The State of the Arena Football Today, and Tomorrow: A conversation with Jeff Bouchy, the Jacksonville Sharks Operating Manager.

by Jay Luster


“Consolidation of the leagues is the best future for arena football.”  

Jeff Bouchy


AF Insider: Let’s talk about the NAL.  

Jeff Bouchy: It’s unbelievable what’s happening in the NAL. When we kick off on April 7, at 7:01 pm EST, the league will be transformed. We’re going to be the premier league in the country.  

AF Insider: Why do you say that?  

Jeff Bouchy: I’ve been part of the AFL since 1998 and as a fan since 1992. The NHL/NBA model is not working. Tampa and Cleveland left, in part because they don’t want to deal with the Union. The AFL was a great league, but now they’re down to just four teams and on life support.  

AF Insider: Cleveland announced their hiatus was due to stadium issues?  

Jeff Bouchy: That may be what they announced, but in my opinion, it’s about the union. When the union walked out of a game in the spring of the 2012 season in Cleveland, the AFL had to talk them off the ledge. They were infuriated and embarrassed and wanted to cease operations right then and there.  

AF Insider: So what happened in Tampa Bay is also about the labor issues?  

Jeff Bouchy: I want to be clear that this is just my opinion, but I think the ownership in Tampa and also in Cleveland left because they don’t want to deal with the union. I think they feel it’s easier to stop for one or two years and let the AFL sort their labor issues out, rather than be embarrassed again. Listen, camps open in six weeks and as of today, nothing from AFL. Not a good way to treat your fans and teams just can’t succeed like this.  

AF Insider: Labor issues are a big part of the AFL’s difficulties. The current CBA was negotiated in 2012, what can you tell me about it?  

Jeff Bouchy: The CBA was negotiated by myself, John Pettit of Iowa, and Brady Nelson of Spokane on behalf of the AFL. Nobody really understands what it takes to run an arena football team until they do it. In the meetings we had with AFLPU, we offered the head of their organization and their executives their own team to run in any market they wanted. If we were making all this money, then they would have their own pot-of-gold. Well, they were smart guys, and they declined our offer. I personally offered to show them my books, and they even declined that.  

AF Insider: How does labor uncertainty hurt the AFL?  

Jeff Bouchy: Here’s the issue with the AFL. No one in their right mind would join that league as an expansion team because of the labor uncertainty. Also, the AFL has a $1M+ expansion fee, and they offer no training in the operational aspects of running a team. I mean, who is going to pay that much as an expansion fee for the right to lose that much or more per-year. That makes no sense, and it’s why they’re down to three teams.

AF Insider: But didn’t the league just expand to Albany, NY?

Jeff Bouchy: They did, but that franchise is being run by Philadelphia.  

AF Insider: If the AFL collapses after this season, which seems like a definite possibility, do you think whatever teams are left will join the NAL?  

Jeff Bouchy: I think Philadelphia will have no choice in 2019. I guess they could take the Cleveland and Tampa route, but I just don’t see AFL expansion happening. If Washington (Ted Leonsis owns both the Washington Valor and the Baltimore Brigade) can’t keep Cleveland and Tampa in, why would anyone else want to come in? It’s crazy. Heck, if the AFL can’t get it together in the next couple weeks, you may see Philly and Albany join the NAL for this season. We would welcome them too.  

AF Insider: Another league that sees itself as a big league but is also struggling is the IFL.  

Jeff Bouchy: My opinion is the IFL needs to join the NAL, and then we’d form a Western and Eastern Conference. Also, I’d like the NAL switch to Ironman Football with nets. With our planned expansion next year, arena football would be back to what it’s supposed to be.  

(Ironman football usually has many two-way players and only allows limited substitutions during each quarter. This increases the need for versatile players while also introducing an element of fatigue over the course of a game. The winning team was truly the team with the most talent and better conditioning, thus the term Ironman)  

AF Insider: Why do you think going retro would work?  

Jeff Bouchy: Listen, If we’re trying to get back to the glory days of arena football, this is the way I think it’s going to happen. In its heyday from the 90’s to the early 2000’s, we were Ironman. The question is whether Ironman is a thing of the past and just needs to stay there or is it the reason why our game was so unique and relatable? I think it’s one of the things that made the sport great for the fans and bringing it back is worth trying. It was truly blue-collar football.  

AF Insider: The IFL has always played indoor rules, and that’s what the fans in their cities are used to. Why would they want to change the way they play?  

Jeff Bouchy: I’m sure the IFL would initially disagree, but I think arena football is a better game, more exciting for the fans. Also, I believe teams like Green Bay, Iowa, and Arizona would rather play in medium and major markets. There’s no question the fans in these smaller markets love the game, but I don’t believe teams like the Arizona Rattlers want to play in small markets.  

AF Insider: What would be the IFL’s incentive to join the NAL?  

Jeff Bouchy: Part of the reason we’ve succeeded so far is that fans want a major league and the NAL by itself could grow to 20 teams east of the Mississippi. Would the IFL rather expand east and be part of a 14+ team NAL in 2019, or still be a regional Midwest five or six-team league of their own? Markets are limited in the Midwest, and expansion westward would mean major increased travel costs. It’s something they are going to have to decide this offseason. Do they stay regional or join something bigger than themselves?  

AF Insider: So really, you’re talking about building a true National Arena League?  

Jeff Bouchy: Correct.  

AF Insider: Assuming the strongest and most financially secure members of the IFL, and remaining AFL teams were to join the NAL, that would create a 14+ team truly national league. Would that be the end of the expansion?  

