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Q&A: AFL commissioner Randall Boe talks league expansion, AAF trickle-down effect and Baltimore Brigade

Hours prior to the Baltimore Brigade’s season opener against the reigning Arena Football League champion Washington Valor at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore on Friday night, league commissioner Randall Boe spoke to The Baltimore Sun.

After taking over the league when it contracted to four teams in 2018 from 14 in 2014, the former general counsel for AOL and Washington attorney has helped the league add the Atlantic City Blackjacks and the Columbus Destroyers to the group that includes the Brigade, Valor, Albany Empire and Philadelphia Soul. The league will also be included in Draft Kings’ Daily Fantasy Sports lineup this season.

What does the expansion of the league from four teams to six suggest about the league’s financial state?

The league has restructured, and we have great investors from Trifecta [Sports and Entertainment], which is the group in Philadelphia led by [former Eagles quarterback] Ron Jaworski, and then Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which is Ted Leonsis’ group. We took the league all the way back, and we’ve expanded now to six teams, and we’re going to be looking to expand by two to four teams for the next several years.

Are there any plans to expand westward?

I think it’s kind of a combination. Obviously, we don’t want to go too far west and have just, for example, one team in California. That would drive up our costs pretty substantially. So I think we’re probably looking at the eastern half of the United States, but we are definitely going to be moving and expanding geographically.

What can be interpreted from the league joining DraftKings’ Daily Fantasy Sports lineup?

I think it’s a great thing for the AFL. We worked with DraftKings, and they wanted to put together a fantasy game for us. So we couldn’t be happier about that. To me, that tells you that we’re making it.

Is the hope that fans will have a deeper connection to the AFL via fantasy sports?

Absolutely. That’s our strategy, to provide things like daily fantasy, which has been so popular for other sports. We’d like our fans to do it, too, because we know that people like that. And it does make them like the game more and stay more engaged. The other thing that we announced yesterday was our free-to-play game, which looks a lot like sports betting. But since that’s not legal everywhere, this is a game where you can go in and it’ll have the lines and the odds. You’ll say, “Hey, I think the over-under for the game tonight between Washington and Baltimore is going to be X, and you’ll be able to make that prediction,” and we’ll run it as a contest. You’ll be able to win prizes. It’s like betting, but it’s not betting because it’s free to play. So I think that will be a lot of fun for fans, too.

How concerned were you when the Alliance of American Football folded?

A couple of things. The one thing they proved is they were able to raise a lot of money and they did pretty well considering they were a startup league. And it shows me that football is really popular, and there’s an appetite for football after the NFL season ends. I think the difference was – for whatever reason – I guess their business model wasn’t really sustainable, and we’ve been very careful. The AFL has had problems in the past, and part of what we have done in restructuring is to make sure that we’ve got a sustainable, stable business model, and I think we do.

How has it impacted the AFL?

Not so far as I can tell. Our game is very different from the outdoor NFL-style football. Our players have different skill sets. So I haven’t really seen much impact.

What’s your vision for the league five or 10 years from now?

I think we’re going to be big. I think we’re going to be nationwide and distributed on big TV networks. Our players are going to be household names, and we’re going to be really popular and really successful.

Will this season’s games be televised?

Yes. All of the games are televised in the local markets. NBC Sports Washington, which covers Washington and Baltimore, is going to be doing all of the Brigade and Valor games this season. So those will all be on TV there, and that’s true of the individual markets. That’s how we’re doing it this year.

Is the hope to find a national network?

Absolutely. We took the league all the way down to four teams and played last year, and now we’ve grown to six teams. Obviously to get a really lucrative, long-term national deal, we’re going to have to prove that we can grow in scale and grow our audience and grow our fan base.

What kind of feedback has the league received regarding the Baltimore franchise?

I’m intimately familiar with it, and we think that Baltimore should be a great market for us, and we’re going to work harder at making sure that we’ve established the right presence here in Baltimore because we think it should be a great city for arena football. So we’re going to keep working at that.

With the Ravens in the midst of their offseason, is there a vacuum that arena football can fill?

I think so. Historically, arena football has been very popular in a lot of places. It’s a great game. So the reason why we are where we are has something to do with the business model in the past and the popularity of the game and the quality of the game. I think we absolutely can be successful in Baltimore and other cities where there is an NFL team. We are for example in Philadelphia.

Is the fan base deep enough to support the Baltimore and Washington clubs?

I believe so. We’ve been looking at and making our own projections. I think we can absolutely make a go of it in both cities.

Will you attend Friday night’s game between the Brigade and Valor?

I will be there.

Will you attend Saturday’s games involving Atlantic City at Philadelphia and Columbus at Albany?

I’m going to go to Albany tomorrow. I had hoped to be able to hit all three, but the time travel thing isn’t perfect yet. And when it is, I’m not sure that’s how I’m going to use it.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EdwardLeeSun

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