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Labor peace brings new optimism for Arena Football

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, June 20, 2012, 1:29 a.m.
The Power's Oderick Turner pulls in a second quarter passs in front of the Force's Roland Cola at Consol Energy Center May 5, 2012.
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
The Power's Oderick Turner pulls in a second quarter passs in front of the Force's Roland Cola at Consol Energy Center May 5, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Three years ago, the Arena Football League shut down for an entire season, hoping to put its finances in order.

It returned in 2010, but the foundation remained weak. Just last week, the AFL was sitting on the edge of another work stoppage, one game already forfeited by striking players and the league threatening a lockout that would have killed hundreds of jobs.

After a weekend of hard, face-to-face bargaining, there is labor peace. Team owners and players are preparing today to sign a collective bargaining agreement that will ban strikes and lockouts through 2017, allow for multiyear contracts and eventually increase salaries by 131 percent.

Perhaps now, the league can grow.

Commissioner Jerry Kurz, who received a five-year contract extension last month in the midst of difficult labor negotiations, is encouraged.

“Even when the defunct league spent itself out of business, it came back because it is a great sport that is loved by the fans,” he said.

The league's live, televised game of the week on NFL Network will return Friday. It was canceled last week to avoid turning the labor dispute into a national spectacle.

The league has even found a sponsor — AVITAE caffeinated water — for Arena Bowl XXV, its championship game set for Aug. 10 in New Orleans.

But is the CBA enough to ensure long-term growth?

Raymond Sauer, a Clemson University professor of economics who specializes in sports, claims there is a market for alternative football.

“It's a matter of making it work,” he said.

Sauer said news of the Cleveland forfeit was “stunning,” but the league should be able to recover from it.

“It suggests to me that there is something inherently amiss there,” he said. “It's not much of a league when a team can do that.

“It's bad, real bad, but fans forget. Their memories aren't very long. You just don't want to keep doing it.”

Birth of a league

Jim Foster invented Arena Football while watching soccer.

He pulled a 9x12 manila envelope from his briefcase while attending a game at Madison Square Garden in 1981 and scribbled the outline of a football field over the diagram of a hockey rink.

The league started play in 1987 with four teams — including the Pittsburgh Gladiators — playing a six-game schedule.

The AFL grew into a 17-team league, with franchises moving or disappearing every offseason and unfettered player movement.

This year, the $400-per-game salaries frustrated players, leading to a strike June 8 in Cleveland, forcing the home team to forfeit its game.

James Baron, the interim executive president of the AFL Players Union, said a CBA that treats players with “respect and dignity” is an important first step toward ending the rancor.

Still, Baron, who said he has spent about $5,000 of his own money to bankroll the union, said the game has changed now that teams nearly have eliminated the two-way player.

“It was more like basketball,” said Baron, a former indoor football lineman who said he missed only three games in 12 seasons. “You might get ‘em coming down, but you had to play defense coming back. It was more pure, like the sandlot.”

Nonetheless, Baron said indoor football is “a dangerous and violent game, with big, strong, fast guys (running around on a field) with walls.”

Baron said his first contract in 1997 paid him $600 per game, with a $200 win bonus. Eventually, salaries of between $40,000 and $50,000 became commonplace, and many players — including Baron — earned $100,000 or more.

But such spending led to some owners backing out and franchises going out of business or moving. The Pittsburgh Gladiators played in the Civic Arena for the first four years of the AFL — including two championship game appearances — before moving to Tampa, Fla., and becoming one of the league's sturdier franchises.

Power co-owner Matt Shaner, who was instrumental in pushing for a CBA, said his team will return next season, and he intends to honor its six-year agreement with Consol Energy Center despite a nearly 50 percent drop in attendance from its expansion season last year. League-wide, the AFL is on pace to draw close to the 1.3 million people who came to games last year.

“Once all this is straightened out,” Power coach Derek Stingley said last week, “hopefully, the fans can forgive.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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