The Arena Football League, the indoor league known for its funky teams, high scoring games and chronic instability, folded Wednesday, less than a month after closing local business operations and pursuing a major restructuring.
Commissioner Randall Boe said in a statement that the AFL, which was founded in the 1980s, couldn’t “raise the capital necessary to grow the league, resolve substantial legacy liabilities and make it financially viable.” The league has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, Boe’s statement said.
The league that once had 19 teams and drew almost 13,000 fans per game collapsed with only six teams and attendance nearly cut in half. Three of the AFL’s teams, the Philadelphia Soul, Albany Empire and Atlantic City Blackjacks, had the same owner. Two of them, the Atlantic City Blackjacks and Columbus Destroyers, had played only a single season. Two more, the Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade, were owned by Ted Leonsis, chairman and CEO of Monumental Sports Entertainment, the ownership company of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics.
Leonsis invested heavily in the league in 2017 when he launched both AFL clubs. He helped install Boe, who was Monumental’s general counsel, as its commissioner and went to work recruiting future owners, saying that the league could not survive with such few teams geographically clustered in the Northeast.
“If we didn’t step in,” he told The Washington Post in a 2018 interview, “it probably would have died.”
And at first, the influx of money and Monumental’s resources did resuscitate the league, which executives said would not have played a season with only two teams and likely would not have survived if it took a year off. The league nearly collapsed after it did not play its 2009 season because of financial troubles.
Leonsis planned a future for the league that included a new media rights contract — in 2017, the AFL paid CBS Sports to broadcast its games on the CBS Sports Network — and legalized gambling that would open up new revenue streams.
Instead, the league was undercut by new experimental football leagues, such as the Alliance of American Football.
AFL officials considered a touring model, similar to that of the Premier Lacrosse League, but the organization was too weighed down by existing financial obligations and growing external threats, including a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from a former insurer that provided workers’ compensation coverage for the AFL from 2009 to 2012.