The AFL is back in 2024, so make it three leagues in three seasons returning to the football forefront from an early grave. With the USFL in 2022, the XFL in 2023, and now the AFL in 2024…Football fans will be spoiled with options in 2024. The Arena Football League was once the premier standalone league outside of the NFL in the United States. Founded in 1986, they would launch their first games in 1987. In over 30 years of existence, they had canceled just one season in 2009 in which their developmental league the AF2 still played.
Reaching a peak of just under 13,000 fans a game in 2008. Even after a one-year hiatus, the league averaged nearly 9,500 fans per game when they returned in 2010 showing the staying power the league had at the time. On October 29th, 2019 just before COVID ravaged the world the Arena Football League made a public announcement that they had filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.
Lost but Not Forgotten
The Arena Football League grew to heights no other league outside of the NFL ever has. Its unique style of play, developed by the “Father of Arena Football” Jim Foster, captured audiences with its high-flying offenses, huge hits, Ironman rules, and rebound nets. So it’s no surprise that when the league folded in 2020, someone saw value in those naming rights. That someone or group of someones was the Frys family. Former owners of Fry’s Electronics which folded in 2021. Word is that they sold 80% of these naming rights to a third party years later, but retained 20% of the rights, and will get a team once again.
The Frys family once owned and operated the San Jose Sabercats a very successful organization whose former head coach was just hired by the IFL. The Sabercats may have folded before the league ended, but the family never lost their love for the sport or desire to own a franchise. It appears they’ve positioned themselves to once again own and operate a team.
As of recently, the AFL has become fairly active. When I say recently I mean within the last month or two. The website is now active with a fresh new look, headquarters location, and mission statement. Merchandise is also now available for sale with this new look logo and the Arena Football Name.
On top of the website updates, the official AFL Twitter profile has become very active. It started when they sent their condolences to the family of an Arena Football legend, which has since been taken down.
However after the announcement on 2/1/23, the league social media accounts of gone nuts. Producing a crazy amount of interaction and interest over the past two days alone.
I was even got a reply back from the mysterious new manager of the page albeit just to say there will be no comment yet, but soon we will know more. All signs are pointing to an encouraging effort to relaunch this once-great alternative league.
After some pretty amazing work by a few members of the Inside the Walls podcast discord server, we have found out that the head coach of the Bay Area Panthers Darren Arbet is the majority owner of the name Arena Football League. Arbet, of course, is closely tied to the Frys family from his decade-plus run as the SaberCats head coach.
Arbet was hired by the Bay Area Panthers this off-season and word is Arbet had started the process to sell off the naming rights to the AFL before accepting the job. There is some speculation that the IFL could rebrand, while others have said it’s more likely teams like Bay Area will leap to the AFL instead of returning to the IFL.
Rebranding Seems Unlikely
In my mind, a full-on rebrand would be a massive undertaking with no real gain to be had unless it was involved in the sale of the entire league. I loved the AFL, as did many fans of indoor football today, but I don’t believe any of us would be more likely to follow the IFL if it was renamed the AFL. I don’t think the arena game appeals to the casual football fan regardless of what you name the league so I can’t see a name change alone bringing in more viewers.
The Indoor Football League has made a lot of bold moves in the past, but I am not sure changing everything about their league is in their best interests. Keep in mind the AFL had iron man rules, rebound nets, and many other significant rule changes from the IFL. If any league seems poised to rebrand it would be the National Arena League simply based on rule similarities alone.
In this scenario, the NAL would be 8 teams short of the 16 teams that seem to be represented on the AFL website by 16 blank helmets in the header image. If you look back, in 2020 the NAL explored a merger with the 7-team Champions Indoor Football League. This would leave open the possibility of team #16 belonging to the Fry family. Perhaps these talks have been in the works for years only to culminate in a rebrand to the AFL with each league serving the purpose of the conference? Not so fast…
Despite the timing seeming to line up with the folding of the AFL, and the beginning of the talks with the NAL and CIF, every source I’ve spoken to, from coaches to owners, to commissioners in both leagues say the same thing. Talks broke off in 2021 and have not been rekindled since. With the NAL looking stronger than ever before rebranding to the AFL, in general, seems like an odd move. Their gameplay is extremely similar, their pay scale is among the best in terms of indoor football, and some of the teams already lived through the AFL once before why bring it back? And why now?
With so many questions left to answer the next calendar year of football should prove to be very interesting with three revived leagues in three consecutive seasons. One of the biggest questions is can all these leagues survive? You have the FCF, IFL, NAL, and CIF all fighting for viability at the top of the indoor football food chain. Now the AFL tosses its hat in the ring as well?
Once again HUGE Shout out to the guys of Inside the Walls Podcast, and their discord server for their help in finding pieces of this information.
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