What Broke Arena Football?

Kevin GilhoolyContributor IDecember 17, 2008

The Arena Football League has decided the best way to stay in business is go out of business for a year. It's a strategy that has certainly worked well for other leagues in the past—just ask the NHL (lockout) or the NFL and MLB (strikes.)

The owners claim they have a broken business model, and they need a year to determine what the best business model should be, and then they'll be back, stronger than ever.

The league has been around over 20 years. Are they sure the business model just broke this year?

I've been following the Dallas Desperados for a few years, and I have a feeling it's not the business model that's broken. It's the marketing model. The marketing model changed because the NFL owners decided to change the perception of the AFL and failed.

My wife and I went to a couple of games three years ago because every week the team seemed to have two for one sales. It was a lot of fun, the crowd seemed into the game, and the players were approachable. For the next year, we bought season tickets and dragged my brother-in-law along as well.

We joined the fan club. The Cowboys organization (owners of the Desperados) invited the fan club to Valley Ranch to talk to them about what we wanted to do.

When the season tickets bill came the next year, the prices had jumped. We re-upped anyway, even though it seemed a bit pricey. The fan club was still hearing rumblings from the Cowboys about making sure people knew they didn't sponsor us and we weren't affiliated. We were the "official" "un-official" fan club.

The games seemed to have lost some energy. There were more empty seats, especially in the more expensive sections—even though compared to NFL tickets, even the expensive section was still cheap.

We heard that one of our players had left in the offseason because he got a better-paying job with a beer distributor. That should have told us the business model was broken right there. If you're a "professional," it means you get paid, but it really should mean you get paid enough to not need a second job.

Last season was fun, but the ticket price included the first playoff game, which I thought was a bit much. It's good to be confident, but that just seemed arrogant. The Desperados died too early in the playoffs. Again.

When the season tickets bill came this year, I couldn't pay it. Financially, I could have afforded it, but it was almost double what our first year's season tickets had cost, and the Desperados had finally reached a price I wasn't willing to pay.

The game hadn't changed. Many of the players were the same. Like most Jerry Jones teams, they had consistently died early in the playoffs. The amenities had actually decreased. Why did I have to pay more money?

So, we walked. I planned to go to a game or two if I had time, but Jerry Jones had lost me as a loyal fan. I felt like I was betraying the players, but from many reports, they weren't getting that much of the money anyway.

We found out a couple of weeks later that the fan club disbanded. Nobody wanted to run it, and the Desperados wouldn't support it.

All last season, ESPN was touting the AFL as "football all year." From a marketing perspective, it had become NFL-lite. Thanks to the NFL owners that owned AFL teams, some of the rules had changed to make the game more like the NFL.

I'm pretty sure the owners had decided that if they could put NFL-lite on the field, they could sell skyboxes and expensive seats to corporations. I'm not sure they realized that if you sell one ticket for $2,000, it doesn't replace the four hundred $10 tickets you're not selling any more.

Here's the problem: The AFL is not NFL-lite. Sure, some of the players came from the NFL after retirement, but it's not the NFL. It's not the same game. It's not even a farm system for the NFL since many of the players are in the AFL because they will never make it in the pros.

I actually met some AFL fans who don't like the NFL, and they really didn't appreciate some of the changes to make the AFL game more "NFL-like."

The AFL always seemed like a blue-collar sport to me. Jerry Jones managed to run many of the blue-collar fans off, but his product wasn't elite enough for the big-money fans they wanted to attract (those people are all at Mavericks and Stars games.)

I'm not sure it's the business model that's broken. It's the marketing model. I think the NFL owners who also have AFL teams convinced themselves it was the same sport.

That's what broke the AFL.