Report: AFL players agreed to take pay cut to save season

NEW YORK -- The owner of the Arena Football League's Los Angeles franchise said Wednesday the league is poised to call off the 2009 season.

Avengers owner Casey Wasserman told the Los Angeles Times that the AFL needs to take the time to become more efficient because of the poor economy. Wasserman is a former league chairman and one of the AFL's major power brokers.

Avengers spokesman John Tamanaha confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday that the team expects the 2009 season to be canceled. Wasserman told the newspaper the decision was not official, but he expected owners to vote to approve it this week.

The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press reported that a conference call has been tentatively scheduled for Thursday afternoon among the league's 16 franchises to discuss options for 2009.

The AFL issued a statement that did not directly address canceling the season, but said: "Despite rumors and reports to the contrary, all AFL teams are continuing to work towards ArenaBowl XXIII. As it has previously stated, the AFL continues to work on long-term structural improvement options."

Union spokesman Carl Francis declined to discuss specifics.

"We definitely are in discussions with the Arena Football League on these issues," he said.

The Press reported earlier Wednesday that the players' union, in a conference call Friday, voted to cut the salary cap from $2 million to $1.4 million in order to help save the coming season.

"I'm one of the top-paid guys and I was the first one to say I'd take a pay cut," Ahmad Hawkins, union rep for the Grand Rapids Rampage, told the newspaper. The Press said Hawkins, a defensive back, earned $75,000 last season.

"We agreed to take the salary cap lower. The players want to do anything we can to play this season," Hawkins said, according to the paper.

The league, which has been seeking ways to improve its financial footing, on Tuesday delayed the release of the 2009 schedule for the third time and also put off its dispersal draft and the start of free agency.

ESPN has a minor, nonmanagement financial interest in the AFL. The network acquired national TV rights to the league in 2006 and signed a five-year deal to have multimedia rights that included everything from Internet to radio to publishing to international distribution.

"We've always admired the AFL fan-first philosophy, but we have no comment on their business activity," ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer said.

The 16-team league has repeatedly delayed the start of free agency and the release of its 2009 schedule after an offseason of uncertainty. No replacement has been named for longtime commissioner David Baker, who abruptly resigned in July two days before the ArenaBowl championship game.

Since November 2007, the AFL's board of directors has been looking into various ways to bolster the league's finances.

"It's important for the Arena Football League to think about the next 20 years," Wasserman told the Times. "And the economic model, combined with the economic environment we're in currently doesn't allow us to take that perspective. By suspending play for the year -- in cooperation with our players and our partners -- it allows us to get the perspective to try and make the decisions that are in the best interest of the long-term viability of the league."

The AFL's woes come at a time when the world of sports, once thought to be largely recession-proof, has felt the economic chill. The NFL said Tuesday it is cutting 150 jobs, while the NBA and NASCAR also have laid off dozens of workers. The NHL is in a hiring freeze while the Internet operation for Major League Baseball also has trimmed positions.

Philadelphia Soul wide receiver Chris Jackson told the AP that players were informed Tuesday that the season would likely be canceled.

"No one knows what's really going on," he said. "It's all out of our hands. We agreed to take pay cuts and I guess that wasn't enough to convince them to play."

Officials from several teams said they were proceeding with business as usual for the time being.

"We're readying contracts right now for when we're ready to move forward with free agency," said Luke Stahmer, vice president of operations for the Colorado Crush. "We're buying helmets and jerseys as if it's a regular season. We don't want to get caught with our pants down, so to speak."

The AFL's New Orleans franchise folded despite being near the top of the league in attendance the past two seasons. Saints owner Tom Benson, who also owned the VooDoo, said the decision was based on "circumstances currently affecting the league and the team."

The arenafootball2 league, the official development league of the AFL, said it will continue to operate as usual and will play in 2009 -- its 10th anniversary season. The af2 operates entirely on its own and is not directly affected by the AFL's current situation.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.