quarter century old, today’s Arena Football League is just three years old and boy is it different than what came before.

The original league (1987-2008) played for two decades and had quite a few problems of its own.  Most fundamentally, it never solved the eternal revenue/expense problem faced by leagues that play as tenants in other people’s buildings.  But these business model problems were hidden by a speculative bubble in expansion fees in the early 2000′s, a charismatic chief executive in C. David Baker, and a brief fling with the NFL, that saw investment pour into the AFL from deep-pocketed NFL owners like Arthur Blank, Pat Bowlen, Tom Benson and Jerry Jones.  For a half decade or so, the money kept flowing and the creditors remained patient.

The bubble deflated for the original AFL in 2008 after three years without new expansion money.  The NFL guys got out and never looked back.  There was no Arena Football in 2009 as the league went bankrupt.  This new league, launched in 2010, is primarily composed of the poorer owners from the old league and its former small-market minor league system.  These guys scraped together $6.1 million bucks in late 2009 to purchase the old league’s IP rights at a bankruptcy auction.  Many of the old team identities have been revived and the original league’s history has been reclaimed and packaged as if it were never interrupted.  The only elements missing are the high quality players of the first league – driven away by salary reductions both draconian and inevitable – and the fans, who seem to detect the aura of shabbiness that envelops this new entity.

The question now is whether Arena Football is poised to go the way of indoor soccer, which was bigger than outdoor soccer (and more popular than the NBA in a few cities) in the 1980′s, but has now languished for more than a decade in state of complete and utter irrelevance.  Kansas City may be the first domino to fall in a decisive autumn/winter for the “new” AFL.   But more likely, the league will muddle through for many more years, chasing an elusive formula of smaller arenas, cheaper workers (both on field and off) and lowered expectations in a “Puppet Show and Spinal Tap” kind of way.   There are several second tier football leagues out there trying to carve out a piece of market share – the new, retro-themed USFL, the zombie carcass of the United Football League – but the Arena Football League is the only one that has already fired the silver bullet that the others so obviously covet: partnership with the NFL.  The AFL had that chance once.  It didn’t work out and it’s probably never coming back.  It’s hard to imagine what’s next to resuscitate this sport.

 

 

Written by andycrossley

August 28th, 2012 at 8:25 pm

July 23, 1992 – Sacramento Attack vs. Dallas Texans

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Sacramento Attack vs. Dallas Texans
July 23, 1992
ARCO Arena
Attendance: 8,226

Arena Football League Programs

 

This is not a post about the Sacramento Attack (who played only five home games at ARCO Arena before folding) or their opponents on this night in July 1992, the Dallas Texans.   This is a post about Zubaz.

I won’t write too extensively here about the stunning rise and rapid fall of zebra-striped workout gear.  If you were at least 12 years old at the dawn of the Nineties, you remember.  Besides, Ethan Trex at Mental Floss has already written the definitive history (must read).  I plucked this program out of the FWiL files because the cover offers the best Zubaz money shot I’ve seen from this psychedelic moment in Arena Football history.

You see, the inventors of Zubaz – a couple of bodybuilding Minnesota gym owners named Dan Stock and Bob Truax - struck a sponsorship with the Arena Football League that seems to have lasted from 1991 to 1992.  Some – but not all – of the league’s teams agreed to incorporate Zubaz into their game uniforms.  The participating clubs in 1991 included the Albany Firebirds, the Denver Dynamite, the New Orleans Night and the Orlando Predators, most of whom added a Zubaz strip in their respective team colors to their sleeves and shoulders, along with vertical piping on their uniform pants.   But nobody – and I mean nobody – rocked the Zubaz liked the Tampa Bay Storm.  The Storm were the only team to use Zubaz stripes as the base design for their uniform pants.   The full glory/horror of the 1991 Storm unis is on display on the cover of this ARENABALL game program, showing the purple/blue/white striped Tampans in action against fellow Zubaz perpetrators the New Orleans Night.

Very little archival video of the early days of the Arena Football League lives on the interwebs today, but I did find this grainy, apparently home-made loop of 1991 league highlights, which can be viewed as an unintended symphonic ode to Zubaz.  Enjoy.

And yes, the Zubaz jerseys do have a certain cache among obsessive collectors.  The guys at Classic Stuff offer a pair of circa 1991 Orlando Predators home & road Zubaz-tinged jerseys on sale for $250.00 each:

Arnold Campbell.  1991 Orlando Predators home jersey.

