By Toph Kopchak
Head of AFL Coverage
In just about an hour, Ron James will be introduced as the Head Coach for the brand new Atlantic City franchise of the Arena Football League. James is the AFL journeyman if there ever was one. James becomes a new coach for a franchise for the 3rd time in just four seasons. This will be James 6th time being in charge of an AFL team. James ranks 14th all time in AFL history with 72 wins (counting playoffs) as a Head Coach. James has been named Coach of The Year twice, with his most recent effort with the Tampa Bay Storm earning it for him in 2017. The Storm went 10-4 making the playoffs, won their semifinal game, but came up short facing the Philadelphia Soul, losing 40-44.
James now returns to action with a team and league that in large part, are run by the man he was trying to beat in Arena Bowl XXX, (2017) AFL Chairman Ron Jaworski. It's really no secret the league was looking to add another team in the Soul's neck of the woods, and with the addition of the Albany Empire last season
and the new team in AC that goal has been reached, as the league now hopes to grow a little more out West next season, You can be sure QB Tommy Grady and WR Joe "Superman" Hills will be on Coach James' radar for players to sign. Both played for him, Hills in the 2017 Arena Bowl season and Grady from 2011-13 in Utah.
**Columbus: 11 AM ET Press Conference From Nationwide Arena**
Grady will also be a target for the Columbus (Destroyers, we think) new team, when they introduce Matt Sauk as their Head Coach tomorrow inside Nationwide Arena, Grady was coached by Ron James (Head Coach) and Sauk in 2011 when Sauk won the NFL Network Assistant Coach of the Year award his first season with the team. That season he even stepped in, acting as the head coach in two games. Sauk coached five AFL teams in toal, winning the Arena Bowl with the Spokane Shock, where quarterback Kyle Rowley set an Arena Bowl record 9 touchdowns with zero interceptions. Arizona's Nick Davila tied the TD mark in 2012 at ArenaBowl XXV, but it has yet to be broken.
Sauk attended Orange Coast College out of high school, he had two solid seasons and almost went to TCU to finish his football career, but not all of his grades carried over. He returned to Orange Coast for two weeks of fall classes. Right before the season started, Utah State gave him a call. Long story short he lead the Aggies to a share of the Big West Conference title in 1997 and guided them to the 1997 Humanitarian Bowl to face Cincinnati. During that regular season Sauk lead the Big West in most touchdowns responsible for and total plays while on the field. He also accounted for 2,898 total yards, good enough for 18th best in the nation.
Sauk also played in both the AFL and af2, (AFL minor leagues)
In 2001, he was named af2 Rookie of The Year. In 2005, he was named the af2 Offensive Player of the Year. Sauk was even horered with an induction into the af2 Hall of Fame in 2009.
Side Note: His last boss... Norm Macdonald, kinda.
Boasting a representative team from every state in New England, the NEAL is quickly becoming a reality. According to their website, the New England Arena League has signed four teams: New England Cavalry, Vermont Bucks, Rhode Island Riptide, and Mass Wolverines. Soon to be added is the Beantown Bullies and a team representing Connecticut.
For their inaugural season the league will play all games at the Longplex Family and Sports Center in Tiverton, Rhode Island. This is not unlike the Elite Football League (EIF) which is also a professional developmental league who plays the majority of their games at the Statesboro Indoor Sports facility in Statesboro, Georgia. This one-field dynamic promises to keep costs low for NEAL team owners who will not have all the costs associated with a home facility.
But, will it work? As with any sport, fans enjoy going to their local arena and cheering on their home team. However, short of driving two hundred miles south, Vermont Bucks fans won't under the NEAL format. I guess a more accurate question is What is the leagues end game? According to league management “the vision for the league is a junior hockey league, for junior hockey teams, we just play arena football” Kevin James said. “This comes from my background in junior hockey and outdoor football, so I’m basically blending the two.”
