Is the Arena Football League headed for another labor dispute?

Is the Arena Football League headed for another labor dispute?

Well according to an article on ArenaFan.com on Thursday afternoon, that may be the case. Here is the article posted by ArenaFan writer Adam Markowitz: http://www.arenafan.com/news/?page=origcol&writer=113&article=3285

For those of you who may recall this is not the first time a labor issue has come up during the 2012 AFL season. When AFL teams were in training camp back in February there were rumors floating around at the Arena Football League Players Union was seeking a new collective bargaining agreement. As we got closer to opening day in March, the union said they indeed were seeking a new CBA.

Now the current CBA is not expiring, the players appeared to be looking to change the current agreement. During the AFL's most profitable seasons (2001-2008), players were making a reported average of anywhere between $500-$800 per game with reported bonuses of near $1,000 per game. Those were during the years that the league had major television deals. {These numbers are unconfirmed as the AFL does not disclose player salaries}

During the 2001 and 2002 seasons the AFL had weekly doubleheaders broadcast every Friday night on what was then known as The National Network {Now Spike TV}. During that same time they had weekend doubleheaders on ESPN or ESPN2, with all playoff games on either Spike or ESPN/ESPN 2 and the Arena Bowl broadcast on ABC.

Each team also had local television and radio deals. The Chicago Rush had their games simulcasted on both Fox Sports Net Chicago and WSCR-AM. During the 2003 season NBC took over as the sole national television provider of the Arena Football League. NBC aired regional coverage on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

NBC also handled all playoff telecasts including the Arena Bowl. This deal would be in place from 2003-2006. During the 2003 season the Rush would have their games carried locally on FSN Chicago if they were not scheduled to be on NBC. But most of their games were on NBC that year. That year they also moved their radio broadcasts to WMVP-AM.

In 2004 the AFL restructured it's TV deal to include Fox Sports Net and it's affiliate networks. This insured that nearly every AFL team would have either regional or national TV coverage. FSN and it's affiliates would have doubleheaders broadcast on Friday and Saturday nights while NBC still maintained the Saturday and Sunday afternoon regional doubleheaders and the playoff broadcasts.

The Rush had their games divided between all aforementioned networks, with their radio broadcasts still on WMVP. While the television contracts remained intact through the 2006 season, the Rush decided to change radio stations once again in 2005. They moved their games over to WCKG-FM and would stay there through the 2008 season.

The reason for the move was because many of their games would either be aired on tape delay during the evening hours or moved over to one of WMVP's affiliate stations at the time {WLS-AM or WRDZ-AM}. This was due to both the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox who also had their games on WMVP and were given priority over the Rush.

There would also be a slight television change for the Rush in 2006. While they still had many games on NBC, Fox Sports Net Chicago had gone belly up and the Rush were without a local television home. The Rush would have non NBC telecasts carried over Comcast Sportsnet, this would also be the case for local games during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

However, after the 2006 Arena Bowl {Which was won by the Rush} NBC decided not to renew it's contract after they had gained the rights to the NFL's Sunday Night Football broadcasts. Looking for a new home, the AFL found one in the form of the Walt Disney Company.

That's right, during the 2007 and 2008 seasons the Disney family networks of ABC, ESPN, and ESPN 2 would carry national telecasts of the Arena Football League. ABC would broadcast one game early Sunday afternoon right before it's NBA telecast. ESPN would take over the coverage immediately afterwards with one game of their own.

The coverage would be capped off with ESPN 2's version of Monday Night Football but this time showcasing arena football. After the 2008 season, ABC/ESPN extended it's contract with the AFL. But just weeks before the 2009 season began the league announced that it would postpone the start of the season. Eventually the season would be would be suspended, and then cancelled.

Between 2001-2008 the league was profitable because of not only of the television contracts, but the sponsorship that came with it. The reason why the AFL was able to pay it's players so much money {allegedly} was because of the heavy advertising dollars. But when the national economy tanked in the fall of 2008, all of the AFL's major sponsors were effected.

And when this took place the AFL was effected because the league lost half of it's financing as a result. After it was announced that the 2009 season would be cancelled, there were rumors surfacing that the league would fold. Then when the proposed "Arena Football 1" name started being thrown around, it seemed like a sure fire chance that the AFL would fold after  21 years.