Durwood Roquemore.  NFL & USFL vet. 1991 Orlando Predators home jersey.

 

 

1994-1995 – Las Vegas Dustdevils & Las Vegas Sting

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Bill MacFarland’s Nevada Pro Sports was a short-lived effort to build a business around summer-time arena sports at the brand new MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in the mid-1990′s.  While toiling as a minor league hockey player for the Seattle Totems in the 1960′s, MacFarland put himself through law school.  In the 1970′s, MacFarland served as President and Legal Counsel of the World Hockey Association and later took part in a failed effort to secure an NHL expansion franchise for Seattle in the early 1990′s.  After the Seattle NHL bid failed, MacFarland turned his attention to Las Vegas and the development of MGM Grand Garden.

Nevada Pro Sports’ first acquisition on December 1st, 1992 was an expansion franchise in the start-up Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL).    The CISL was a start-up league whose investors included owners and arena operators from the NBA and NHL looking to fill building dates during the slow summer season.  With the MGM Grand Garden still under construction in 1993, MacFarland elected to defer the debut of his Las Vegas Dustdevils soccer team until the CISL’s sophomore campaign in 1994.  Soon afterwards, Nevada Pro Sports added an Arena Football League expansion franchise, the Las Vegas Sting, to its portfolio of teams set to debut in the summer of 1994.

Neither team drew much interest in Las Vegas, long known as a graveyard of pro sports franchises.  The Sting put an announced crowd of 10,109 into the MGM Grand Garden for their home debut on May 21st, 1994 against the Miami Hooters.  But by the Sting’s third home game in June, attendance plunged below 4,000 and the team finished the year with an average of 6,413, 9th best out of the league’s 11 teams.

On the carpet, the Sting assembled the typical Arena Football collection of pro football nomads and castaways.  Before joining the Sting, two-year starting quarteback Scooter Molander last played for the Colts…the Espoo Colts of the Finland Football League.  Molander’s favorite target in 1994 was Tyrone Thurman. At 5′ 3″ tall and 135 pounts, the kick return specialist was likely the smallest Division I All-American in college football history back in 1988 at Texas Tech.  The Sting’s defensive leader was former UNLV standout Carlton Johnson, who earned All-League honors as a Defensive Specialist in 1994.

Disappointing as the attendance figures were, the Sting numbers were a box office bonanza compared to the Las Vegas Dustdevils indoor soccer team, which mustered an average of just 2,709 at the 12-000 seat MGM Grand Garden for their 14 home dates in 1994.  That was the worst figure in the 14-team CISL, despite the fact that the Dustdevils fielded a championship team that finished 17-11 and featured seven local graduates from the UNLV soccer program.  The team’s “star” was 33-year Croatian forward Branko Segota, one of the all-time greats of the indoor game.  Segota earned the CISL maximum of $3,500/month, as did the indoor veteran goalkeeper Brett Phillips and defender Rusty Troy.  The Dustdevils’ younger players earned between $75/game and $500/week.  A strong playoff run led to a showdown with the Dallas Sidekicks in the best-of-three CISL Championship Series.  On October 8th, 1994, the Dustdevils won the decisive Game 3 in front of a sold-out crowd of 16,652 at Reunion Arena in Dallas.  Still, few in Las Vegas cared.  Only 5,500 turned out to cheer on the Dustdevils in Game 2, the lone match of the series played in Las Vegas.

Following the 1994 season, MacFarland and Nevada Pro Sports moved both of their teams out of the MGM Grand Garden and into the Thomas & Mack Arena on the campus of UNLV.  The move didn’t help.  Sting attendance dropped to an average of 5,053 for six dates in 1995, which was worst among the AFL’s 13 franchises.  A postmortem by The Los Angeles Times claimed the Sting lost in excess of one million dollars in both 1994 and 1995.  The Dustdevils improved insignificantly to 3,274 per game, but it wasn’t enough to save the team.  Nevada Pro Sports folded the Dustdevils shortly after their second season ended in September 1995.

Nevada Pro Sports had more luck ridding itself of its failing Arena Football franchise.  In September 1995, a Southern California group purchased the Las Vegas Sting for an estimated $1 million and relocated the club to the Arrowhead Pond arena in Anaheim.  Re-named the Anaheim Piranhas, the former Sting franchise played two more seasons in the Arena Football League before folding in November 1997.

