Arena Football League gets sacked for the last time

It was just a question of when the other spike was going drop.

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The Arena Football League filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Thanksgiving Eve just one month after it shut down operations for its six remaining teams. Randall Boe, the league commissioner, said the league wasn't able to raise the capital to grow, resolve substantial legacy liabilities and make it financially viable.

The league began in 1987 to help Americans get their football "fix" when the NFL was not playing. The league had its ups and downs over the years, but it did manage to attract some marquee owners such as the late Little Caesars Pizza founder Mike Ilitch, who owned the Detroit Drive and would later buy the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and MLB's Detroit Tigers. Rock superstar Jon Bon Jovi fronted an ownership group for the Philadephia Soul and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who is the owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, oversaw the Cleveland Gladiators.

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With a TV contract from ESPN, the league found pockets of popularity. By the turn of the century, the indoor game was in such demand that in 2000 it created a spinoff "developmental league" called af2. That circuit was shuttered in 2009, the same year the parent league suspended operations.

The league regrouped with new teams and cities but still, financial challenges continued. At the height of its popularity players earned between $30,000 and $50,000 per season. But as finances tightened due to shrinking attendance salaries averaged just under $800 a game in a 13-game season (if competing teams lasted that long). Author and former sports executive Troy Kirby in an analysis of the Arena League's issues, said,  "Aside from ticket sales and small corporate sponsorship, there is little revenue to be had for the AFL in its current form."

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Also aiding in the league's demise: competition. Several start-ups took advantage of arenas looking to book dates on nights when the buildings sat empty. These "new" leagues diluted the brand and game of the AFL. Several offerings came and went like the Continental Indoor Football League. However, the Arena Football League does have a legacy with:

  • The Indoor Football League, which kicked off in 2009 to fill the void left by the AFL's one-year suspension of operations. It was created out of a merger of the Intense Football League and United Indoor Football. It features a dozen teams including two from the AFL: the Arizona Rattlers and the Iowa Barnstormers.
  • Champions Indoor Football, an outgrowth of a merger of two regional leagues, the Champions Professional Indoor Football League and the Lone Star Football League. Player salaries top out at $300 per game
  • The National Arena League, which launched in 2017, has nine teams stretching from Maine to Florida and team costs were about $2 million. The owner of the New York Streets, Corey Galloway, was expecting to break even this season.

In his 2016 analysis of the state of the Arena Football League, sports analyst Troy Kirby sounded like Nostradamus, writing: "The Arena Football League brand has been ruined."

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