Far fewer coming to see Soul play in AFL return

The Soul have been playing to a half-empty Wells Fargo Center, averaging 9,000 fans this season. They averaged 16,000 spectators before the league folded in 2008.

Thirteen games into their return as a member of the Arena Football League, the Soul are fighting an uphill battle to reach .500, and trying to rebuild the fan base the team enjoyed during its previous existence.

Around this time in 2008 - the last year that the Soul fielded a squad before the league briefly folded - they were on their way to the AFL championship while averaging more than 16,000 fans at home games.

In the Soul's three most recent outings at the Wells Fargo Center, they drew a combined 23,258. For the season, the team is averaging about 9,000 spectators, though the crowds have appeared to fall short of the announced attendance each night.

The Soul's average attendance for the seasons before 2008 was 15,842 in 2007, 15,464 in 2006, 16,121 in 2005 and 16,852 in 2004.

"We were expecting the challenges in front of us, and we had no illusions," said John Adams, the vice president and chief operating officer for the Soul. "We knew we couldn't just snap our fingers and everybody would come back."

Adams, who worked in the Soul's front office when the organization joined the AFL in 2004, stayed until 2007 and was not on board when the team won the ArenaBowl.

He came back this year to an organization that had new owners in local businessman Craig Spencer and ex-Eagle Ron Jaworski.

When the Soul were last competing in the AFL, they were owned by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, whose involvement with the team no doubt had a positive effect on the organization.

"His resources and celebrity brought attention to the team," said Adams, a native of Renovo, Pa., who attended nearby Lock Haven University. "But we still would be facing some challenges now [even if Bon Jovi was the owner]. You can't go away for two years and expect to pick up where you left off. But we have committed owners, and a talented front office. We want the fans to come out and support the team. We won't go away this time."

With the AFL's new business model, Adams said the Soul and the league in general are in better position to make a profit. Under the system the league was employing before shutting down for one year after the 2008 season, player salaries were much higher.

While top players were getting paid in six figures back then, the average salary now is $400 a game for 18 outings. In 2010, the AFL began play again under the new system with 15 teams. The Soul were not among them.

The AFL now consists of 18 teams, one more than in 2008.

"Under the new model, you don't need the attendance you used to [in order to] break even," Adams said. "We don't have the past attendance number, but we're in better shape from the business standpoint. We have expectations of breaking even, and being successful, especially in the second year. We're much healthier than at this point in '08, and the opportunity for long-term success is there."

With about 4,000 season-ticket holders, Adams said the most important thing in attracting new buyers is "consistency" in the fan experience.

"We want the same family atmosphere that it's always been, and our job is to make sure the game presentation stays consistent," he said.

What will also help is for the Soul to make strides on the field.

"We have challenges on the field, and ultimately, we have to put a winner on the field," Adams said. "This is Philadelphia, and it will happen with this ownership."

Contact staff writer Kevin Tatum at 215-854-2583 or ktatum@phillynews.com.