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Columbus Destroyers Suspend Operations, Along With Rest Of League

Arena Football League executive Rob Jaworski announced that the Columbus Destroyers would return to play at Nationwide Arena, on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.
Nick Evans
/
WOSU
Arena Football League executive Rob Jaworski announced that the Columbus Destroyers would return to play at Nationwide Arena, on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019.

After just one season back in the city, the Columbus Destroyers indoor football team has suspended operations.

The Columbus Destroyers played their first game in May at Nationwide Arena following a several-year hiatus. Just months later, all six Arena Football League teams were placed on pause in the wake of a lawsuit while the league decides its next steps.

According to a statement from AFL commissioner Randall Boe, an insurance carrier that provided coverage for the AFL between 2009-2012 filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the league.

“The Arena Football League was forced to make the difficult, but necessary decision to close our team services and business operations units in our local markets,” Boe explains. “These closures have resulted in the elimination of various staff positions, and is a direct consequence of the current financial constraints facing the AFL."

Boe also says "extensive legacy liabilities" related to prior League operations severely weaken the league’s ability to function and grow.

In addition to Columbus, the league has franchise in Albany, N.Y.; Atlantic City, N.J., Baltimore, Md., Philadelphia, Pa., and Washington, D.C.

Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross, says the insurance difficulties aren’t surprising.

“Because of the inherent risks associated with football, it makes it very difficult to get insurance for these players when you have potential very long-lasting and very serious potential injuries associated with the league,” Matheson says.

In a tweet posted Wednesday, Boe said the league is actively evaluating a final decision that should come in the next few weeks. According to the Associated Press, one possibility for the organization is transforming into a traveling league modeled after the six-team Premier Lacrosse League, which just completed its first season and plans to return next year.

Upsetting But Not Surpising

The Arena Football League has seen better days in terms of fan support.

The Destroyers first moved to Columbus from Buffalo in 2004 and played for four years before the league declared bankruptcy in 2008. While the league relaunched two years later, the Destroyers did not return to Columbus until earlier this year.

Columbus Destroyers player Damien Groce catches the ball as he is defended by San Jose SaberCats Clevan Thomas in the second half of ArenaBowl XXI in New Orleans, July 29, 2007. The Sabercats won 55-33.
Credit Alex Brand / Associated Press
Columbus Destroyers player Damien Groce catches the ball as he is defended by San Jose SaberCats Clevan Thomas in the second half of ArenaBowl XXI in New Orleans, July 29, 2007. The Sabercats won 55-33.

When the team left the city, it had about 18,000 fans present per game. But this year, average attendance was down to 6,500.

Harry Yeprem, who lives in Columbus, was a fan from the beginning. He was excited to see the team come back this year.

“I still had all of my original gear, like a jersey and hats and shirts," he said. So I was like, ‘Oh hey, this is cool. I can go to games again, wear my gear again, cheer for the team, cheer for Columbus’ team.'"

Yeprem said he's sad to hear about the team’s local business operations shutting down. He hopes the Arena Football League survives, but he’s not sure he’d want to cheer it on without a local presence.

“It’s disappointing as well,” Yeprem says. “If it becomes a traveling league, I probably wouldn’t have any interest because unless they’re gonna play games here or have tournaments here of some sort, maybe I’d be interested in that. But all in all, unfortunately, I get the feeling that this is probably it.”

Matheson says that’s not a surprising reaction, and a travel system would be difficult to garner long-term support for.

“Instead of having teams located in one city and relying on building up a fan base just in that city, where you have teams basically go play in exhibitions all across the country, you might have fans be able to come out for one game because it’s a fun novelty event that comes out," Matheson said. "That being said, that’s never been shown to work for an entire league and an entire set of teams. It’s hard to build fan excitement when you can only see your team once a season.”

Little Hope For Columbus Fans

Whether the league continues to exist at all is still up in the air.

“We do know, under any set of circumstances, we will not be continuing to operate business operation units in our local markets," Boe said in his statement.

Matheson thinks the future is bleak.

“Quite honestly, it doesn’t look good,” Matheson says. “And it looks like the league is going to succumb to what has happened to many, many minor leagues and sports over the years. It just is extremely difficult to run professional sports and even the biggest leagues have struggled for many decades.”

He cites the first 20 years of the National Football League as an example. Matheson also says the fact that the league relies solely on live attendance for its fan base hampers potential growth.

“When you only have six teams and they’re not in the nation’s largest media markets, it’s impossible to get any sort of national TV contract,” Matheson explains. “And with that, you’re stuck trying to run the league only based on attendance and ticket sales and that just wasn’t gonna do it.”

The Destroyers tweeted earlier Wednesday that if the team is not able to move forward, it will issue information about application refunds.

“When you see something about the league folding or the league going under or going away for a few years, the first thought that comes to my head is, ‘Hey I’ve already paid for 2020, what happens to my money?’” Yeprem says. “So hopefully that will work out, I hope.”

If the Destroyers survives, it would likely be headquarters out of the league office rather than in Columbus.