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Arena Football

Update: Yes, The Newest Arena Football League Is Already Collapsing

Hundreds of hopefuls try out for the Albany Empires Arena Football League team at Sportsplex Saturday Jan. 27, 2018 in Halfmoon, NY. (Photo by John Carl D'Annibale /Albany Times Union via Getty Images)
John Carl D'Annibale/Albany Times Union via Getty Images|

Hopefuls try out for the last incarnation of the AFL, in 2018.

The Billings Outlaws–Rapid City Marshals game was canceled on Saturday night an hour before kickoff. Marshals players had refused to come out of the home locker room until they were paid. They weren't paid. The Outlaws were on the field warming up when they found out they'd made the five-hour bus trip from Montana for nothing. Outlaws owner Steve Titus told the Billings Gazette he tried to ease his players' pain by buying them dinner at "the Golden Corral in Rapid City" before heading home.

That's but one of the recent scenes from the relentlessly tragicomic return of the Arena Football League. The debacles under Lee Hutton III, a Minneapolis lawyer and blowhard incompetent who is serving as AFL commissioner and chief legal counsel—an actual line from Hutton's own bio on the AFL website: "His success of this league has been immeasurable"—have been coming fast and furious of late. In the season's first week one franchise called it quits and another's players got evicted from their motel. Online observers were already saying Hutton's outfit was to sports leagues what Bishop Sycamore was to high school football.

Week 2 was even worse; for example, twice as many teams folded. So let's look at some recent lowlights from the impossibly silly soap opera that is the AFL relaunch.

On Saturday, May 4, Billings owner Titus unloaded on Hutton. He said just before the season opener the commissioner had informed him and other owners that the AFL wouldn’t honor its contractual obligation to pay player wages and travel costs, and admitted that games would actually not be broadcast on NFL Network. Hutton, Titus said, had stopped answering emails and calls from owners by last week. 

“It’s sickening,” Titus said. "The best thing that could happen for the AFL right now would be if Lee Hutton resigns this instant as commissioner. All he has done as of late to team owners is lie.”

On May 6, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ordered the West Texas Desert Hawks to cease playing in the AFL. The injunction came following a petition filed by the rival National Arena League (NAL), where the West Texas squad played last season as the "West Texas Warbirds," saying the team violated its contract with the former league by moving to the AFL. Judge Steven Jones's order prohibited the Desert Hawks from playing in any league other than the NAL until legal issues surrounding the move were resolved.

The following day, May 7, Louisiana VooDoo coach James Shiver blasted the league and Hutton about nonpayment of salaries and repeatedly lying about the reasons for nonpayment. Shiver also tweeted out a photo of Hutton on a milk carton like a missing child. 

On May 8, the VooDoo announced their game against the Orlando Predators, scheduled for Saturday in Lafayette, La., would be canceled. That’s the second week in a row that a VooDoo game got scrapped. VooDoo management put out a statement attributing the cancellation to unspecified “issues that have become completely out of our control.”

(Lafayette was not the team’s original host city. Before the season, the AFL schedule had called for the VooDoo to play all home games in Lake Charles, in that city’s Event Center. But city officials nixed that arrangement after spotting what Mayor Nic Hunter called “multiple red flags” in the league’s structure, forcing the VooDoo to find a new host city. After the Orlando game’s cancellation, Hunter went on social media to congratulate himself for not letting the VooDoo call his city home. The mayor said his constituents should “consider that a bullet dodged.”)

On May 9, Rapid City Marshals owner Wes Johnson went on local station KOTA-TV to say much of his roster had quit the team that week because the league hadn’t fulfilled Hutton's promises regarding player contracts. Johnson said that the commissioner “needs to be taken out of his position,” but added that no matter how bad things got in the AFL he and his fellow owners were powerless to kick the commissioner to the curb. 

"Owners can't vote him out," said Johnson. “We don't have much of a say in that, other than voicing our concerns and demanding change.”

That same day, Georgia Force quarterback Justin Arth announced via Twitter that the team had "yet to pay me or my teammates salaries for the first two games," and that the team had "officially folded."

"A few of my teammates are now stranded in the team hotel," he wrote, "and need to be out by Saturday." That same day, Arth started a GoFundMe drive to "attempt to help our brothers get home." (By Friday, he reported the drive had succeeded in its goal.) The Force were the second AFL franchise to throw in the towel in the season's first two weeks, following the Iowa Rampage.

Still on Thursday, the Oregon Blackbears scrapped their home game against the Salinas Liberty. Liberty players raised safety concerns about the Blackbears home field, which used rodeo fencing for boundaries; Blackbears president Pat Johnson, the most accessible guy in the league as far as I can tell, said the fencing had nothing to do with the cancellation. Johnson said Oregon would instead be playing the Washington Wolfpack, filling in for the injuncted West Texas team. That marked the third time that the Wolfpack and Blackbears were scheduled to play each other in the past month.

