Blaze of glory: Bon Jovi draws spotlight to Arena Football League's Soul

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004

PHILADELPHIA Putting singer Jon Bon Jovi's name on the marquee has been good for business.

Now, Bon Jovi is hoping his name attracts fans to something other than a concert. He's a co-owner/promoter of the Arena Football League's expansion Philadelphia Soul.

''My job's to get them in the door, then let these guys be celebrities in their own right,'' said Bon Jovi, dressed in black from his leather coat to his shoes.

Bon Jovi has already started well as he makes the transition from arena rock to arena football, helping the Soul sell more than 10,000 season tickets in only four months and giving them an identity in an already gluttonous sports city.

''Jon is there to lend support, to help shine the spotlight on the team and to give it some recognition in a community that doesn't know a lot about it,'' co-owner Craig Spencer said. ''Without Jon turning on that spotlight so heavily, I think we would do well, but it would have taken us a lot longer to get to where we are today.''

Maybe the AFL could have used a few more people with star power and financial clout when it started 17 years ago. Instead, it's only now starting to reap some rewards from being the crown jewel of the second-tier sports leagues.

The AFL has a unique 50-50 television agreement with NBC in which no rights fees were paid. The games drew a modest 1.1 rating last year, and NBC will air 70 to 80 games this season on Sundays.

The network's two-year deal expires at the end of the season, though it has a series of four-year options.

''We're going into the year with every intention of going forward and with the intention of doing everything we can to make certain that we create a set of conditions in which the question is not difficult to answer,'' said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports.

This year, the AFL also will have a weekly television program on Fox Sports Net.

The league is expecting growth in attendance.

It totaled 135,347 fans during the inaugural 12-game 1987 season; 1,458,830 fans for 128 games a year ago. Still, the average attendance was 11,279 in 1987 and only 11,397 last year. Last year's mark was the first time since 1999 that the league went over an average of 10,000.

One way to boost interest was to include Bon Jovi, who wrote a song for a commercial that paired him with another famous AFL owner, John Elway of the Colorado Crush. Elway was part of an expansion ownership group last year.

''We now have more credibility than we've ever had as a league,'' commissioner David Baker said.

The AFL opens its season Thursday in eight of the top 10 media markets with 19 franchises and 27 teams in its minor league.

San Jose plays at Detroit on Thursday, and there are single games on Friday and Saturday before a six-game schedule on Sunday including a meeting of expansion franchises when the Soul play the New Orleans Voodoo.

The Tampa Bay Storm are the defending AFL champions.

Baker also has hopes for as many as 32 teams in North America, including franchises in Canada and Mexico, plus a European division and a Pacific rim division.

What better way, then, for Bon Jovi to promote a new album or tour with ads all over team Web sites and stadiums around the world?

Bon Jovi said a love of football and a desire to be involved in the sport are the reasons ownership piqued his interest.

''This was exciting,'' he said. ''It was something else to do to stretch out as an individual.''

Bon Jovi, a New York Giants season-ticket holder who counts New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick among his friends, tried to get his band to buy a team, but they passed, except for guitarist Richie Sambora. He has a 2-percent stake in the Soul.

Bon Jovi's and Spencer, CEO of real estate management company The Arden Group, have hired former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski as team president. Michael Trigg, who won a championship with Grand Rapids in 2001, is the coach.

Jaworski tried to bring an Arena team to Philadelphia for nearly 10 years and was on the brink in 1998, but his ownership group could not secure dates in the Wachovia Center or the Spectrum.

''There's no doubt Jon has brought some sizzle to the team,'' Jaworski said. ''But we are in an incredible market. No city is as close to Philadelphia in their passion about football.''

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