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The battle for the soul of Arena Football

The Arena Football League, deciding that 20 years of success and millions of dollars of revenue isn’t enough, decided to move one step further and sell its soul to earn a short term 5 year placement on the Worldwide and ABC in exchange for a chunk of AFL ownership.

This makes perfect sense for ESPN in a business sense, as it gains a foothold in what has to be their inevitable goal of owning its own content provider. This is what they attempted to do with ESPN Mobile. They tried to convert their network’s brand into a selling point for a subscription-based mobile phone service. Of course, ESPN knows sports, not phones, so this was a failure.

However, ESPN knows sports broadcasting.

Monday Night Football has been an expensive, but successful, venture for ESPN, and with their sweetheart broadcasting deal, the AFL gets to fill the other Monday nights with exciting football-like substance. More importantly, this gives the AFL a little thing the kids call ‘legitimacy.’

The NFL, NBA, NHL, and now the AFL will all stand shoulder-to-shoulder on ESPNis, which will help really propel the AFL to new heights of gate attendance and profitability. In exchange for earning legitimate sport recognition, the AFL hands out a piece of the overall pie to ESPN, who cashes in with both a piece of the profits to come from ESPN broadcasting, and what has to be free or low-cost content for ESPN2.

How is this bad for the AFL?

The deal expires in five years. What happens then? What if ESPN wants to use its ownership stake to keep the company from changing broadcasters from the Disney Octopus to NBC or the Foxtopus? ESPN, since it owns a piece, will no doubt give the league preferential coverage, but will that damage ESPN’s reputation as an impartial organ and the AFL’s status as an independent league due to the tangible links between the two, or will the AFL go from a respectable organization to a WNBA-style corporate puppet of Bristol?

This deal could go right in a lot of ways, but it could go really wrong in a lot of different ways, too. Fortunately, it’s the AFL and nobody really gives a damn except for me. I have no doubts that AFL commissioner David Baker is not a dumb man, so hopefully he’s got an easy escape clause should this all go to crap within the next 5 years.
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