You may be surprised to learn that football doesn’t stop between the Super Bowl and the NFL Preseason. And no, I’m not talking about training camp or college spring games. I’m talking about real, full-contact, high scoring football with pads and fans and touchdown dances. Well, kind of. I’m talking about the Arena Football League, a professional association that plays a variant of American Football indoors on a field the size of a hockey rink.
But the Arena Football League is going through some tough times. Decreased attendance, folding franchises, and increase competition have all contributed to the League’s declining stature in recent years. There are, however, actions the league can take to insure that the AFL will be entertaining fans for decades to come. By embracing digital business and entering the world of fantasy sports, the Arena Football league will be able to attract a new generation of fans and establish themselves as the premier choice for offseason football.
The Arena Football League (AFL)
On February 11, 1981, Jim Foster, a Promotion Manager at NFL Properties, invented the sport of arena football while watching an indoor soccer game. Instead of playing on a 120 by 53 1/3-yard outdoor field, arena football is played on a 200 by 85-foot turf field placed inside of a hockey rink. Where traditional football is played with 11 players a side, arena football has 8 per side. While the average NFL team scored 23 points per game in 2016, the AFL team averaged nearly 52 points. High-scoring and big-play-oriented, the game had an obvious appeal to fans.
The high water mark for the Arena Football League came in 2008 – the League had 17 teams, averaged 12,957 fans per game and had its own 25-team developmental league, the afl2. The next year, the league filed for bankruptcy, missing the entire 2009 season. When the AFL relaunched in 2010 its lineup consisted of a mixture of sixteen AFL and afl2 teams. Averaging 4,000 fewer attendees than in 2008, the AFL never again reached their pre-bankruptcy popularity.
Today, the league consists of five teams strung up and down the east coast with the furthest team west located in Cleveland. Two of the teams, the Washington Valor and the Baltimore Brigade, were created prior to the previous season after five teams left the league: three folding, one joining the National Arena League, and one joining the Indoor Football League. Nineteen of their games were broadcasted on CBS Sports Network and the league averaged 9,248 in attendance.
The history of fantasy sports can be traced back to the 1960s when Raiders fans in Oakland created the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL). The league paid out weekly based on how your players did: you would get 50 cents for a rushing touchdown and 25 cents for a receiving one. Lineups had to be submitted in person by Friday and on Monday, “Team Owners” hurried to pick up the newspaper to see how their players performed the previous day in a game on the other side of the continent.
The internet has made keeping track of your team a much easier feat. In 1999, Yahoo launched an online system which allowed players to set up a fantasy league online for free. Instead of the league commissioner looking up the team statistics from the past weekend to calculate fantasy team scores, team owners could get an updated score as the game was happening. This development was a game changer for the industry – by 2006, 12 million people were playing fantasy football. The next evolution in fantasy sports was Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS). Rather than drafting a team and owning them for the entire season, fantasy sports participants could not create a new lineup every day.
IBISWorld estimates that fantasy sports companies took in $4.1 billion in revenue in 2016. The industry experienced 19.1% growth over the previous year. This was mostly driven by an increase in daily fantasy and use of mobile applications for fantasy play. The industry is expected to see 5.7% annual growth over the next five years. Of the total industry, 44.9% of revenue comes from football (NFL and college).
So, what does this all mean for the Arena Football League? People want to play fantasy – more importantly, people want to play fantasy football. The Arena Football League offers a quality football product – more importantly, they offer a quality football product that has more stats in it than an NFL game could ever possibly have. The AFL needs people to be interested in watching them … and they need the revenue that people watching them generates.
The AFL needs to embrace the fantasy world. They need to make fantasy as much a part of their game as big-plays, loud music, and touchdown celebrations are. When the NFL is considered the “No Fun League,” the AFL must make sure they are thought of as the “Always Fun League.”
Here are the next steps:
- Add Fantasy to the Game
Make a partnership agreement with Yahoo or CBS Sports to get full length seasons added to their fantasy offerings. Companies will like this because an agreement will drive more traffic to their website during the NFL offseason. The AFL should also partner with DraftKings or FanDuel for DFS. Having more fans interested in the game will increase AFL attendance and viewership and encourage more advertisers to sponsor teams.
- Launch a Fantasy App
The AFL needs to do as much as possible to encourage the growth of Arena fantasy. They should launch an app to give fantasy “owners” access to their favorite players: injury updates, press conferences, expert analysis, practice breakdowns. AFL teams do not get as much coverage as their NFL counterparts and fantasy “owners” will not be willing to put the time in to a fantasy league unless they have access to information about teams and players.
- Build a Social Media Presence
In a similar vein, the AFL must also increase their social media presence. Out of the ten largest professional sports leagues in the US, the AFL only ranks higher than the ECHL, the third tier of professional hockey, in terms of Facebook fan. In fact, they have the lowest amount of Twitter followers in the same group. Maintaining a prominent social media presence is crucial to success in today’s sports world. Both the AFL and individual teams must assign dedicated groups of employees to manage their accounts.
- Expand Televised Games
This is the hardest of the next steps. Professional sports leagues make a significant amount of their revenue from television contracts, so they are fairly difficult to attain. In order to deliver their product to their new customers, the AFL must get a contract that televises all their games on a network that is more accessible. In the meantime, the AFL must experiment with live streaming games via Facebook or YouTube to deliver access to their customers.
The next few years will be crucial to the long term viability of the AFL. If they are able to successfully adopt digital business and social media trends, they will stand a better chance of having long term success.
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