In October, three Arena Football League teams ceased operations and two other teams joined a competing indoor football league in a matter of days, shrinking the AFL from nine teams to four. While the shake-up prompted questions about whether the Ted Leonsis-owned expansion franchise Washington Valor would ever play a game, the Monumental Sports & Entertainment chief executive doubled down on the future of the league by acquiring a second AFL team in Baltimore.
The as-yet-unnamed franchise, which was announced Monday, will begin play along with the Valor in the spring 2017 and play its home games at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena.
“When the other teams folded, I was surprised, but not disappointed,” Leonsis said in a phone interview on Monday.
Leonsis noted that all of the teams that left the Arena Football League in October were owned by individual operators who neither owned other major sports franchises nor the venues in which their teams played. The owners of the remaining teams in the league include Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik. They agreed, along with Leonsis and Philadelphia Soul majority owner Ron Jaworski, that controlled growth was the only way for the league to survive.
“If we’re going to expand, we should only welcome people that own other teams or buildings,” Leonsis said. “It’s better to have a smaller group of strong owners than it is to expand too rapidly.”
When Leonsis pitched the idea of putting a team in Baltimore about six weeks ago, his fellow owners were initially skeptical. Leonsis pointed to the success of Major League Soccer, which owes much of its growth to billionaire Phil Anschutz and the late Lamar Hunt, both of whom founded and owned multiple MLS teams at the same time.
“Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt believed in the league,” Leonsis said. “Phil owned D.C. United and L.A., as an example, so there’s precedent for it, but this even makes more sense because the teams are 30 miles away.”
While the AFL teams in D.C. and Baltimore will have different coaches, general managers and players, Leonsis said they may share infrastructure, including a practice facility and video editing equipment, to leverage his investment. Both teams’ games will be streamed over Monumental Sports Network’s over-the-top (OTT) subscription service.
Leonsis, who said Baltimore’s AFL team should have a name in the next 30 days, joked about a possible “Acela Division” and expressed hope that an owner steps forward to put an expansion AFL team in Newark. He also reiterated that he thinks the Arena Football League will appeal to an increasing number of millennials between D.C. and Baltimore.
“Cities and indoor sports are very, very important for the next generation of sports fans, who will subscribe to OTT services and sports networks and they really want data,” Leonsis said. “The NFL is the most valuable, most important sports league in the world, but they play outside. It’s sunny, it’s raining, it’s freezing cold, there’s no roof above in many places. In new buildings — certainly not yet in Baltimore — but in new buildings, they have high-speed cameras . . . and data analytics in real-time, uploading of graphics and the like. I think indoor sports are advantaged.”