The Spokane Shock will explore all available options after the Arena Football League playoffs, and they’re strongly considering a move to the Indoor Football League, team officials said.
Spokane’s immediate attention is on Saturday’s playoff game against Arizona in Phoenix, but the long-term viability of the AFL is again in question following a tumultuous weekend in which two franchises ceased operations and Portland replaced defunct Las Vegas in the playoffs.
“I want to win, do it the right way and make sure the league is sustainable,” Shock owner Nader Naini said. “It has to be a different model for this to work long term.”
The AFL has had numerous franchises come and go since returning in 2010 from a one-year hiatus. The league was recently forced to take over daily operations for New Orleans and Las Vegas, meaning owners of the 10 other franchises paid the bills for those teams for at least a month.
That’s nothing new. Ownership issues prompted the AFL to take over Orlando and San Antonio in 2014. Chicago and Utah went down a similar path in 2013.
The AFL, which paid star players six-figure salaries in its heyday, lauded its new business model when it re-launched in 2010 to keep costs in check, but it hasn’t produced stability. The league hasn’t lined up with the same roster of teams in consecutive years and ownership changes are commonplace.
Spokane has operated continuously for 10 seasons, joining the AFL in 2010 after dominating arenafootball2 from 2006-09.
Naini, who was heavily involved in the hiring of first-year AFL commissioner Scott Butera, listed three key objectives: generating mass sponsorships at the league level, generating revenue through media and digital rights and requiring teams to follow player salary rules.
Naini said there has been little or no progress toward those objectives. Sponsorships continue to lag and the league pays to have games televised on CBS Sports Network and produced for broadcast on ESPN. He added, “I don’t think anything has been done relative to cheating (paying players beyond AFL rules).
“In Scott’s defense, I would say the league had been left with so many hidden landmines that he’s been basically firefighting most of his tenure,” said Naini, who purchased the Shock from Brady Nelson prior to the 2014 season. “But you have to make progress. I’ve told him unless I see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a failed proposition in the long term, and even in the shorter term as we’ve seen this season (with Las Vegas and New Orleans).”
Spokane’s ownership group hasn’t made a decision but Naini said the AFL needs to demonstrate “tangible progress.”
One potential alternative is the 10-team IFL, which includes six-year member Tri-Cities, coached by former Shock head coach Adam Shackleford. The Fever lost IFL championship games to Sioux Falls in 2011 and 2012. Tri-Cities joined the af2 in 2007 but didn’t enjoy as much success as Spokane, which won championships in 2006 and 2009, the latter coached by Shackleford.
IFL teams are based in the west (Tri-Cities; Billings, Montana; and Loveland, Colorado), and Midwest (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin and South Dakota). The Iowa Barnstormers, who had a long history in the AFL and af2, joined the IFL in 2014. Green Bay, which lost to the Shock in the 2006 ArenaCup, left af2 for the IFL in 2010.
IFL operating expenses and player salaries are considerably lower than the AFL. IFL players make $250 per game compared to $875 for AFL veterans and $825 for AFL rookies, but those figures can be enhanced through bonuses and multi-year contracts. IFL teams reportedly pay nearly $500,000 less in league fees annually than AFL counterparts.
“The (IFL) business operations model is definitely interesting,” Shock director of operations Ryan Eucker said.
The AFL reached 18 teams in 2011 and had 15 when Spokane won the 2010 ArenaBowl. Of the seven in the National Conference that season, only Spokane, Arizona and Cleveland remain (the Gladiators are now in the American Conference). Five of the eight American Conference teams in 2010 relocated or are no longer in business.
Naini, a western Washington resident, reiterated that he has no intention of moving the franchise.
“The whole intention is to make this work in Spokane and that’s not changing,” he said. “We think we have a path forward for every circumstance.”
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