San Jose SaberCats owner Dave Fry stood field level with his son as the team prepared for a late summer game against the rival Arizona Rattlers. Bad blood was brewing. The winner would advance to ArenaBowl XXVIII. As Fry scanned the field, Rattlers owner Ron Shurts and AFL commissioner Scott Butera approached. Fry acknowledged the commish but was short on words for Shurts, who launched into an expletive-filled tirade.
Walking away, he delivered a simple message to Fry. “It doesn’t fucking matter what you do anyway,” Shurts said. “Your season ends tonight.”
The very next week, after San Jose defeated Arizona and advanced to the ArenaBowl, the SaberCats sought to change the date of the championship game. Originally scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 29, team executives requested the game instead be played the following Monday and the site shifted to their home base of SAP Center in San Jose. Scheduling conflicts had driven the team 80 miles up the road to Stockton for all but one playoff game, after securing home field advantage and tying the regular season record of 17-1.
Rescheduling the game would affect the league’s standing with cable provider ESPN, Shurts argued to the commissioner, according to a source. Butera, in his first season at the helm, denied the SaberCats’ request. Undeterred, the SaberCats won the ArenaBowl and captured their fourth league title. But in a stunning turn of events, the game is almost certain to be the last for San Jose’s winningest franchise.
In a statement released last month, the AFL announced that “for reasons unrelated to league operations, the owners of the San Jose SaberCats have notified [Butera] that they will no longer continue as members of the AFL.”
The wording of the statement, and the league’s shaky history, has raised suspicions that the AFL is spinning an incomplete narrative for the sake of damage control.
Why would the Fry family, which has declined to comment publicly, walk away from their beloved SaberCats for no apparent reason? The family’s passion for the team has never been questioned. As a token of gratitude in championship seasons, ownership bought players and coaches rings as gaudy and diamond-studded as those given to NFL Super Bowl winners. The San Jose SaberCats, under Fry family ownership, have not only fostered the development and culture of arena football, the team also happens to be the most successful professional sports franchise in San Jose sports history.
Founded in 1995, the ’Cats have captured four championships, three conference crowns and 10 division titles while making 16 playoff appearances. The majority of these accolades were collected in front of a rabid fan base. San Jose has never drawn less than 10,000 fans to a home game and more than 2 million people total have attended SaberCats games, according to the statistical website ArenaFan.com.
Ivan F. Soto, executive director of the player’s association, noted in an email how the team has connected with the community.
“There is no way to value the impact they have had on so many of our players and fans’ lives,” Soto said. “They have always valued players as the main product, and that has resonated with players across the league both past and present.”
Rumors have circulated that the Fry family was caught paying players under the table, but Commissioner Butera called those accusations “categorically false” during a phone interview. “Any such event of cheating would immediately go through my office,” he said. “We’ve found no such violations in San Jose.”
The Fry family’s decision to divest from the league seems to have started during the final weeks of the 2015 season, when two AFL franchises, the New Orleans Voodoo and the Las Vegas Outlaws, announced they were folding. Another team, the Spokane Shock, announced it was defecting to the recently formed Indoor Football League.
Owners of the SaberCats and several other teams began discussions about taking the league into bankruptcy, according to a team source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The source also revealed that owners sought to re-negotiate Commissioner Butera’s contract, with the issue of revenue sharing—team’s with larger budgets subsidizing the existence of lower-profit teams—among the biggest complaints.
Butera, who receives annual salary of $1 million, increased the league’s spending by an additional $1 million last season, and another $2 million for the upcoming season—all while the league purportedly generated a paltry $13,000 to $17,000 in endorsement revenue.
Fiscal irresponsibility has been a hallmark of the the AFL. In 2008, just two days before ArenaBowl XXII, league commissioner David Baker unexpectedly resigned. In December of that year, the league announced that the 2009 season would be cancelled entirely. The AFL tried to spin the hiatus as part of “a long-term plan to improve its economic model.” At the time, Sports Business Journal reported that the AFL owed approximately $14 million to its creditors. In August 2009, the league filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Since a relaunch in 2010, the league has struggled to survive. Eleven teams have folded under multiple commissioners, and several incidents have brought embarrassment to the league. Ex-Chicago Rush owner David Staral Jr. was arrested on federal fraud charges late last year, after claiming to have a net worth of $5 million. In fact, prosecutors said, Staral lived in his mother’s basement when he bounced a rent check to the Allstate Arena, which housed Rush games. In 2013, San Antonio Talons owner David Lynd couldn't even afford to pay his mascot, Swoop, and his players faced eviction from their team-supplied apartments.
It’s not difficult to see why the Fry family, or any other owners in the league, would object to a league budget increase. The Frys have a fortune valued at $2.2 billion, according to Forbes, but the commissioner’s decision to increase the budget, a source said, was seen by the Fry family as “financially distasteful” and a sign of “immaturity.” The owners’ decision to sever their relationship with the league was based on league operations, contrary to Butera’s statement, the source said.
“We have a remarkably loyal fan base in the San Jose area and we are working aggressively to secure new ownership for the franchise as soon as possible,” Butera said in a statement. “In the process of rebuilding, there is an evolution that brings change and growth.”
The AFL intends to carry on with the expansion of three teams in the United States and an additional three teams in Mexico, the league revealed last month. The SaberCats have been excluded from league scheduling, but a source said Vivek Ranadive, owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, is considering purchasing the rights to San Jose’s franchise.
Arena football will continue in 2016. But it will do so without its defending champion and the winningest team in the history of the sport.