According to a previously released information bulletin, the league is composed of teams who want to project their players, their team, their brand and their logo on a stage for national exposure. In addition, James says he’s focused on “helping, projecting and launching players to the next level.”
The New England Arena league is set to release their schedule in the next few weeks. The season will begin play the the first or second weekend in April, 2019 and wrap things up before June. James hopes to start the season with eight teams playing six regular season games and then the playoffs. James encourages fans and potential players to visit their new website neal.footballshift.com for the upcoming tryout slated for Saturday, March 2 and for more information about the NEAL.
Albany owner Dan Nolan told the Albany Business Review that the Arena Football League could expand to 20-25 teams in the next few years.
Ambitious? Yeah, but it's the kind of quote necessary for the business-focused coverage of AFL front offices in the last 18 months. In that regard, it's a good quote that shows that the AFL is a good bet.
That said, Nolan also said that the team was a loss last season despite the success on the field and with attendance. Not unheard of with start up costs, but it requires a second look when paired in the same article with massive expansion goals.
The AFL's resurgence has been based completely on the financial strength of a very small group of individuals and corporations. They've done a great job at it too with attendance, amount of teams and fan interest all increasing since the Scott Butera days.
But with limited influence, cash flow and liquid assets are a real problem. The richest people in the world could lose it all if they don't have the ability to spend it cause it's already locked in investments.
Without another major player coming on board, the kind of expansion discussed by Nolan would be foolish. If all teams suffer that initial loss like Albany did, the ability to grind it out for the natural progression of the business would be difficult. Cuts would have to be made, and the ever diligent AFL fans would notice.
That said, Nolan got to be in the position he's in for a reason. A saavy businessman, he would know that rapid expansion at this level would be tough, especially when things like increased payroll and travel costs increase so much with every new team.
So what's a realistic goal for expansion?
In terms of gaining teams quickly, bringing back the Cleveland Gladiators would be the easiest. Their arena renovations are taking their own sweet time, but the general consensus is that everyone wants this franchise back. Cleveland's ties with Dan Gilbert could also bring in that new investor to put a team in Detroit at Little Caesars Arena. Close regional ties with similar ownership is the bread and butter of the AFL these days, so this is a natural fit.
The league would be with eight teams in that hypothetical. There's a much harder way to get another six teams, but it would be needed to stay on the timeline with Nolan's comments. That would be to absorb the National Arena League.
Half of the NAL's franchises are either directly from the AFL or named after old AFL teams. The geographic footprint is the best fit for the AFL to expand on travel costs while still having the Midwest to put new teams. It just comes down to how much would the AFL have to offer to grab these teams and put them in their brand. It would be way more difficult than I'm writing about here, but it fills the need for our expansion subject.
There might be a couple of AAL teams that might outgrow the league in the next few years too, but such a large jump would require significant economic research and would be limited to only two or three franchises.
Even with this absorbtion, at least another six teams would be needed. Markets like Louisville, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Fort Wayne, Hartford and Providence are all available. Depending on how quickly the AFL gets there, they could bully out smaller and younger teams in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Chicago.
Nashville and Portland, Maine are tied to the NAL and could be available too. Think how wild that would be to see the AFL bring back the Maine Mammoths the way the NAL brought back the Orlando Predators? It would be a fitting resolve in so many ways.
Now if the NAL absorption doesn't happen, that's fine too. The AFL is putting plenty of solid internal infrastructures in place to continue expanding. The difference is the timeline. A 12-team AFL by 2024 is more than reasonable with the growth shown by the league recently. With 12 teams, it is a bit more understanding of celebrating why that success happened and therefore, a more sustainable development.
While logic is a pesky thing in this case, I don't believe Nolan is off base with his comments and goals. I'm glad he is this excited about the potential of the AFL and that is a great way to bring in new fans to the sport. But pairing those lofty goals with reasonable expectations is how you retain fans and is needed in this circumstance.