Arena Football League franchise coming to Baltimore

Arena Football League franchise coming to Baltimore.

Baltimore will welcome a new team — an Arena Football League franchise — with a deep-pocketed Washington ownership group hoping to lure fans to Royal Farms Arena beginning in the spring with the promise of rivalry games against teams from Washington and Philadelphia.

The new franchise, which does not yet have a name or head coach, amounts to an experiment by entrepreneur and sports team owner Ted Leonsis with a league that has been around since 1987 but has just five teams — Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Tampa Bay — after five others either ceased operations or joined a rival indoor league after last season.

Leonsis, whose Monumental Sports & Entertainment owns the NBA's Washington Wizards, the NHL's Washington Capitals, Washington's Verizon Center and a new Arena Football League franchise in Washington, said he is banking on regional rivalries and a live-streaming sports network launched last month to generate interest.

"This might be a crazy idea, but if you're an entrepreneur you are not afraid of risk," Leonsis said. "I'm not afraid of failure, if you will. We're going to go for it."

Baltimore, he said, "is a great, great sports town. I believe in the city.'

City officials said the team will produce an increase in downtown pedestrian traffic and a welcome new tenant for Royal Farms Arena, where it will join the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team.

"We look forward to having yet another professional team coming to Baltimore," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"The more, the merrier," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "Every event has so much spinoff to area restaurants and even hotels."

The economic impact of the team is uncertain. It's not known how many home games will be scheduled, or how many fans might attend. Arena League teams played 16 games from April into August this year. Most of the games were at night.

The Blast season runs from November to March. Royal Farms Arena also hosts concerts, monster truck events, mixed martial arts and occasionally basketball.

"This will just add to the wonderful mix that is already in place," Fowler said.

But the arena is 55 years old, and city officials have long talked about renovating or replacing it. The venue seats about 11,500 for sporting events.

"Generally, I think the [Arena Football League] concept is a tough sell in a city that has a relatively successful baseball team and loyal fan following," said Auburn Bell, an adjunct professor of marketing at Loyola University Maryland. "You also have the issue of the Royal Farms Arena being a dated and less-than-friendly space for fans. Not sure a state-of-the-art facility would guarantee success, but certainly playing in a place like [that] will not help the overall effort."

Leonsis said his extensive holdings will give him an advantage over owners whose teams disbanded or fled the league. The league lost teams this year from Los Angeles, Arizona, Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla., and Portland, Ore.

"None of the owners who left owned a building or owned other sports teams in which they could leverage that infrastructure" that includes ticket sales, marketing and game day operations, Leonsis said.

His new Arena League team, the Washington Valor, will play at Verizon Center.

Royal Farms Arena is owned by the city and overseen by SMG, a Pennsylvania-based venue management company.

Leonsis said the Baltimore and Washington teams could share some facilities — perhaps even a practice facility: "Why pay two rents if you can do it in the same place?"

But on the field, Leonsis hopes the teams will tap into fans' affection for geographic rivalries. The Baltimore team's "coaches, the general managers, the players — they will want to beat Philadelphia like a drum and beat Washington like a drum," Leonsis said.

According to Leonsis, Ron Jaworski, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who is majority owner of the Arena League's Philadelphia Soul, "said he could hardly wait to play next year and we'd be a natural rival with Philadelphia."

Baltimore and Washington games are to be broadcast online on the subscription-based Monumental Sports Network, which also shows games of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears and other teams. CBS Sports Network broadcasts Arena Football League games weekly.

The intensity of the long-simmering sports rivalry between Baltimore and Washington has been restrained by the limited number of games between them. The Orioles and Washington Nationals baseball teams are in different leagues, and the Ravens and Washington Redskins football teams are in opposing conferences.

Promoting Arena Football League rivalries could prove a winning strategy, said Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing for Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE.

"Ted is a very savvy businessman. I think that's an avenue to explore because certainly there are rivalries in the region," Saler said. "There is that history there in this town that you could tap into."

Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the state sports commission, said the league could help itself by adding teams.

"I think it needs to expand," he said. With five teams, he said, "once you've played a team so many times, can you see them play again?"

Hasseltine said other cities — he suggested Rochester, N.Y., Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C., as possibilities — "could make it a really strong East Coast league" that could be promoted by Leonsis "with his marketing arm and wherewithal."

Calls about possible league expansion were referred to commissioner Scott C. Butera, who could not be reached for comment.

This is hardly the city's first dalliance with non-NFL football, as fans of the USFL's Baltimore Stars and the Canadian Football League's Baltimore Stallions will recall. Baltimore also had an entry in the American Indoor Football Association.

The Arena Football League, established in 1987, is known for it high-scoring, pass-happy games. The field is shorter and narrower than in the National Football League and the rules — which forbid punts and allow just eight players on the field instead of 11 — maximize scoring.

The league's most famous alumnus is former St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. But the league has struggled to keep teams in business in recent years, and Leonsis' investment could help provide a lifeline.

Monumental Sports said Baltimore fans can secure tickets for the coming season — which Leonsis said would begin in March — with a $50 deposit. He said he expected the team to get a name within about the next 30 days.

Leonsis said the proximity of Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia will enable the league to try some new approaches to selling tickets.

"You could have a season ticket for both teams [Baltimore and Washington] or one pass for all three venues," Leonsis said. "I'm not afraid of innovating."

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article

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