On Friday, May 10, the West Texas team worked out its beef with the competing arena league, and the injunction was lifted. But the day didn't bring all good AFL news! Minnesota Myth coach Rickey Foggie resigned. Players for the Myth had threatened a boycott prior to last week's season-opener over missing paychecks, before agreeing to play. The Myth are owned by Diana Hutton, a Minneapolis lawyer, and her husband, the league commissioner. Shortly after news of his departure broke, Foggie, a local hero since his college days quarterbacking the Minnesota Gophers, reposted a tweet tagging Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and saying, "You need to look into this fraud immediately." Neither of the Huttons commented publicly on the Foggie matter.

On May 11, Philadelphia Soul general manager Kelly Logan announced his team—which is actually based in Trenton, N.J.—was done for the season. The club had fired all its players before the season opener against the VooDoo, after they demanded promised pay. The fired players were also kicked out of the Super 8 motel where they'd been staying, because the team hadn't paid the hotel either. The Soul played the VooDoo using the roster of the Dallas Falcons, a team from a rival confederation called the American Arena League 2.

Also on the 11th, the Albany Firebirds announced that Monday's scheduled home game against the Myth, the Huttons' team, had been canceled because the would-be visitors "can not [sic] make the trip” to New York.

Which brings us to Saturday night's events in Rapid City: Marshals players refusing to come out of the locker room to face the visiting Billings Outlaws unless they were paid back salaries, and the game being canceled one hour before kickoff, with the Outlaws already warming up on the field.

None of the injunctions or cancellations or foldings were mentioned on the homepage of the AFL’s website (or, for that matter, under the "News" tab). Hutton did not directly respond to Defector's requests for comment. Blackbears president Johnson, himself an NFL veteran and childhood friend of Hutton, said Hutton had told him multiple times he was going to call this reporter to discuss the debacle. Hutton did not follow through.

Longtime arena football observer Todd Walkenhorst has watched the AFL debacle with annoyed bemusement. Walkenhorst, a former NFL administrator and coach, is commissioner of the National Arena League (NAL), which has been playing indoor football since 2017 and merged with the Champions Indoor Football confederation last year. Both those leagues had historically focused on small markets. Hutton, Walkenhorst said, acted like the AFL was strictly big-time when he announced the relaunch, claiming he’d put teams in large markets including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Austin and San Antonio. TMZ and other media outlets eagerly amplified Hutton’s showboating. None of those big towns were part of the AFL come opening day; instead, Hutton poached teams from existing leagues in comparatively tiny markets, including three different Kansas cities—but not Kansas City. Walkenhorst said he’d seen Hutton's style of carnival barking a whole lot through the years, and couldn’t believe anybody was taking the guy seriously.

“People who’ve been in this game a long time are used to people showing up and they say, ‘We’re going to suck this bowling ball through a straw and it’s going to be awesome!’” says Walkenhorst. “What [Hutton] was saying was that absurd, business-wise. You’re really not going to suck a bowling ball through a straw.”

One executive from an AFL competitor who told Defector he’d been approached to get involved with the AFL relaunch says he could tell from the start that Hutton had an over-reliance on the power of the AFL name. All that goodwill came from the days long ago when deep-pocketed bigwigs—such as NFL owners Pat Bowlen, Jerry Jones, and Tom Benson, hairband god Jon Bon Jovi, and NBA/NHL fixture Ted Leonsis—owned AFL franchises. Hutton also claimed that Ron Jaworski, a onetime Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and favorite son of Philly who also had ties to the old-school AFL, would be part of the Philadelphia Soul administration. Jaworski quickly put the kibosh on that suggestion. Things have been going to hell for the AFL ever since. 

“These guys come around all the time, and they don’t get the attention because they don’t have that name recognition that this one did,” said the executive, who requested anonymity. “The AFL [relaunch] got attention because it was a legacy brand. ‘Arena Football League’ meant something. Those days are gone.” 

But, the executive added, his experience has also made him more cautious than the Average Joe about predicting the AFL’s imminent demise. He said he’d wager that no matter how mismanaged the league is or how desperate things now look, some teams will play out the season. 

“Once the season starts, you’ve got so many commitments,” he said. “You’ve sold tickets, sold sponsorships. These owners have deliverables that they’re going to be on the hook for. You have to play really. So I think we’re going to see the league limp through. Teams that exist are gonna find a way to get there. By the end it’ll be like a NASCAR car that finishes with three tires and duct tape holding the rest together. Beyond this year? Well….”

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