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Arena Football League’s season hangs in limbo

Farmer is a Times staff writer.

After 21 years of expanding and shrinking, adapting and morphing, the Arena Football League is weighing the possibility of something new:

Taking a breather.

Against a backdrop of a weakened economy and mounting financial losses -- and belt-tightening even by the NFL and other professional sports leagues -- the AFL is considering suspending its 2009 season.

It hasn’t happened yet, however.

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Hours after Los Angeles Avengers owner Casey Wasserman said he expected the season to be called off, the league’s board of directors voted via conference call not to suspend the season “at this time.”

“The board will continue to meet regularly to examine any and all long-term structural improvement options for the AFL,” the league said in a written statement after the vote. The season takes place from March to June.

Wasserman, among the league’s most influential owners, said the AFL is looking for ways to create league-wide efficiencies such as more centralized marketing.

“It’s important for the Arena Football League to think about the next 20 years,” Wasserman said in a phone interview before the vote. “And the economic model, combined with the economic environment we’re in currently, doesn’t allow us to take that perspective.”

Wasserman said the option of suspending play for a year, with the blessing of their players and sponsorship partners, would allow the AFL “to get the perspective to try and make the decisions that are in the best interest of the long-term viability of the league.”

Every AFL team has one vote and at least one representative on the board of directors.

Other than the NFL, the AFL is the country’s longest-standing professional football league. It was founded in 1987, now has 16 teams, and counts among its team owners Jerry Jones and Arthur Blank, who also own the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons, respectively.

The AFL isn’t the only football league taking a hard look at its bottom line. Even the ultra-successful NFL, whose average franchise valuation has topped $1 billion for the first time, is looking to cut costs. Sports Business Daily says the league will offer a “voluntary separation package” to 150 staffers over the next 60 days. It quoted an e-mail from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell saying the league intended to reduce its staff of 1,100 by at least 10% to 15% and salaries will be frozen at least through 2009.

“We’re looking at everything with an eye to how we can be more efficient and reduce costs,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the Associated Press.

Similar layoffs have been announced by Major League Baseball, the NBA and NASCAR teams, and the NHL reportedly has implemented a hiring freeze.

Hockey’s Phoenix Coyotes are believed to be in dire fiscal straits, with some experts predicting as much as $30 million in losses this season. There has even been speculation the NHL franchise could fail to meet its payroll obligations as the season progresses.

Then, there’s the drastic case of the Houston Comets. That WNBA team folded this month, leaving its players to be reassigned to other teams through a dispersal draft. Some outsiders might point to the sputtering economy, or the rising cost of doing business as a reason that franchise closed its doors.

But no one in the league can feel too comfortable about the situation. The Comets, after all, won the WNBA’s first four championships.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com


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