Is The Newest Arena Football League Already Collapsing?

The Minnesota Myth are scheduled to play an Arena Football League game against the Philadelphia Soul Sunday evening in Minneapolis. Emphasis on “scheduled.” Because even just one week into the rebooted AFL’s comeback season, there’s little reason for confidence this game or any other will take place. You’d have to go back to the Challenger to find a rougher launch.

The Billings Outlaws, for example, announced midweek they wouldn’t be traveling to Salem, Ore., for Saturday night’s face-off with the Oregon Blackbears. Blackbears president Pat Johnson told Defector that their match-up was scrapped because Billings players “said our field was unsafe.” (Apparently the opposition’s concerns were related to the Blackbears’ use of what looked like rodeo fence to mark boundaries on the indoor gridiron.) On Thursday, the Rapid City Marshals put out a statement saying the league’s failure “to meet their financial obligations” had triggered instability throughout the new confederation and would likely result in “schedule shuffling.” A day later, ownership of the Iowa Rampage went on Facebook to say that league officials had failed to honor preseason promises about providing uniforms, footballs, travel costs, and network television exposure, and therefore the brand-spanking-new team “will be discontinued.” And the Myth and Soul have both already endured player mutinies over working conditions and pay. Myth management released a statement on Instagram late last night assuring ticketholders that despite online chatter about player walkouts (allegedly after paychecks didn’t arrive), they should still show up at the Target Center. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Soul’s roster was so gutted that the men wearing Soul uniforms, should the Myth game come off, will actually be members of a non-AFL squad, the Dallas Falcons of the American Arena League.

The AFL’s troubles started almost immediately after the 2023 announcement of its return, several years after the last rendition of the indoor league went bankrupt. Lee Hutton, a Minnesota lawyer serving as the new AFL’s commissioner (and, with Diana Hutton, owner of the Myth), used TMZ to help him unveil the names of the 16 cities he claimed would be part of the AFL’s 2024 reboot. Hutton also later announced that AFL games would be aired all season on NFL Network.

But it’s become apparent that Hutton’s promises and reality don’t always overlap. Local politicians, business leaders, and arena operators in several of the alleged AFL destination cities named last year by Hutton immediately said they knew nothing about any new arena football franchise coming to their town, and that even if an indoor team did come there was no building for it to play in or deep-pockted local wanting to own it. 

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So when the league kicked off last week, most of the major markets Hutton had claimed would host AFL teams–including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Austin and San Antonio—were teamless, while one could find franchises in comparatively teensy towns such as Council Bluffs, Iowa, Rapid City, S.D., and, remarkably, three different one-horse burgs in the state of Kansas alone: Salina, Dodge City, and Park City. 

Hutton didn’t return Defector’s requests for comment.

Contrary to Hutton’s assertions, no games from the opening weekend aired on NFL Network. An NFL Network representative, who requested anonymity, said only that the channel “will not be showing AFL games this season” despite once having plans to do so. The representative declined to provide any further details about what caused the deal to collapse.

A source from NFL Network’s owner, the NFL, told Defector that last weekend’s AFL blackout happened because “the AFL didn’t pay the production company” that was supposed to work the games. The source added that network officials had been hopeful the AFL would resolve the payment situation so that NFL Network could pick up the AFL schedule in Week 2, and that the rest of the AFL season would also be available for programmers to use throughout the spring, “when there is a bit of a lull for us.” Upon further review of the badly mishandled opening weekend, however, the NFL decided the AFL would make for too strange a bedfellow.

“It quickly became obvious they had much larger issues with the league,” the source said, “so we thought it best to terminate our agreement.”

Not everybody with the new league is rueing the collapse of the AFL’s partnership with NFL Network. Take Pat Johnson, president of the Oregon Blackbears. Johnson seemed sincere when he said he was glad the contract got scuttled. To him, the arrangement reduced AFL game broadcasts to infomercials. Costly ones.

“It was a terrible deal for the league. A bad deal,” said Johnson, a former track and football star at the University of Oregon who played seven seasons in the NFL for Baltimore and Washington. “We would pay the NFL $1.3 million a year for three years, and would get none of the advertising revenue” from the network broadcasts, Johnson said. “You don’t even own the finished product. You’re going to have a net operating loss over three years of $4 million. I think it’s in the best interest for it not to happen.”

Johnson was the only guy I could find still unconvinced the revamped league’s future is the pasture. Then again, Johnson only got his AFL job two weeks ago.

Anthony Rossi, who was listed on the AFL website as president and CEO of the league when the reboot was first announced in February 2023, has clearly fallen out with Hutton. Rossi, asked by Defector to comment on the state of the AFL, instead sent a screenshot of a tweet he posted Friday. In it, Rossi accused Hutton and other AFL officials with using trademarks associated with the league without permission. 

“They signed a [licensing] agreement and than never paid for it; which means they never had the rights,” Rossi said in his post.

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database, the rights to “Arena Football League” are currently owned by G6 Sports Group LLC, a corporation registered in Delaware. Rossi said he has a substantial ownership interest in G6, but declined to provide proof of that claim. 

Rossi said Hutton has been “lying to fans, sponsors, partners and team owners” about having the right to use AFL trademarks, and that he continues to ignore demands from Rossi and his partner regarding that usage.

“Everyone associated with these lies will be held accountable in short order,” he said at the end of his Twitter screed.

Sounds like a threat to threat to take Hutton to a whole different arena: a legal one.

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