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Former Dustdevils and Sting owner Bill MacFarland passed away in 2011 at the age of 79.

Former UNLV and Sting defensive standout Carlton Johnson remained in Las Vegas, working as a substitute teacher in the Clark County school system.  In 2005, Johnson murdered his brother, 6-year old niece and his own 5-year old son.  Johnson had no prior criminal history or history of mental illness and offered no motive for the killings.  He was convicted on three counts of second degree murder in 2007 and is currently serving a 20-60 year sentence.

Downloads & Links:

1994 Las Vegas Sting Statistics on ArenaFan.com
1995 Las Vegas Sting Statistics on ArenaFan.com

Las Vegas Dustdevils & Las Vegas Sting Sources

 

1995-2008 Iowa Barnstormers / New York Dragons

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The inspiring story of Kurt Warner, who rose from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl Champion and MVP over the course of five years, is one of the great legacies of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008).  Warner, undrafted out of college and later released in training camp by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, famously signed on with the Arena League’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995.  He led the Barnstormers to the Arena Bowl title games in 1996 and 1997, before finally earning his shot at the NFL with the St. Louis Rams.  By 1999, he was the NFL’s MVP and quarterback of a Super Bowl championship team in his first season as a starter.  Warner’s fame briefly made the Iowa Barnstormers an object of cult fascination, if not quite a household brand name.

So what became of the Barnstormers?

The Barnstormers started out as an Arena Football expansion franchise in the spring of 1995.  Jim Foster, founder of the Arena Football League in 1987, owned the club, which played in the 11,400-seat  Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, dubbed “The Barn”.  Head Coach John Gregory was a long-time Canadian Football League coach.  Gregory brought in CFL vet Willis Jacox to play the role of Iowa’s Offensive Specialist – most AFL players played “Ironman” football in this era, meaning they played both offense and defense.  The offensive specialist was akin to the DH in baseball, playing offense only and returning kicks.  Gregory also plucked Warner out of the Hy-Vee grocery store aisle prior to the Barnstormers’ first season in 1995.

The team was competitive in 1995, advancing as far as the playoff semi-finals.  Gregory earned AFL Coach-of-the-Year honors (he would repeat in 1996) and the team drew terrific cowbell-clanging crowds to The Barn.  In a 2012 celebration of Arena Football’s 25th Anniversary, the league ranked the 1990′s atmosphere at The Barn as the 2nd best in the sport’s history.

The Barnstormers glory years came in 1996 and 1997, when Warner and Jacox led the Barnstormers to back-to-back Arena Bowls.  In 1996, the Barnstomers hosted Arena Bowl X before a national cable TV audience but lost to the Tampa Bay Storm 42-38.  The following year, the Barnstormers fell to the Arizona Rattlers 55-33 in Arena Bowl XI in Phoenix, in what would prove to be Warner’s last AFL game.

Warner headed the Rams and Jacox retired after the 1997 season.  But Gregory and the Barnstormers uncovered more great players in WR-DB Carlos James, offensive specialist Mike Horacek and, especially, quarterback Aaron Garcia.  Garcia would go on the set every major career passing record in Arena Football over the course of the next decade plus.

On November 1st, 2000, after the conclusion of the Barnstormers’ sixth season in Des Moines and nine months after Warner’s historic Super Bowl performance, Jim Foster sold the team to New York Islanders owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar.  The franchise relocated to Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum as the New York Dragons for the 2001 Arena Football League season.

The move to New York was in keeping with Arena Football’s growing ambition to become a “5th Major League”, as the league began favoring major markets over cities like Des Moines and Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In the course of a decade, Arena Football franchise valuations ballooned from $125,000 in 1990 to $7 million – the price paid by Wang & Kumar for the Barnstormers, and for another AFL franchise, the New England Sea Wolves, which also changed hands in the autumn of 2000.

Several top Barnstormers made the move from Iowa to New York, including Head Coach John Gregory and All-AFL quarterback Aaron Garcia.  In New York, the franchise also produced another future NFL star, as it had with Kurt Warner in Iowa.  In 2002, the Dragons signed WR-DB Mike Furrey, a refugee of World Wrestling Entertainment chief Vince McMahon’s defunct XFL.  Furrey became the favorite target of Garcia in 2002 and 2003.  Furrey left the Dragons partway through the 2003 season – he was leading the AFL in receptions at the time – to sign with the St. Louis Rams.  Furrey went on to play both wide receiver and defensive back in the NFL, leading the NFC in receptions in 1996 with 98 catches for 1,086 years as a member of the Detroit Lions.  In a bizarre coincidence, Furrey played college football at Northern Iowa University, just like Warner.

