The Learning Curve of Arena Football
News about the Arena Football League (AFL) not playing its 2009 season is unsettling and a surprise to many (at this time, statements from the league website are still evolving). The league appeared to be in good shape. Evidence suggested that the league was stabilizing. For 8 home games, each of the 17 teams in 2008 (its 22nd season) averaged more than 12,000 people in attendance and ESPN shared a national platform with the league in its marketing efforts to attract new fans.
The league has benefited from American football’s fans thirst for more football. Play is inventive, dynamic and intense according to many of its thousands of avid fans. The AFL’s niche has been its ability to adapt an indoor playing surface the size of basketball and hockey arenas with the fever of American football fans.
The past season seemed to be a season to build upon for the AFL. The news of the league having to take a year to reorganize in order to reestablish itself as more financially solvent (among other things) is disturbing.
The relevance of the news to MLS is how connected the 2 leagues are in what they are trying to attain and where they are positioned when it comes to the public’s taste for team spectator sports. Neither is a mainstream league for American sports fans. They are peripheral leagues at best.
MLS, though, seems to have much more going for it as a potential mainstream American spectator sport than does the AFL. Firstly, the AFL directly competes with the NFL due to the fact that many fans already get enough football excitement. But most importantly, soccer is the beautiful game with its own strategies and skills that no other sport can come close to imitating.
MLS should pay close attention to what is happening with the AFL to learn from their mistakes. The AFL has survived mostly due to its entertainment value, but it is failing according to expectations because it has already peaked. The AFL says that its version of the minor leagues, AFL2 will continue its operations for 2009. The AFL should accept the fact that it will always be a peripheral sport and never a mainstream one, and then maybe it will be able to turn a profit.
MLS must look at soccer’s entertainment value and decide what needs to be done to take it beyond the periphery and into mainstream. Taking over the 4th slot from hockey is a reasonable goal, but enhancements and changes in MLS must occur and they must get done quickly.
Players in the AFL agreed on pay cuts in order to try and save their league. It shouldn’t have to get to this level.
It will take planning and innovation by MLS league executives and officials to carry the league forward to reach the mainstream. They must know their sport and they must know the expectations of sports fans.