Even with the Arena Football League on hiatus this season, indoor football is still around. The AFL's offshoot, known as af2, is not only playing but making plans for 2010 as the 2009 schedule kicks off Friday.
How can iffy finances force a sport's major league to close shop, even if temporarily, yet its minor league version survives? It's all in the business model, according to af2 president Jerry Kurz, whose involvement with the AFL dates back to the game's invention nearly a quarter century ago.
"On the business side, because we set up the league with a structure meant to survive in secondary markets is why we are still playing,'' Kurz explains.
The 25-team af2 has what's known as a single-entity structure, with the league owning the franchises and employing players and coaches. Local entrepreneurs run the clubs, making money from ticket sales, marketing partnerships and supplemental income.
"Our costs in expenses and salary and staff and other ancillary things are way lower'' than the regular AFL, Kurz says.
"The fans and media and corporate partners in our 25 cities are just as die-hard and fervent Arena Football fans, just in smaller markets. We are happy where we are and where we want to be.''
Where they are is, well, alive, from coast to coast. Franchises are located from Albany, N.Y., in the Northeast to Estero in southwest Florida; from Green Bay, Wis., to Amarillo, Texas; and from Spokane, Wash., to Stockton, Calif.
Not exactly big-time locales. Except for the Milwaukee Iron, a former AFL city that just returned to af2, the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz (love that nickname), and the Green Bay Blizzard, none of the cities houses a major league franchise.
But af2 is a success because it doesn't try to exceed the limits it set for itself. The Arena Football League once had a single-entity structure, but under commissioner David Baker - he resigned last summer, and the AFL subsequently tanked - the value of franchises skyrocketed from around $400,000 to as much as $32 million as ownership switched to local groups.
The AFL may have grown too quickly, and when Baker ended his 12-year stint, the league couldn't replace his leadership or acumen. Although ESPN owns a small equity share in the league, it did not have enough of a stake to hold off cancellation of the upcoming season.
"One thing I think is the AFL moved a little faster than it wanted to and got into the big markets,'' says Ryan Vena, who is entering his sixth season in af2 as quarterback of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers. "When I was in Columbus, they were selling out at almost 18,000 a game in their first year in the AFL, so obviously the market was there. Salaries got high fast and owners were taking some hits and that's the reason for their demise this year.''
By sticking to its roots in America's grass-roots cities, the af2 believes it will avoid the pitfalls the AFL encountered.
"A key to our continued success is we know our costs,'' Kurz says. "Every player, whether a kicker or a quarterback or an offensive lineman, makes the same money ($200 per game, plus $50 per win) and gets the same benefits. We don't have teams vying for players, they are assigned by the league. Each player has a per week salary and if you win, you get an incentive bonus.''
Players also are housed and fed throughout the season, which runs until the ArenaCup championship game in August. The Pioneers get hotel rooms for all their players, and local restaurants and food establishment provide gift cards for meals through promotional tie-ins.
In Spokane, the Shock rents apartments, with every player getting his own furnished room.
"We have a livable and workable labor situation, with less expenses overall and with the product the same as the AFL,'' says Spokane Shock owner Brady Nelson.
If this sounds a whole lot like minor league baseball, well, it is. And minor league hockey, whose teams often share arenas with their af2 counterparts.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has a Pittsburgh Penguins farm team, for example. Manchester, N.H., has the af2 Wolves and the AHL's Monarchs. It's like that in Peoria and Tulsa, Corpus Christi and Boise.
It's all part of the formula. Arenas with around 10,000 seats in medium-sized cities need to fill dates. Hockey provides the bulk of the scheduling, but the buildings generally get filled for the eight to 10 af2 games staged each year.
In Spokane, the Shock sell out 10,500 seats - every game.
"We've got all year to sell eight games and then two or three playoffs games,'' Nelson says. "Minor league hockey teams do well in attendance, too, but have so many more games. With us, 80 percent of our fans are on season tickets, and we make 2,000 available for groups and single-game purchases.''
The average ticket price is about $15, with some seats going for as little as $8.
Of course, the prices are low because it's Spokane. But that's the key.
"The reason I felt Spokane was a good market and I was confident we would succeed is there is no major Division I football team here or a major league baseball team within five hours. It's kind of typical of a minor league sports town that people want their own team to call their own.
"We get good attendance, but the amount of merchandise people wear around town, you see as much Shock merchandise as Seahawks or Mariners stuff. We are much more a part of a community here, whereas if you are located in a small suburb of Seattle or Dallas, you're still in a major league team's shadow.''
The AFL's year off can't be a good thing, can it?
There are mixed reactions on the subject.
"I don't think there being no AFL will have an effect on my team this season,'' Nelson says, noting that few Shock fans even know the AFL's makeup. "But our players are removed a couple years from college and ... without the AFL there, we probably will get less people willing to continue playing and they will start their other careers earlier.''
Vena, who's led the Pioneers to 32 wins in the last two seasons, believes one league needs the other.
"It is tough to want to continue to play in this league because the way it always was in the past is you wanted to move up to the AFL,'' he says.
Vena insists the gap in skill between the AFL and af2 has become almost nonexistent in recent years. Kurz, who also served as the AFL's vice president of international development, notes that 37 percent of AFL players during the 2008 season came from af2.
"How can you be a developmental league for a league that is not playing?'' Kurz wonders. "Our players could not go to AFL in 2010 if it is not around. But I believe the AFL will come back.''
Until then, 25 secondary markets will have arena football. Attendance last season averaged 4,724, and went up to 5,510 in the postseason. That's less than half what the AFL averaged, but such numbers are good enough to make more than two dozen teams profitable.
And keep them playing.
Czech Tomas Berdych snapped a run of 11 consecutive defeats by world number one Novak Djokovic to reach the semi-finals of the Rome Masters before Rafa Nadal was stretched to the limit against David Ferrer on Friday.
The Week in Sports Pictures
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
When athletes and celebs get together
A look at the many links between sports and Hollywood stars.