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.