Randall Boe, new AFL commissioner, optimistic in face of league’s challenges

April 12, 2018 GMT

You’ve heard that professional football is dying. You’ve also heard about the leagues, new or reborn, who want to defy that assumption. The XFL, the Alliance of American Football, the Spring League and the Pacific Pro League have all made recent headlines.

As the market grows ever more crowded, the Arena Football League will kick off its 31st season Friday night when two teams owned by Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade, play in Baltimore.

Randall Boe, Monumental executive vice president and general counsel, was named the league’s new commissioner for 2018, and he is not fazed about competition from other football startups. He and the league’s executives see an opportunity to “reboot” the league.

“The opportunity to grow the Arena Football League is really very exciting. It’s kind of like being in a startup business in a lot of ways,” Boe, 55, told The Washington Times. “Fans get excited, it’s very engaging, it’s fast-paced, so it just seemed like an exciting opportunity at a good moment in time.”

The AFL was in danger of folding last month when negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement weren’t going well. Ivan Soto led the players’ union and Boe, before being officially announced as commissioner March 27, headed the league’s efforts.

“Like every negotiation, there were some ups and downs, and we certainly took it to the last possible minute before reaching a deal, which is typically what happens in any deal,” Boe said.

The new CBA includes a 40 percent increase in player compensation and addition of health-care coverage, according to Boe.

“Our goal is to have the highest quality football out there on the field, and you can’t do that if you don’t fairly compensate your players,” he said.

Originally from Iowa City, Iowa, Boe graduated law school at the University of Pennsylvania and went into private practice in Washington. He joined America Online in 1996 and served as its executive vice president and general counsel for 11 years, leading cases during the internet’s formative years.

He joined Lincoln Holdings in 2008, before it became Monumental Sports and Entertainment via merger and long before being a commissioner of a football league was imaginable. He remembers the early days of the AFL with fondness, watching some games during the era of the Orlando Predators’ dominance and thinking it was a “pretty novel and exciting version of football.”

Now that he is the Roger Goodell of the AFL, don’t think Boe will be flustered at the possibly thankless task ahead.

“I remember how fans used to boo David Stern at the NBA Draft every year. I just think that’s part of fun,” Boe said. “The funny thing about sports, part of being a fan is being critical of the leagues and the teams and the way they’re run. ... That passion tells you how engaged the fans are and how knowledgeable they are and how much they pay attention.”

Boe said there was no formal search for a new commissioner to replace Scott Butera, who left the post after four years. Nor does Boe have a formal contract of determined length for the position. Everyone’s focus, he said, is to put on a great season of football and start growing the league again.

The AFL has had as many as 19 teams, but by 2017 the number dwindled down to five. Of those, the Cleveland Gladiators and Tampa Bay Storm suspended operations, but could return in the future. Despite the contraction, an expansion team the Albany Empire will debut in 2018 and join the Valor, Brigade and Philadelphia Soul. Boe thinks the league will add new teams in the Eastern U.S. before expanding west again.

Why should audiences choose to watch the AFL over the XFL, the AAF or the next string of letters to come along? Boe believes the AFL’s product is different a faster-paced, higher-scoring brand of football, in a league not primarily meant to develop players for the NFL like others do.

And the league’s strategy promises innovation. Cameras in players’ helmets are being considered, and in a recently announced partnership, DraftKings will stream AFL games on its app and add AFL fantasy sports contests starting in 2019.

“Everyone is looking around the corner at the advent of legalized sports betting on a much wider basis in this country than has existed in the past,” Boe said. “We can foresee the day when you’ll be watching the game ... and being able to place wagers, proposition bets, on the next play, on different players.”

Depending on what else Boe and league leadership foresee and choose to do, they could be poised to turn the AFL around.