Arena Football League on shaky ground, but Soul's home still standing

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Former Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski (second from right) heads the Soul's ownership group. The Arena Football League says it plans to play in 2017 with four teams and a reported 12-game regular season.

The Soul won its second Arena Football League championship in its 12-year history back in August with a thrilling victory over the heavily favored Arizona Rattlers. But Philadelphia's team will defend its title in a league that will look drastically different in 2017.

The Arena Football League fielded eight teams in 2016. During this offseason, the league has lost five of those franchises in rapid succession - after losing four other teams in the previous offseason.

Teams such as the Los Angeles Kiss and the Portland Steel ceased operations after struggling in the league since their inceptions in 2014.

The bigger losses for the league came when the Orlando Predators, Arizona Rattlers and Jacksonville Sharks announced they were leaving as well. Those three teams won Arena Bowl titles, including the Rattlers' three in a row from 2012-14.

The Rattlers and Sharks are bolting the AFL to join rival leagues. Arizona is headed to the Indoor Football League, and Jacksonville has yet to announce where its landing spot will be.

Why are the Rattlers leaving the AFL? According to team owner Ron Shurts, it's because of all of the uncertainty surrounding the league.

"We couldn't afford to sit out a year and expect our fans to come back the following year if we were out of football this year," he told the Arizona Republic. "Maybe the AFL will continue. We couldn't take that chance with no Rattlers in 2017."

The Rattlers might have been on board with the AFL as recently as Oct. 14, when the league held an emergency dispersal draft so that teams could select players from the Sharks, Predators, Steel, and Kiss.

All the players the Rattlers selected and the players they already had under contract are now free agents.

As for the Sharks, owner Jeff Bouchy said the league's financial troubles since returning in 2010 was one of many reasons that his team is headed elsewhere.

"Constantly growing league expenses and the lack of league revenue led to crippling operational costs of AFL teams," he told Jacksonville.com.

The Predators were one of the AFL's historic franchises, starting all the way back in 1991, and built the league's marquee rivalry with the Tampa Bay Storm, known as "The War on I-4."

Despite all of that, the Predators announced on Oct. 12 that they were suspending operations. A statement on the team's website said the move was made "due to the reduced number of teams remaining in the Arena Football League as well as pending disagreements with the league."

So where does this leave the AFL and the Soul?

The league currently has four teams: the Soul, Cleveland Gladiators, Tampa Bay Storm, and expansion Washington Valor.

With those four teams, the league intends to play in 2017 with what will be reportedly a 12-game regular season. So it looks as if the Soul will indeed have a chance to defend its championship.

The Soul declined a request for comment on Wednesday.

The other three teams in the league have a common thread: owners who also control other pro sports teams, specifically in the NBA and NHL. Some also own the venues their teams play in, which means the AFL franchises don't have to pay rent.

The Gladiators' Dan Gilbert also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, the American Hockey League's Cleveland Monsters, and Quicken Loans Arena.

The Valor's Ted Leonsis also owns the Washington Capitals, Wizards, and Mystics, and the Verizon Center.

The Storm's Jeffrey Vinik also owns the Tampa Bay Lightning as well as a minority stake in the Boston Red Sox.

This is the direction current AFL commissioner Scott Butera wants to take the league in, because having this type of team owner helps the league on a number of levels.

They have deep pockets, can afford to put out a quality product, and have the infrastructure in place to help with ticket sales and promotion.

"The Arena Football League is focused on solidifying its foundation for the long term and is in active conversations with strong, experienced ownership groups in markets where there is already a pro sports signature in place," the league said in a statement. "The addition of the Washington Valor this coming season provides a solid example of where we are headed. Ultimately, we continue to be focused on positioning and growing the league over the long term to deliver the great game, compelling broadcasts and arena experience our fans have come to expect."

The Soul is an obvious exception to all this. It operates more like the teams that have fled the AFL or have shut down operations. Yet the Soul is surviving, thanks to having the deepest ownership group in the league.

Former Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski heads the group with Craig Spencer, CEO of local real estate company the Arden Group. Its holdings include Philadelphia's Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Other Soul owners include former Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil, former Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, Saints offensive lineman Jahri Evans, Chickies & Pete's chairman and chief executive officer Pete Ciarrocchi, local businessman Cosmo DeNicola, and Judge Group founder and chief executive officer Martin Judge.

In total, the Soul's ownership group consists of 13 people.

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