Keep in mind that while the AFL suspended the 2009 season, it's developmental league Arena Football 2 played the full 2009 campaign. After their championship game, the Arena Cup was played, the AFL announced that AF2 would cease operations. That league has not returned since then. But a miracle would occur around Christmas time of 2009.

The league would financially restructure itself and the AFL was re-born just in time for the 2010 season. Most of the teams that played between 2001-2008 has either folded or gone to other leagues. Some of the AF2 teams came out of hibernation to join the rebuilt league. As good as it was to see the alternative to the NFL back in action, there were some setbacks.

For starters, there was no major television contract. Nobody wanted to take a chance on the AFL after the 2009 disaster. Ultimately the NFL would show sympathy by giving the AFL exposure on the NFL Network on Friday nights plus all playoff games and the Arena Bowl. It's a television deal that is still in place to this day. But local coverage has been scarce for most of it's current teams.

The Chicago Rush have been without a radio deal since 2008. They broadcast live video of their games through the website known as U-Stream. Since 2010 the Rush have only had 4 games broadcast on Comcast Sportsnet. Another downside is that the pay scale for players had dramatically decreased. Today it's been said {again unconfirmed} that AFL players across the board only make $400 per game with no bonuses.

I would have to assume that there is some truth to this because I can tell you for sure that some AFL players work part-time jobs during the season to make ends meet. Now we fast forward to the present day and time. The original labor dispute in March was centered around the players wanting more money and maybe even bonuses again.

There was an unconfirmed rumor that the players union was threatening to walk out before the start of the 2012 season. With that threat looming over the heads of the league, the ownership of both the Orlando Predators and the Pittsburgh Power acted swiftly to these rumors. The first NFL Network game of the 2012 season featured Orlando playing host to Pittsburgh.

With the unfounded threat of a players strike in the air, both teams "fired" their unionized players just hours before kickoff. Both teams replaced their players with local semi-pro players {Although some unionized players did cross the picket line even though there wasn't actually a strike}, who were apparently contacted for their services ahead of time.

The Orlando players who didn't scab were sent home without any reasonable explanation. The Pittsburgh players who didn't scab were told that they had to pay for their own hotel rooms and find their own way home. Of course once it was realized that there wasn't an actual strike, the players were reinstated about a day or two later.

And as a result, many players from both teams had asked to be released or traded. Many of those requests were granted. The day after the chaotic situation in Orlando, I covered the Chicago Rush's season opener in Rosemont. I had asked Rush players Reggie Gray, Kelvin Morris, Russ Michna and Rush Head Coach Bob McMillen about what was going on. But this was all they would say: "The Rush are here to play football regardless of what's happening with other teams."

Aside from that the Rush as well as the league as a whole wouldn't say anything else about the labor dispute. As this season continued it looked like this labor issue was a thing of the past. That was of course until the ArenaFan article I linked at the top of this article came out. Now reports are surfacing that the players union is asking for either $1,200 per game or $600 per game with bonuses.

Word is that the league and it's owners have stated that they are only willing to increase to $500 per game. Again I must state that this is all just speculation. But considering the nature of arena football, past financial deals, and what happened back in March, this is not good for the league. The AFL has never really had work stoppage before.

And should they have one now, it could hurt the league beyond any comprehension. If the AFL were to use replacement players it would hurt the fanbase. I doubt that the loyal fans would show up to see players that are looking to take the jobs of the original players that put butt's in the seats in the first place.

If any of this turns out to be true, I can only hope that there is a compromise. If not, then the Arena Football League could be in big trouble. When I reached out to Chicago Rush Media Relations Director Ryan Young about the ArenaFan article he said the following: "Haven't heard anything. Then again, we wouldn't be able to comment either."

I also e-mailed the league's executive office which is located here in Chicago. I did not get a response. But AFLPU Vice President Steve Watson did issue the following statement:

We will continue to attempt to work with the League to resolve all labor issues. At some point, the league will have to accept the fact that the players, current and future, are partners in the present and future success of the AFL. The AFLPU is not going anywhere, and the sooner the League accepts that, the sooner we can move forward with meaningful negotiations. Labor unrest is not in the best interest of anyone involved, and it would be a shame should a work stoppage ever become necessary. We will continue to put the best interest of the players as well as the mutually beneficial future success of the AFL as our top priority!"

With only a few weeks left in the 2012 regular season, it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

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