<
>

Bon Jovi pours his Soul into Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- The North Jersey in Jon Bon Jovi was seething. The co-owner of the Philadelphia Soul was sitting in his Wachovia Center luxury box suite on Monday night, peering down on his team as it was on the verge of losing its first game of the season.

The Georgia Force seemed to do little wrong while the Soul struggled to do anything right.

But a break finally appeared to go Philadelphia's way in the fourth quarter when it seemed that Georgia's Troy Bergeron fumbled a would-be touchdown in the end zone -- only to have it ruled a TD instead of a touchback.

Bon Jovi's reaction? The rock star went North Jersey on the referees with a double-barrelled, middle-finger salute.

Bon Jovi has a passion for the Arena Football League, particularly the Soul. It almost always spills out positively. It manifests itself in the way he stares intently at the field as each play unfolds. Peek up in Bon Jovi's luxury box during most games and you'll see an unchanging tableau of Bon Jovi center stage, leaning forward in his seat expressionless as everyone else behind him are enjoying themselves.

"I was a football junkie growing up," said the classy rocker, who gives the AFL genuine star power among its owners. ""What drew me to the AFL was its affordability, its accessibility and what it could mean to the community. I grew up a (New York) Giants fan, and it was never really my goal to own a sports team. I love football and this opportunity came up. I couldn't pass it up.""

Bon Jovi is not a token owner, either. He's walked a careful balance between not being meddlesome when it comes to the product on the field, but also serves as an approachable owner who's had a hand in everything from the Soul's nickname, to the color of the uniforms, to the Soulmates, Philadelphia's cheerleaders, wearing numbers.

"No one in Philly knew what Arena Football was four years ago, and I will tell you this, only a handful of people in the world can be placed in this position, as the owner of a professional sports team and you're the No. 1 fan," Bon Jovi said. "They want a winner here in Philly and I didn't get into this to lose. We have some good things going on here in Philly."

Yes, they do. It's Bon Jovi's fierce commitment to winning that has made Philadelphia one of the model franchises of the AFL in only its fourth year of existence. The Soul went from 5-11 during their inaugural season in 2004, to 9-7 (including sweeping Dallas) in 2006 and their first AFL playoff berth.

"No one in Philly knew what Arena Football was four years ago, and I will tell you this, only a handful of people in the world can be placed in this position, as the owner of a professional sports team and you're the No. 1 fan. They want a winner here in Philly and I didn't get into this to lose. We have some good things going on here in Philly."
-- Jon Bon Jovi

It has also made the Soul the poster franchise for financial growth as well. Four years ago, the Soul was worth $450,000. Now the franchise might be worth close to $32 million, according Bon Jovi.

"Jon Bon Jovi is a great AFL owner who is passionate and competitive," said AFL commissioner David Baker. "He has demonstrated time and time again how deeply he cares about our league's mission statement and our fan's bill of rights. We realize and are grateful that his fame has brought the AFL additional attention, but that's of little consequence compared to his dedication to growing the game. He used to be the hardest-working man in show business, and now he's the hardest-working man in sports. The AFL has a piece of his heart and that's what's truly rewarding."

While he is not the only famous face among the owners -- there's Tim McGraw in Nashville, John Elway in Denver, Mike Ditka in Chicago and Deion Sanders in Austin as well as NFL owners such as Jerry Jones (Dallas), Tom Benson (New Orleans), Bud Adams (Nashville) and Arthur Blank (Georgia) -- Bon Jovi undoubtably has the highest Q rating.

But that doesn't mean he has an instant advantage in the AFL. Think Jones is going to give an inch when the Soul visits Dallas in a huge clash on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)? Just like Eagles and Cowboys in the NFL, there is no love lost between Philadelphia and Dallas in the AFL.

"Dallas has a great organization," Bon Jovi said. "For as much as Giants and Eagles fans hate the Cowboys, you have to have the utmost respect for their owner, Jerry Jones. He was actually a great help in me owning this team. He gave me great advice.

For example, Jones told Bon Jovi to pursue ownership of the Soul only if he was willing to immerse himself completely into running the team. Jones stressed to Bon Jovi that it's important he enjoy being the owner of a pro sports franchise, that he should surround himself with quality, knowledgeable people and not to be afraid of delegating responsibilities.

"Being an owner is what I thought it would be, it's a fulltime job and when I came in here, I wanted to give it a full-time commitment," Bon Jovi said.

Still, he knows it's not a level playing field all the time.

"Dallas and Georgia have some built-in advantages over us," Bon Jovi said. "Dallas and Georgia have the use of NFL facilities. They can use the state-of-the-art practice facilities for the Cowboys and Falcons. There are certainly a lot of advantages there. They can use their weight room. They have access to everything.

"When I came here, we didn't have shoulder pads. I had to go to Modell's for our shoulder pads. We had nothing. That's where the nickname comes from. We wanted to pull something from outside the box and we know everyone has soul, so that's where it came from."

Yet Bon Jovi is reluctant to take any credit for the rapid rise of Philadelphia in the Arena League. He would prefer to sit back and let Soul president (and ESPN analyst) Ron Jaworski, head coach Bret Munsey and general manager Rich Lisk make personnel decisions.

"Everything Jon preaches to us is about the Soul, the Soul, the Soul, it's not about Jon Bon Jovi," Lisk said. "The thing about Jon is that he's part of the ownership group, he's never put himself out of front of the team. Craig Spencer [the Soul's other majority owner with Bon Jovi] and Jon went out and gave their own money away with functions in the community, even before they sold a ticket. It's the connection Jon wanted with the community."

So it was more than a little surprising when Bon Jovi cut loose Monday night. Unknown to Bon Jovi, he was caught live by ESPN2 cameras.

Bon Jovi wanted to address the issue immediately after the game. He approached the gathered press outside of the Soul locker room. "OK guys, let's straighten out this finger thing right now," Bon Jovi explained after Philadelphia's 57-49 loss to Georgia.

"I didn't understand the ruling and [ESPN2 announcer Mike Greenberg] straightened it out for me after I flipped the bird. [Bergeron] did have possession. He did recover the ball. I reacted to something I didn't know the ruling of. The Georgia Force are a class act. I apologize for the middle finger thing. I didn't understand the rule. Simple as that. We'll be back next week."

As will the AFL's resident rock and roll star, sitting center stage, glaring fiercely at the field, willing his team to win.

Joseph Santoliquito covers the Arena Football League for ESPN.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.