Wasserman's Avengers Scoring With Fans

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

Casey Wasserman was still wincing last week from his Los Angeles Avengers' season-ending playoff loss.

"If you're in sports and you don't win a championship and you're not upset you're in the wrong business," said Wasserman, the 28-year-old owner of L.A.'s Arena Football League franchise. "We are committed to winning, and for next season that starts right now."

Notwithstanding the Avengers' 70-63 loss to the Arizona Rattlers, it was a pretty good year: a 6 percent increase in attendance, increased visibility through network TV and a third consecutive season with an improved won-loss record.

Wasserman said the team has not yet turned a profit, but he pointed out that "we have seen franchise values go up exponentially."

AFL Commissioner David Baker said that when Wasserman bought into the league five years ago, expansion franchises were selling for around $400,000. The figure now exceeds $12 million and the Avengers are valued at about $15 million.

Baker cites L.A.'s entry as a turning point for the 17-year-old league. Since then, the 16-team AFL has managed to build a national presence through television deals, entry into other first-tier markets and an aggressive effort to sell the league as an affordable and fan-friendly professional sport.

"It's the stuff I like about football but not the bad stuff, like sitting in the sun and high ticket prices," said Daniel Yen, a Pasadena lawyer who attended last week's game with a friend and their two young sons.

Yen paid $48 each for his seats not cheap given that the average NFL seat is $55 but for that price Yen sat in the third row, barely 10 feet from the action. "They have cheerleaders and fireworks and if you catch a ball you get to keep it," he said. "It's good family entertainment."

The owners of at least 10 major sports franchises now have interests in AFL teams, including Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers' John York. In addition, the AFL has retained its small-market roots with the establishment of AFL2, which has 28 teams in such cities as Bakersfield (also owned by Wasserman), Wichita, Kan. and Peoria, Ill.

The Avengers, who play at Staples Center, drew an average of 13,220 fans for its eight home games this year, up 6.6 percent from 2002. By comparison, the last-place Los Angeles Clippers in the National Basketball Association averaged 17,231 fans in 41 games.

"It's taken (the Avengers) several years to capture the attention of the fans," said David Carter, principal at Sports Business Group. "They've had methodical success."

TV ratings have dropped off after a promising start, with NBC averaging 3 percent of the television audience. But with few other compelling options for Sundays NBC lost its bid for rights to NBA broadcasts and declined to bid on NFL broadcast rights network officials insist the AFL experiment is paying off.

And the league has performed well against other sports in competing time slots, including the National Hockey League and professional golf. Even with a low rating, the AFL will be seen by 25 million viewers this year, several times more than last year when regular season games were shown on cable and the championship aired on ABC.

The AFL's deal with NBC calls for the first $12 million of ad revenue to go to the network for production costs, with the next $3 million going to the league. Any additional revenue is to be split between the league and the network. That's different from other pro sports, where leagues typically receive hefty rights fees.

Unlike during its disastrous experiment with the XFL two years ago, when NBC took an equity stake in the league and lost an estimated $35 million before pulling the plug after one year, the network was more cautious this time around. NBC spokesman Kevin Sullivan said the league would make a profit on the AFL this year.

Wasserman, who is not coy about his desire to own an NFL team, said he is committed to bringing an Arena Bowl championship to Los Angeles and building the team's fan base. Said Carter: "He puts fannies in the seats and he really understands the market."

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