“Teams come and go, leagues come and go, and we want to change the perspective of it.”
Since the mid-1980’s when it came into being, despite enthusiastic fan interest, arena/indoor football has always lived on the ragged edges of existence. Some teams like the Philadelphia Soul and Iowa Barnstormers have lasted for decades, but all too often teams and leagues will spring up like mushrooms then disappear just as quickly. The constant turmoil makes it difficult for teams to develop and maintain loyal fan bases. If you ask league managers, team owners, coaches, players and fans what they believe the main problem is with the sport, they almost always cite the lack of consistency. Whether it’s the level of play, an understanding of the rules, officiating, or teams not meeting their commitments, all of it creates an environment of mistrust between the fans and the sport.
One of the main problems facing all sport leagues, including the major leagues, is finding league managers and owners who are capable of not only maintaining their franchise, but are also willing and able to help maintain others who are experiencing down years or setbacks. The NFL could not have become the most successful sports league on
the planet without the owners and players deciding to act cooperatively. Understanding of that interconnectedness and taking the necessary steps to nurture it has led the NFL to supplant MLB as the nation’s favorite sport. TV analyst and former Chicago Bear Tim Ryan put it best when he said, “Baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is America’s passion.” Nevertheless, while completely understanding the passion of their fans, arena/indoor football participants have never quite embraced the same level of cooperation as the NFL. While everyone associated with the sport can easily identify the problems, solving them has always proven to be a stickier issue than anticipated. Jack Bowman and Tony Zefiretto have decided to find solutions by, instead of asking how can we best profit, asking what is best for the sport.
To understand why they believe so strongly in a cooperative effort you have to wind the clock back fourteen years to when the men first met in Myrtle Beach South Carolina. In 2003, Zefetitto was the Assistant GM for the Myrtle Beach minor league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, and Bowman was the GM of the local arena football team. Zefiretto says, “When I moved into town in November 2002, I could see the media was pitting the football team against the baseball team, who’s more popular and this and that. So I said you know what? This is not the way you do things.” He realized that instead of being rivals with forever divided fan bases, if they cooperated, they may be able to both benefit. He continues, “so I just walked into Jack’s office one day introduced myself, and soon we started doing promotions, cross marketing, and working together. We invited them out to games, gave them a table and introduced his team to our fans. Pretty soon we wanted to do everything together.” While what he’s saying may sound like a no-brainer of an idea, most businesses fear this kind of interaction. Entrepreneurs tend to invest, not just their limited financial resources, but also their egos into their businesses. The idea of sharing the benefits of the stage with a competitor is counterintuitive to people whose sole mission is individual success. Even in sports where you need on-field competitors to make your business thrive; there is a danger in allowing your competition to get to close. Although it was different sport’s, for Jack and Tony, the idea of joining together for the common good had the potential to backfire. Instead, they embraced the concept and figured out ways to make it work for both teams. The real winner from their decision turned out to be the fans.
Over the years, they toyed with the idea of creating their own league based upon the concept of interconnectedness and cooperation. Finally in November 2016, they decided the time was right and the APF (Arena Pro Football) League was born. Jack Bowman says, “This year we thought we had a bigger and better way to do it.” Most indoor leagues begin play in March about a month after the NFL Super Bowl. With the late start not all the teams were ready to go. The Florida Tarpons began league play in March, but the Richmond franchise, the newly formed Roughriders, didn’t begin play until April. Tony continues, “We started late, but we wanted to dot every i and do it right. “ Despite their best efforts, the foreshortened timeline led to some bumps in the road. A couple of teams failed to meet the necessary competitive standards and were dropped, which led to road teams filling the void. In one instance the River City Raiders from St. Charles Missouri, a team with a long and successful past, unexpectedly refused to travel to Richmond, Virginia. The league found an adequate last minute fill in, but the incident didn’t reflect well on the new league. Jack says, “It’s a really tough industry. There’s a learning curve where you’ve got to weed a few people out to upgrade the product.”
Upgrading the product means letting teams go that underperformed financially and/or on the field and finding competitive partners who believe in the same cooperative philosophy that underpins the APF. One of the places they are looking is towards a merger with the Can-Am League. That league has suffered the same kind of setbacks as the APF, but a handful of their teams are capable of playing at the same high level as the Roughriders and Tarpons. Jack says, “Between Can-Am, and the APF and other teams, we’ll probably be a league with between 8 and 15 teams next year.” He continues, “ We’ve got a new team coming in from Newport News, and we’re in talks with a couple of other teams. One is from North Carolina and another in South Carolina. We’re trying to do five hours or less travel wise at least per division.” Tony continues, “We have teams from other leagues that want to join us; we might even have another league that wants to join us as a whole, but we’ve got to get them up to the level of play where it needs to be, which is very, very important.”
Most recently Jack and Tony once again proved the efficacy of their approach when they helped Richmond Roughriders owner Gregg Fornario cross promote the APF Championship game with the Richmond Flying Squirrels AA baseball team. The Squirrels have been a popular addition to the Richmond sports scene for almost a decade, and they boast a strong and loyal
following. Both the football and dance teams were welcomed at The Diamond, the Squirrels home field. They were introduced, threw out the first pitch, and directly interacted with the fans. Exactly as it did 14 years ago, the approach worked and the attendance at the Saturday football game more than doubled the season average. Nutzy, the Squirrels mascot, attended the game and was recognized, and greeted enthusiastically by the fans, and especially the kids. Knowing they’d be faced with a large and loud crowd Tarpons QB Chris Wallace said, “The noise doesn’t affect the way we play, it helps them (the opponent) to play better.” This years enthusiasm for the championship game, and the strong competition has the potential to increase season-ticket sales next year all over the league. It didn’t hurt that at least one highlight from the game (Richmond wide receiver Herb Jones one handed TD catch while going over the wall) made it onto ESPN2’s top 10 plays.
With the APF Championship game in the rearview mirror Tony and Jack are already focusing on next season. Tony says, “typically in indoor football at the end of the season leagues shut down for a few months and then start up again, and we don’t want that. We’re going to treat this like a business not a toy. You know we have fans, and we have a responsibility to them, and I really think we’re on the right track.” Whether or not the new approach will work over the long-term is anybody’s guess, but if the new league provides the same level of competition demonstrated in the APF Championship game between Florida and Richmond, then the league will be in good shape. With AAL talks getting ready to begin soon Jack says, “ Next year, we’re really excited about the teams that we’ve got, and those we’re talking to. Next year, it will be a lot more competitive.” In a prove it to me industry Jack reflects on last season, by saying, “We feel for a first-year league; we’ve done as good as anybody.”