Arena football is coming back to Baltimore, this time armed with a new team, a slew of new owners and, if all goes according to plan, a renewed sense of business acumen.
With the Baltimore Mariners joining 15 other franchises, the American Indoor Football Association is looking to put on a show full of fast-paced excitement on the field and void of financial difficulties off it.
The league will begin its 2008 season Saturday, when the Mariners visit the Reading Express.
"We have businessmen now that have the ability to own and run a business," AIFA co-owner John Morris said at a news conference yesterday to announce the 2008 season, alluding to the league's 13 new ownership groups. "We made serious changes this year."
The emphasis on the business aspect of ownership represents a welcome change from years past, when, according to Morris, some owners appeared in over their heads.
"Just because you like football doesn't mean you should own a team," said Morris, who is also co-owner of the new Baltimore club.
The AIFA's original Baltimore franchise, the Blackbirds, left the league after the 2007 season.
The infusion of new ownership is one reason Morris, a Baltimore native who made his living in advertising, is optimistic about the coming season, the league's second since it was founded in 2006.
"We've got a strong team [of owners] in place with great sponsors," the owner said. "I couldn't be happier with them."
Another reason is the improved financial shape each team is in heading into 2008, courtesy of some savvy marketing by the league. Unlike last year, teams are going into this season with built-in revenue streams stemming largely from the league's $2.5 million deal with Simply Me TV for its exclusive media and publishing rights over the next three years.
Several major sponsors either are already on board or have deals in the works with the league, which has limited revenue sharing. The expectation, Morris said, is for that money to cover player payrolls so the league can avoid repeat occurrences from previous years when some players weren't getting paid.
"It gives owners an opportunity to be successful," Morris said. "They get excited about being a part of something that, as soon as they join, there is help from the league."
The AIFA has four divisions, spread across 11 states. In addition to the Express, the Mariners are joined by the Canton Legends and the Erie RiverRats in the Eastern Conference's North Division and will play each team twice (Reading three times) as part of their 14-game regular-season schedule. Their first home game at 1st Mariner Arena will be March 28 against the Columbus Lions.
As was the case in 2007, players will receive $250 per game, with a $50 win bonus. One team member can be designated a "franchise player" and be paid $500 per game.
Despite the increase in upfront revenues, Morris said he was aware of the need to control costs at all levels if the league is to be successful. He said he has told the new owners not to expect to get rich but added they have every right to expect to make a profit while having fun as they try to expand their business into a substantial player in the world of minor league sports.
"We're not trying to be the AFL," Morris said. "But our long-term vision is to be talked about like they are."
Date Opponent Time
March 8 @Reading 7 p.m.
March 15 @Florence 7:35 p.m.
March 28 Columbus 7:30 p.m.
April 4 @Augusta 7:30 p.m.
April 12 Mississippi 7 p.m.
April 18 @Erie 7 p.m.
April 25 Erie 7:30 p.m.
May 10 Carolina 7 p.m.
May 17 @Carolina 7 p.m.
May 24 @Reading 7 p.m.
May 30 Florida 7:30 p.m.
June 7 @Canton 7 p.m.
June 14 Canton 7 p.m.
June 23 Reading 7:30 p.m.
Note: Home games at 1st Mariner Arena