As Ron Jaworski gets to talking about his Arena Football League, you can see the passion. He gets animated as he speaks about his plans for the league.
“I’m thinking in the next minute or so I’ll be getting our press release about our partnership with Draft Kings and fantasy football,” he said enthusiastically as he looked down at his phone. “It’s a new Arena Football League! It’s an expanding Arena Football League!"
As 2019 season opens - the Philadelphia Soul hosted the expansion Atlantic City Blackjacks on Saturday -- Jaworski conceded the league did many things wrong when it started 32 years ago. When Jaworski got involved with the AFL in 2004, he still believed the league could thrive despite evidence that it was tanking fast.
“You have to be honest with yourself. Why did we fail?” said the chairman of the league’s executive committee.
Recently, there was concern as the AFL shriveled from 19 teams in 2007 to four last season. This season, the league added two new franchises -- the Blackjacks and the Columbus Destroyers, which played previously in the league from 2004-08. The holdovers are the Albany Empire, Baltimore Brigade, Soul and Washington Valor.
Jaworski said the plan is to add six new teams east of the Mississippi River over the next two years. Like Columbus, three of the four team to be announced are to be in markets of previous AFL teams. He said they plan to hold steady before taking the league back out west.
The AFL’s headquarters also were moved from Las Vegas to Philadelphia at the end of last season to better support the teams that are based in the Northeast. League officials are also looking to increase their involvement with legalized sports betting in Atlantic City. Jaworski plans for the league to gradually slide into a new ownership model that mirrors the previous ownership model of Major League Lacrosse and the present Monumental Sports, which owns and operates the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
The AFL has three ownership groups across the six teams this season. But all owners will join one group at the end of the summer to govern all six teams plus the four new teams they intend to add next season.
“We really didn’t have sports professionals on the management side. We had some owners that really weren’t committed to making the league special and growing the league ,” Jaworski said as to why the AFL has failed to gain sustained traction. ”Now were going to be a single entity, and we will control the growth. We won’t have to work to bring in a partner that really doesn’t understand the sports business.”
With the addition of the Atlantic City market, Jaworski predicted that sports betting will be a huge revenue driver for the league. Atlantic City became a key market on the AFL’s radar four years ago after league officials sold 8,000 tickets at the 10,500-seat Boardwalk Hall when the Soul hosted the Las Vegas Outlaws.
Since Jaworski lives close to Atlantic City and is familiar with the fans, he said he is optimistic that the area will be receptive to a team.
“We’re kind of approaching it as Atlantic City is South Jersey," said Jaworski. "It is your professional sports team.”
Each team this season will play 12 regular-season games over 13 weeks, with one bye week per team. The regular season concludes on July 21, and playoffs are to begin on July 27. The postseason will follow the same format as the 2018 postseason, with the top four teams qualifying for the playoffs.
ArenaBowl XXXII is scheduled to be played on the second weekend of August.
The AFL announced on Monday its partnership with Draft Kings in launching a new daily fantasy sports game. Jaworski said he has met with several people in Atlantic City about the growth potential in gaming during the NFL offseason, and that’s when the AFL plays, from the end of April to July. The odds-makers told him people will follow the AFL game if they can bet on it.
“We are unabashed about gaming being a part of our growth," said Jaworksi. "We see what’s happening now with sports betting and legalized sports betting. And we believe our game is tailor-made for it.”
The AFL’s biggest challenge has been gaining national sponsors since the entire operation has been moved east, Jaworski says. Most of the league’s sponsors are based in the northeast, but he said he is optimistic that will change with the addition of the Columbus market.
Jaworksi said the league plans to announce its national TV contract soon, which, he said, will draw more big-name sponsors.
Promotions such as the Philadelphia Soul Moving Experience -- that’s when corporate sponsors give free tickets to fans -- will still be important to the growth of the league. Jaworski said he has learned that ticket give-aways also require the team to provide transportation to and from the game for the winning fans.
“We have to work harder for our fans,” said Jaworski. “We just don’t throw up our banner and say come to the games. We have to work hard.”
As the AFL rebrands itself, Jaworski said, “We want young people.” He wants to market on social media a two-hour game to young people as opposed to the longer NFL games, which can go on for more than three house. He said league officials intend to cut down on timeouts and TV breaks and shorten halftime.