As Washington Valor players rejoiced around the Arena Football League’s Foster Trophy on the field at Royal Farms Arena on Saturday night, the owner of the team, Ted Leonsis, was grinning — even while his other team, the Baltimore Brigade, walked back to its locker room empty-handed.
“Both [Baltimore and Washington] had a great summer, a great year, but there’s something magical about the run the Valor went on,” Leonsis said.
A team that went 2-10 in the regular season and ended up becoming champions would be impossible in the NFL. A four-team format in the AFL, however, means it’s open season until the very end.
Spurred by a midseason coaching change, the Valor quickly rebuilt to become a team capable of upsetting the Albany Empire (8-4) in the semifinals and Baltimore in the championship game.
“They earned it. Regular season, they eked it, they got through the number one seed, and they won it. It’s such a good life lesson. It’s kind of like the story of the league,” Leonsis said.
Three years ago, Saturday night’s ArenaBowl XXXI would seem utterly confusing.
In 2016, the Philadelphia Soul bested the Arizona Rattlers to claim ArenaBowl XXIX, becoming kings of an eight-team league that included the Jacksonville Sharks, Orlando Predators, Tampa Bay Storm, Los Angeles KISS, Cleveland Gladiators and Portland Steel.
Today, all of those teams, except the Soul, are out of the league. The AFL would have folded if not for Leonsis.
The majority owner of the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics first brought the Valor to the league in a turbulent offseason in which three teams folded and two departed for another indoor league.
Conviction was necessary. Leonsis called other owners to pitch a franchise in Baltimore, and the Brigade was born.
Both Brigade coach Omarr Smith and journeyman quarterback Randy Hippeard credit Leonsis as the tipping point for joining up.
“I really had a lot of belief in who I was working for,” Smith said. “Being able to sit down with [them], I knew this was the right spot for me.”
Said Leonsis: “I told [them] to trust us. It might be slow, might be bumps along the way, but I’m committed to doing the right thing the right way.”
In years’ past, the losing team in the ArenaBowl has ceased operations soon after, with the Rattlers moving to the Indoor Football League before the 2017 season and the Storm closing up shop before 2018.
But for the Brigade, under Leonsis, there’s a different future.
“I’m locked in. It’s a team game. We’ll be back,” Brigade fullback Rory Nixon said after the defeat.
Said Valor coach Benji McDowell: “Right now, we’re like, ‘Alright. What are we going to do next year?’ Few years ago, soon as you win the ArenaBowl, you’re like, ‘What is next? I might not be here.’ With [Leonsis] pushing it forward, I feel like there's a strong foundation.”
Player retention isn’t the problem with the AFL; both ArenaBowl teams were stocked with five-, six- or even double-digit-season veteran players. Fans are the lifeblood of the league. If Saturday’s announced crowd of 8,183 vanishes next season, so will the league.
“I think the fans tonight will come back. Tell their friends about it. We want to grow the league and make the Baltimore franchise really meaningful,” Leonsis said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it does feel good to just see the fans and so many families that are happy with the sport. We’ve made it affordable and very family friendly.”
Tickets to ArenaBowl XXXI started as low as $10 and capped at $175. Compared with the entry fee to Super Bowl LII in Minnesota — $2,500 to $12,000 — it’s pennies.
And Saturday might have been the last night of the AFL’s four-team excursion. If two teams do come into the fold, as Leonsis hopes, they might arrive the same way the Valor and Brigade did, under the same ownership. The Empire, who started operations this season, are also partner-owned by those of the Philadelphia Soul.
After a season in hiatus, the Gladiators will likely return after the renovations at Quicken Loans Arena are complete, by 2020 at the latest. The Storm might be revived once the AFL reaches calmer waters.
Even if neither do, both AFL commissioner Randall Boe and Leonsis vowed to expand the league next year.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were patient, they believed. I think one day Tampa Bay will come back. I expect Cleveland to come back. We can expand to some other cities. I want to make sure that people who come into the league are people who get it,” Leonsis said. “Who love the game, love the players, and really want to build something.”