Jeff Bouchy: No, we’re very excited about our own expansion. With the announcement of more major markets and arenas in the northeast, I believe Orlando is going to come back and join the NAL. The Amway Center’s reasoning for not coming on board for 2018 was that they didn’t want to be the largest arena in the NAL. That won’t be the case in 2019. With Jacksonville and Orlando in the NAL, you’d have to believe Tampa would want to come back and join us too. We’re growing and will have at least 4 more expansion teams next year. There are many cities in the east and the south that want to be in the NAL. Many new facilities are being built in the South right now. It is a great time for the NAL. When all the dust settles after this season, the NAL is where everyone will want to be. Even without consolidation, we’ll be successful, but consolidation takes arena football back to where it needs to be. I think it’s our obligation to the fans to do this for them.  

AF Insider: Wait, go back for a minute, you believe there’s a possibility of Tampa Bay coming back?  

Jeff Bouchy: Yes, I do. They’ve had arena football there for nearly three decades, and have great support. Storm fans deserve to have football, and I believe the ownership group wants to do it. Unfortunately, like Cleveland, I think they don’t want to deal with the union, so they’ve shut down for the moment.  

AF Insider: Those are all already established teams with strong name recognition, but this past season you also created three new teams from scratch, tell me about the leagues plan to continue the process of internal expansion.  

Jeff Bouchy: What we’re doing is figuring out the best way to operate arena football teams. How other leagues have done it in the past just doesn’t work.  

AF Insider: That’s certainly been true in the AFL and IFL. What’s your way and why would it work?  

Jeff Bouchy: We have a unique way of doing things. All expansion teams in the future may be owned 50% by current operators and 50% by outside investors. We’ll help them set it up and also train them how to be successful operators. Then, once they know

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what they’re doing they’ll buy it back from us or we’ll figure out some kind of exit strategy for us. We don’t want to own several teams, but getting them set up properly with a strong foundation is important, and that’s what we’re offering. No other league has ever done that. We know the AFL model doesn’t work so what we’re doing is figuring out the best way to successfully operate an arena football team.  

AF Insider: What places are on the NAL map for planned expansion?  

Jeff Bouchy: Well, I can’t talk about it yet, but we’re hoping to make some announcements as early as halftime of our first game.  

AF Insider: We’ve already talked about Orlando as a great spot for expansion, and last year, there were rumors of a team in either Providence or Hartford? Is that a place you’re considering?  

Jeff Bouchy: We would love to be in Providence and Hartford. I would have to give the edge to Hartford in that one, but you never know.  

AF Insider: What about places where teams have already been?  

Jeff Bouchy: Anything is possible.  

AF Insider: Going back to places where teams have already folded can be risky because the fans and sponsors probably won’t readily trust a new team and a relatively new league.  

Jeff Bouchy: That is a true point. We are experiencing some of this in the Carolina market right now. Historically, guys will come into these various leagues because they want to own a football team. Most often they are football guys, but they’re not financially prepared. Because they don’t understand how to run a team, meaning how to sell tickets and sponsorships, they come in and fail, which destroy’s the market. The game is great, but many ownership groups are not. I’ve seen tons of smart successful business people get into arena football, and they just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s unbelievable and baffling. They think because they have money, and their other businesses are successful; they can run a team. That’s just not the case, and in most instances, the exact opposite.  

AF Insider: The NAL had some difficulties last season, so why would anyone think the NAL is different?  

Jeff Bouchy: We did what we had to last year. We sucked up Corpus, Dayton, and Georgia. We all wrote checks and we weren’t happy about it, but we did it. During the off-season, we got rid of all the riff-raff and now we have six solid teams in the league. I guarantee none of these teams will fold in 2018, none of them. This season the NAL is going to be a completely different league when we kick off.  

AF Insider: Clearly, the NAL has very ambitious plans.  

Jeff Bouchy: The future of arena football means there has to be a consolidation of the major leagues into one league. In order to be in the AFL, you have to be a billionaire and be willing to throw your money into a bucket and light it on fire. It’s unsustainable. The IFL has great teams, but the league is having difficulty because they were desperate to have a certain quantity of teams. The NAL believes it’s about quality, not quantity. We see the IFL as an expansion opportunity, and we firmly believe they will see it that way too.  

AF Insider: You believe consolidation into one super league is the answer?  

Jeff Bouchy: I think it’s what’s best for the fans. Anyone who wants to join the NAL, you’ve got my information. We would love to bring back Tampa and Cleveland, have Philadelphia, and Albany join us, Arizona, Iowa, and anyone else interested in playing in the only true National Arena League with the best teams and the strongest competition.  

AF Insider: The fans would definitely love to see a single National Arena League, but why is being bigger necessarily be better?

Jeff Bouchy: You need to be a truly national league in order to get national sponsors to come aboard. Also, you need at least 12 teams to obtain national streaming rights fees and television rights fees. It is also the best way to get player’s wages up. The formula is not that difficult.  

AF Insider: Getting leagues that have been independent and rivals to cooperate might be a difficult sell.

Jeff Bouchy: In my opinion, what’s left of the AFL and the IFL joining the NAL is the only thing that makes sense for everyone. It’s important to remember the fans want a consolidated national league; you can’t underestimate that. Players want more money, and fans want one major league where the best play the best, and we’re the only league with a business model that works. Just imagine Arizona/Jacksonville, Philly/Iowa, Sioux Falls/Columbus. How great would that be? Look, we need to get back to the glory days of arena football and the best teams playing Ironman Football is a great option. It’s what every owner says they want. It’s definitely what the fans want, and we are the only ones who can make it happen, and that’s what we intend to do.  

Note: Jeff Bouchy is a 4-time arena champion as an owner and has been involved in arena football over 15 years. He currently is the Expansion Chair of the National Arena League and is the Operating Manager of the Jacksonville Sharks.  


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