Back in Des Moines, a new Iowa Barnstormers expansion team was issued to play in AF2, a small market minor league spinoff of the AFL.  The new minor league Barnstormers were not able to re-capture the interest of area fans and this version of the Barnstormers folded after a single season in 2001.

The Dragons were never one of Arena Football’s top draws and the Nassau Coliseum was typically regarded as one of the league’s worst venues, much as it was in the National Hockey League.  Announced attendance averages peaked in 2005 at 11,922 per game.  By 2008, announced attendance dipped to 9,072, the second lowest figure in the 17-team league.

In July 2008, Wang sold the Dragons to Steve and Shanna Silva for an estimated $12 million.  This would prove to be the last time a franchise changed hands in the original Arena Football League.  By this time, the league was struggling under $14 million in accumulated debt.  A postseason attempt to sell a $100 million controlling stake in the league to leveraged buyout firm Platinum Equity and re-organize the league as a single-entity structure fell through in late 2008.  The league suspended the 2009 season in December 2008 and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in August 2009 after owners failed to come together on a way forward.

The Silvas were left with nothing for their unfortunately timed investment.  Another Arena Football investor who bought into the league late at the peak of the bubble – Dr. Robert Nucci who bought the Tampa Bay Storm for approximately $18 million in 2007 – later filed a lawsuit claiming that the late-era Arena Football League was little more than a debt-laden ponzi scheme that relied on constantly rising expansion fees to finance its existence.  The Silvas, for their part, got as far as announcing a new logo and color scheme for the Dragons in September 2008.  The new green-and-black color scheme would have been used for the 2009, but the league collapsed first:

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A group of former Arena Football League owners and officials called Arena Football One purchased the assets of the original Arena Football League out of bankruptcy for $6.1 million in December 2009.   It was a long way down from the proposed Platinum Equity purchase of the AFL just a year earlier, which valued the league at approximately $250 million.

A much more budget-conscious (and non-union) reinvention of the Arena Football League debuted in 2010, with many franchises returning under their old names and, in some cases, their old investors.   The New York Dragons and the Silvas were not among them.  But the Iowa Barnstormers were.   A third incarnation of the Iowa Barnstormers joined AF2 for the 2008 season as an expansion team playing in the new $99 million Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.  The team retained the old logo of the original Kurt Warner-era Barnstormers and still practices in The Barn – venerable Veterans Memorial Auditorium.   When the Arena Football League went dark in 2009, AF2 kept playing.  In 2010, the new Barnstormers took a leap up to rejoin the new Arena Football League.

Kurt Warner retired from the NFL in January 2010.  He led two different franchises to Super Bowl appearances, starting in three and winning one.  As of 2011, he holds one of the top ten passer ratings in NFL history.

Mike Furrey played seven seasons in the NFL, ending in 2009.  He is now one of the growing number of former NFL players filing suit against the league over concussion-related health problems.

 

 

 

1988 New York Knights

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1988 New York Knights Media Guide
Arena Football League Media Guides
48 pages

The New York Knights were a one-year wonder in the Arena Football League during the summer of 1988.

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 to five new investors groups.  The six team line-up for the 1988 season included the returning Pittsburgh Gladiators and Chicago Bruisers, along with four expansion teams: the Knights, the Detroit Drive, the Los Angeles Cobras and the New England Steamrollers.

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 teams 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.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPpPGfao8fs

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.

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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.

In 1996, the Arena Football League sold a franchise to ITT-Cablevision, operators of the Madison Square Garden.  The New York Cityhawks attempted to make a go of it, but the second time was not the charm.  The Cityhawks departed for Hartford, Connecticut in 1999 after two seasons of wretched attendance, marking the final effort of the Arena League to conquer Manhattan.

Downloads:

1988 New York Knights Depth Chart & Player Bios

1988 New York Knights vs. New England Steamrollers Game Notes Package

1988 Arena Football League fan survey

 

Written by andycrossley

November 8th, 2011 at 12:17 am