GRAND RAPIDS — While hockey and basketball leagues are sputtering, growth plans for arena football borders on the phenomenal. In two seasons, the Arena Football League looks to have thirty franchises. By 2005, the AFL’s developmental league, Arena 2, expects to have seventy teams doing business in smaller markets.
When the Grand Rapids Rampage opens its fourth season this Saturday, the AFL will begin its 15th year with four new franchises, all in major markets. New to Arena Football this year is Chicago, Toronto, Detroit and Indianapolis, the Rampage’s opponent this week. This time it’s the Fury for Detroit, instead of the Drive, and the Rush in Chicago, instead of the Bruisers.
Two factors are driving the business growth. One is the AFL’s affiliation with the National Football League. The other is the very energetic commitment made by AFL Commissioner C. David Baker to expand the sport.
“He really has over-delivered on what he planned to do with the league,” said Scott Gorsline, COO of the sports and entertainment division of DP Fox, the Dan and Pamella DeVos-owned firm that owns the Rampage.
As for the NFL’s role in the expansion process, a few years ago the league signed an agreement that gave its owners an option to buy 49.9 percent of the AFL. Gorsline said it appears that the league will exercise its option in the immediate future, a move that will give the AFL a hefty chunk of change and a powerful marketing partner.
Gorsline was confident that the NFL would pick up the option because NFL owners are becoming owners of arena franchises individually. He noted that William Clay Ford, who owns the Detroit Lions, entered into a partnership with Detroit Pistons and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Bill Davidson, and together they own the Fury.
Other NFL owners that have been approved for AFL franchises include Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Daniel Snider of the Washington Redskins and Tom Benson of the New Orleans Saints. At least three other NFL owners are likely to have arena franchises soon.
“The NFL now is handling the development and administration of all our referees for the Arena Football League. They’ve also engaged in a lot of marketing for the league, and the NFL’s in-house marketing department is probably the strongest marketing department in all of sports,” said Gorsline.
The AFL also has strong national TV ties to help with its exposure. ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and TNN will carry games nationwide. The Rampage home opener against Milwaukee on April 20 will be televised nationally on TNN. Locally, WXSP and Fox Sports Net Detroit will broadcast five Rampage games this season.
The league also has a six-year labor contract with the players that took six months to carve-out and was ratified in August. Last year, the lack of a collective bargaining agreement threatened to cancel the season.
The AFL averages about 11,000 fans per game and 42 percent are women. The Rampage, in the league’s smallest market, has averaged around 9,600 per game and women account for nearly 40 percent of its customers. Bob Sack, senior vice president of business operations for DP Fox, said the local team attracts a few more kids than other franchises, along with a slightly higher turnout of adults over fifty years of age.
“We know we have to have more fans at the game,” said Sack. “But we’re also positive about the response that we’ve received.”
As for the projected growth of Arena 2, Gorsline explained that expansion works well for it because the target markets are smaller cities with minor pro hockey franchises. In those cities, the arenas are largely dark during the off-season, so getting home dates is a relatively easy thing to do and much of the franchise’s organization is already in place on the hockey team.
“The league has gone in and said that this is a good complement to your hockey product, it’s something that you can run during the summer months,” said Gorsline. “And that’s why the league has been able to pull it off so quickly.”
Arena 2 debuted last year with 16 franchises. This season it will have 28. The AFL got its start in 1987 with only four franchises. Fifteen seasons later, the league has four divisions with 19 franchises.
“The league doesn’t tout itself as the fifth major sports league,” said Gorsline, “but that’s its goal.”