Arena Football up to 47 _ yes, 47 _ teams

Thursday, April 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

If success in sports is measured by staying power, it would be difficult to beat Arena Football. And if success is measured by rapid growth, well, Arena Football deserves credit in that area, too.

The indoor football league heads into its 15th season, by far the longest tenure for any professional sport that's an offshoot from an established sport. Orlando visits Nashville on Friday night.

With an all-time high of 19 teams in the AFL, plus 28 in its minor league, arenafootball2, there are 47 professional clubs throughout North America.

That's 16 more than in the NFL _ and there are plans to have as many as 70 indoor teams by next year.

``We like to think the growth potential is almost unlimited,'' AFL commissioner David Baker said.

Arena Football has come a long way since Baker was invited to a 15-minute meeting by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and wound up staying nearly three hours.

``The NFL is not involved because they need us,'' Baker said. ``They are involved because they see the wisdom of our product.''

And the potential profits, of course. And the ability to reach out to their fans during the spring and early summer, before training camps get going.

That's why the Detroit Lions are part owners of the Fury, who join the AFL this year and will play at the Palace of Auburn Hills. That's why Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones soon will field an expansion team, as will New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and Washington Redskins boss Daniel Snyder.

``A lot of NFL owners are taking an interest and the league as a whole has the option to purchase 49 percent of the AFL,'' said Tom Lewand, a Lions vice president who has overseen the NFL team's involvement with the Fury.

``That deal struck a couple years ago set the stage for all the NFL owners to take a hard look at Arena Football and what that relationship can create. The experience we have had has been very positive.''

This season, AFL and af2 game officials will be overseen by NFL officials as the NFL provides four regional supervisors. Previously, the NFL and AFL's working relationship was limited mainly to marketing.

``This can provide the greatest pool of officials to pull from of any sport in the country,'' Baker said.

Next, perhaps, could be a player development deal with the NFL, although Baker admits he has not discussed it to any significant extent. Last season, there were 46 players, officials or coaches who had graduated from Arena Football to the NFL _ including, of course, Kurt Warner.

Baker also envisions taking the product abroad.

``At this point, we're thinking of exhibitions in Canada, Asia and Mexico, and 21 exhibitions in Europe,'' he said. ``There are a lot of opportunities to become the first worldwide league.

First, of course, the AFL and af2 are saturating the United States. Arenafootball2, established as a grass roots indoor league designed to play in smaller markets with medium-size arenas, grew by 13 teams in its second year. Sixteen states have teams, most of them in arenas where minor league hockey teams reside in fall and winter.

``Part of the significant success we've had was that rivalries already were established with hockey teams in many of our communities,'' said af2 commissioner Mary Ellen Garling. ``We have more opportunities to capitalize on those if we operate two teams with different seasons.

``And with all of that, arena and team operators are able to amortize costs over a 12-month period and they are able to continually use and excite their staff by dealing with different sports.

``And it is football, and in the Southeast, you don't have to sell football or the product.''

Garling's league also is getting feelers from NFL owners.

``We have seen interest and have received applications from several NFL groups interested in expanding their football base beyond the NFL and Arena Football all the way down to the grass roots level,'' she said. ``We have two applications from NFL groups and are in serious discussions with at least three others.

``That is so very encouraging, because we truly can see from the ground up the development of indoor football.''