Officials Say League to Skip Season : Arena Football Will Suspend Play in 1989, Plans to Resume in '90

Times Staff Writer

The Arena Football League will suspend operations in 1989 in an attempt to restructure, officials of the defending league champion Detroit Drive said Monday.

The announcement, however, came as a surprise to officials of the league's local franchise, the Los Angeles Cobras.

After several months of bitter negotiations between the owners and league founder and commissioner Jim Foster, the parties reached an impasse and decided to disband this year but said they expect to resume play in 1990.

"The limited partnership has lost confidence in the present management structure," Detroit General Manager Gary Vitto said in a statement. "We will use the time to restructure the league to everyone's benefit and move forward with the 1990 season."

Mike Hope, general manager of the Cobras, said the owners have negotiated with Foster for the last four months.

"We have had several deadline dates set with him but he has broken off every agreement.

"Vitto's announcement was unexpected but since Foster did not agree to meet with us this upcoming weekend, our given choice is to sit out this domestic season and give the league a year to prepare instead of rush it in the next two months."

The league, which moved offices last month, will spend more time negotiating with Foster, who could not be reached Monday night.

A spokesman for ESPN, which televised league games the past two seasons, said he also was surprised by the owners' move.

"It's news to me," Chris LaPlaca told Associated Press. "As of last week, we thought they were going forward with six teams this season."

The turmoil began last season over owner fees collected by Foster. The fees were to cover all players' salaries and other operating costs, although the teams were responsible for obtaining playing sites.

Another problem surfaced when the revenue Foster predicted the league would gain fell short, and owners had to invest more than their initial $750,000 payments. Foster blamed the increase on operating costs.

"The investors had to put forth more money than originally planned," said Foster in an interview in late last month. "They did lose more money than predicted, but Detroit did break even. You have to realize that every new start up suffers through growing pains and loses money at the start."

However, after the season, the owners thought they should play more of a part in league operations.

Last season, Foster controlled the league from his Chicago office, with a small group of original investors working under him. As commissioner, he viewed owners as general partners who held contracts to manage a team.

"The bottom line is that we felt that in order for the league to grow, we needed to have Foster come down and become a general partner with everyone else," Foster said.

The owners believed that any expansion was hurt by Foster's control because Foster owns the rights as founder of Arena Football. And without expansion, the owners would not be able to collect any fees from any new prospective owners.

To resolve the situation, the owners offered several solutions, including giving Foster a free franchise in his native state of Iowa.

"We made several fair deals to Foster," Hope said. "We were just trying to make a solid foundation for the league. We felt that it did not make any sense to invest more money until there was a clarified value of that investment."

While the discussions were in progress, league officials planned to bypass last season's April 29 opening day to start the season in June with a shortened season.

However, the owners found it difficult to reach an agreement with Foster to the point of Vitto's announcement.

Said Hope: "It would be financially foolish for us to continue with the 1989 season. We wanted to reach an agreement but we were given no choice. There just was not enough time for us to generate revenue.

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