David Baker became the Arena Football League Commissioner
in 1997. His current contract takes him through 2007. The 18-year-old
league has never seen more growth than under Baker's leadership.
Attendance has risen 31 percent since 2001. The expansion team in
1995 that cost $477,000 now is worth more than $16 million. Ownership
has grown with NFL Hall of Famer John Elway and rock star Bon Jovi
involved to add to national exposure and credibility. NBC just extended
its broadcast rights for two more years. There also is af2, a farm
league for the AFL. Baker, a former college basketball player and
mayor of Irvine, Calif., who is 6-foot-9 and more than 300 pounds,
recently spent time with Inside the AFL to discuss the direction
of the league.
Inside the AFL: When you handed out your first Foster
Cup in 1997 to the Arizona Rattlers after beating the Iowa Barnstormers,
what were your thoughts of this league?
Baker: "It was like a South American soccer game. We had
a platform that was about two feet high. Everybody was out there.
I thought, 'Somebody's going to die in this thing.' But it was such
an overwhelming deal."
Inside the AFL: You've been to the Grammys and to the
Oscars, and the past 15 Super Bowls. What is the best sporting event
Baker: "The (AFL) semifinals in 1997 (between Arizona
and Tampa Bay) was another sellout house (at America West Arena).
The Rattlers had won the ArenaBowl before (in 1994), but they had
never won it at home. If they beat Tim Marcum and the Tampa Bay
Storm, they got to host ArenaBowl XI. Sherdrick Bonner had not been
sacked all year long. With about eight minutes to go in the fourth
quarter, he got hit and broke his leg. So he's out. Donnie Davis
of Georgia Tech comes in. They gave up the ball and Tampa Bay tied.
They got the ball to kick a field goal with time running down. They
muffed it. Well, they come back in overtime, and Tampa Bay kicks
a field goal. The Rattlers come back and Davis hits (Randy) Gatewood
on a slant pass for a touchdown. It was kind of an ugly drive. But
people came rushing down from the stands. It was phenomenal. The
reason it was my favorite game is because 20 or 30 minutes after
the game, there was Sherdrick Bonner with a crutch under one arm
and one of those blowup casts on his leg, and his mom holding him
up from the other side. I said, 'You should be in the hospital.'
He said, 'Commish, we always sign these autographs after the game.
You should know that.' That's what this league is all about."
Inside the AFL: The league has been around for 18 years,
but, it seems, hardly anybody knows about you. What are your feelings
Baker: "There is a survey on what league gives you the
best value. The Arena Football League was near the top in every
category. What's interesting about this is that four years ago,
we didn't even make the chart. So we think we're on the way. We're
already beginning plans for our 20th season and that's going to
be pretty special. Eighteen years is three times as long as any
other professional football league in the U.S., other than the NFL.
I think that's a significant achievement in itself. It's still young
in terms of major-league years. Even NASCAR, which is considered
this overnight success, is still 56 years old. The first network
television race was in 1979. Well, for us, this is our second year
of network television. For our 18th season, we had four new markets
that averaged about 15,000 fans a game. Our total season attendance
record was set this year. Average attendance was up six percent.
And it's been up 31 percent, really since 9-11. While more sports
leagues have been contracting or suffering, the Arena Football League
is up 31 percent. Merchandising has been up 177 percent. Internet
traffic has been up 51 percent. We've been in various national magazines.
I'm the only fat guy ever to be in Esquire magazine."
Inside the AFL: There are now 10 NFL owners investing
in AFL teams with the Atlanta Falcons purchasing the Georgia Force.
What does that tell you?
Baker: "The Arena Football League is developing the strongest
ownership in all of sports. Even the NFL and NBA have issues. Frankly,
our league is growing stronger and stronger and stronger. And, I
think, you're going to see over the next two years, it grow even
Inside the AFL: In 1995, the average Arena team cost about
$500,000. Now it is costing more than $16 million. This is a seemingly
great investment. The Rattlers say they've never had a payday, but
the profit, they say, is when they sell the team, because they were
bought by Jerry Colangelo and the Phoenix Suns in 1991 for $250,000.
Do many teams in the league make an operating profit?
Baker: "It's getting to be more and more. Second of all,
the nature of sports ... Have you talked to anybody at the Diamondbacks
if they've made a profit? I know the year they won the championship
(2001), they lost money. That's not unlike anything else in sports.
But I think we've got the basis for developing that in a bigger
way. Š There is no doubt that the value of teams is where it's at.
Š The one league that really has teams operating on a profitable
basis is the NFL. We think we can be in the position that they're
Inside the AFL: Does the salary cap that runs through
2010 make this a profitable league? How will this keep players from
Baker: "Our players actually receive three percent of
the upside above $12 million for a team, which is the first time
that ever happened. Players will participate in it. Which is, frankly,
as they should, because those are the guys going out there, making
Inside the AFL: You've gone from having $900,000 in sponsorship
money four years ago to having more than 30 brand names, including
Nike for the apparel, and the value is above $20 million. Does it
Baker: "It continues to grow. Pop Warner is using the
Arena Football League ball."
Inside the AFL: Why change the ball from the traditional
brown to oatmeal-colored with the blue stripe and blue points at
Baker: "The background of the fans is a little darker
and the guys throwing the ball on the television didn't look as
good. The lighter ball and the stripe, you can pick it up better.
We've heard a lot of guys say great things. When we went to the
ball, it was a no-brainer business decision. It looks better on
television. Our competition committee was 6-0 against using it.
The marketing committee was 6-0 for it. It ended up being a close
vote. Now, to have this ball in the hands of kids playing with it,
that's one of the most exciting things about it. I think there will
be a lot more innovation with uniforms that I can't get into."
Inside the AFL: Did you ever expect this to take off?
Baker: "It was never my intention to go to New York. In
my contract, I could live in southern California and do it from
there as long as we traveled. But frankly, the league has grown
so much that it necessitated that I live in New York, because of
NBC, and so many people come through there. I still have my home
in California. The last thing in my contract agreement is that I
get to go to all of my son's USC football games, because I can't
Inside the AFL: Where do you envision this league going?
Baker: "Since I've been involved in this, I've learned
that growing a sports league is really a remarkable thing. Nobody
has grown a league in our lifetime. I think we're well ahead of
the curve. I see five or 10 years from now, we'll continue to grow
ownership. We'll continue to grow af2. Six months ago, Sports Illustrated
had in it that at UCLA and Florida, the fastest-growing intramural
sports are Arena football. There are 14 youth Arena Football leagues
in Chicago that are playing inside community gyms. We see those
three levels -- the NFL, college intramural and youth football --
growing. And internationally, it's exciting. We've had 21 games
with sellouts or near-sellouts. In January, we had a Pacific Rim
training camp. We had 242 Japanese and New Zealand players come
together. They played 15 games in three days. We have two international
players playing in the Arena Football League. There are 10 Japanese
players playing in af2."
Inside the AFL: How far do you want to expand?
Baker: "Ultimately, it will be up to ownership. But I
think we can have 28 to 30 teams like the other major leagues. I'd
like to see af2 grow to more than 100 teams. There's no reason not
to have that many teams. And youth football, that's the final thing
on that. I like to see that growing."
Inside the AFL ArenaBowl XVIII coverage
• ArenaBowl XVIII media picks
• Q&A with AFL commissioner David Baker
• Home field key in Arena Bowl
• Rattlers look to change title game fate
• SaberCats finally healthy in time for ArenaBowl XVIII
• San Jose hangs on to win ArenaBowl XVIII