(Recasts with confirmation from the league, adds owners, analyst comments, details, background)
CHICAGO, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The Arena Football League said on Monday it has canceled its 2009 season, but the indoor football league, which has struggled financially for several years, will resume play the following year.
The AFL said its board of directors voted on Sunday night to suspend the 2009 season, subject to agreement with the players’ union, while the league works on “developing a long-term plan to improve its economic model.”
“Owners ... recognize that, especially in light of the current unprecedented economic climate, the AFL, as a business enterprise, needs to be restructured,” the acting commissioner, Ed Policy, said in a statement.
The AFL, founded in 1987, has 16 teams after New Orleans folded in October. Owners had conducted multiple meetings over the past several weeks and discussed numerous options, but concluded canceling the 2009 season was the best option.
The U.S. recession — which has led the National Football League and the National Basketball Association to cut jobs and Major League Baseball to freeze its 2009 budget — only exacerbated the AFL’s financial situation.
“The (AFL’s) problems predate the economic crisis,” said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. “The league has been struggling for a while.”
While the AFL was one of the better managed minor-league sports in the past two decades, with the involvement of NFL players and owners, good publicity, and decent sponsorships and attendance, it has been looking for an outside investor for a while, Ganis added.
The New York Times on Monday said the AFL earlier this year contacted buyout firm Platinum Equity, which started a review of the league to consider making an investment. A Platinum spokesman declined to comment, other than to say the firm has no investment in the AFL.
“These are trying economic times,” said musician Jon Bon Jovi, who is co-owner of the Philadelphia Soul team that won the 2008 league title. “The revamping will ensure that the AFL continues to provide value to its fans and not only survives but thrives in the years to come.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which reported on the vote’s outcome Monday morning, said too many teams in big-name cities or big-city owners said they would not return in 2009, including teams in Dallas, Philadelphia, Colorado, Georgia, Chicago and Cleveland.
A league source also told the Plain Dealer that Walt Disney Co’s (DIS.N) ESPN sports cable channel said it would not televise games for a league with only six to eight teams. ESPN, which declined to comment, has a minor financial interest in the league.
“Although it is disappointing to suspend the 2009 season, the Arena Football League and its owners feel it is essential to reevaluate the current business model,” said John Elway, the co-owner of the Colorado Crush and a former quarterback with the NFL team in Denver. (Reporting by Ben Klayman, editing by Dave Zimmerman)