The Arena Football League is betting on Atlantic City by planning to bring a professional football franchise to the city this spring, the league announced Tuesday.
The league made the announcement after the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority board voted to authorize the agency to reach a deal for a team to play at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
The authority, which owns Boardwalk Hall, will make $500,000 in capital expenditures such as a turf field and field goal posts. The authority said it will not fund the operations of the team. The three-year deal is subject to final approval and execution of a license agreement.
The agreement links a struggling indoor football league with a city recovering after five casinos closed from 2014 to 2016. Two Atlantic City casinos reopened under new ownership last year. For the league, the new franchise comes at turbulent times, as well. It lost eight teams in 2015 and 2016, and if not for two new franchises in 2017, the league might have come to a swift end, the Inquirer reported in June.
The Atlantic City franchise will be funded by the league and operated by Trifecta Sports and Entertainment (TSE), a company owned by former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski and newspaper mogul George Hearst III, among other partners. The league also operates two other teams: the Philadelphia Soul and Albany Empire.
“I couldn’t be more excited that arena football is coming to Atlantic City,” Jaworski, who is also the league’s executive committee chair, said in a statement. “We are going to bring a family-friendly affordable entertainment product to A.C., and bring a team that will become an integral part of the community, giving people in the area a team to be proud to call their hometown team.”
The Atlantic City team would be the league’s fifth active franchise, down from 12 teams in 2015. The other teams are in Philadelphia, Albany, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.
The league filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and shut down for a season. The league lost four teams in 2015 and five more the next year. After the 2017 season, the Cleveland franchise temporarily suspended operations. Franchises in Washington and Baltimore, both led by Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, launched in 2017, and the Albany team began play last year.
League spokeswoman Elizabeth Devita said having an Atlantic City franchise will help the league move toward “integrating sports betting with our games.” The league has an existing partnership with DraftKings, which also has a sportsbook at Resorts casino.
The football franchise would be the fifth professional team to try its luck in Atlantic City since 1996. The four others are gone.
The Atlantic City Surf baseball team played from 1998 to 2009 before ceasing operations. The team was a member of the Atlantic League and later the Can-Am League, and played home games at Surf Stadium, a publicly financed 5,500-seat stadium that now sits empty.
The Boardwalk Bullies called Atlantic City home from 2001 to 2005, when the East Coast Hockey League team was sold and moved to Stockton, Calif.
The Atlantic City Seagulls, of the now defunct United States Basketball League, played at the city’s high school gym from 1996 to 2001. And the Atlantic City CardSharks of the National Indoor Football League played at Boardwalk Hall in 2004 and lasted one season.
Despite the city’s history of failed sports franchises, the Arena Football League team could be a winner, said City Council President Marty Small, who said he played for the Seagulls' 1998 championship team.
“It’s a combination of things on why different teams haven’t succeed, and also you can’t paint failure with a broad brush,” Small said. “This is a different time in the city. It’s a different era. We haven’t had a professional team here in over 10 years and the [AFL] is an established league with some heavyweight backing behind it.”
The Atlantic City franchise does not yet have a team name. The league is asking fans to submit suggestions to AtlanticCityAFL.com. The team is searching for a head coach too.