Phil Sheridan | A fact of sports life: Soul are a hard sell

Posted: June 22, 2007

With a little help, there could actually be a 2007 playoff game in the poor, neglected Wachovia Center.

If you're not feeling that the Soul can atone for the 76ers and Flyers, well, that's kind of the way things are. An arena has a ceiling, and the local Arena Football League team seems to have bumped up against it.

On the drive to the game yesterday, there was radio silence about the Soul's regular-season finale against the Orlando Predators. No one seemed to know or care that wide receiver T.T. Toliver - the Arena League's answer to T.O., kicked off Tampa Bay only to sign with Orlando - would be in town.

There were lines of fans waiting for the doors to open. But, the announced attendance of 17,643 notwithstanding, at least half the seats were empty.

This isn't meant as a criticism. There isn't much the Soul could have done differently or better to capture the hearts of sports fans here. The franchise still has the sparkle of co-owner Jon Bon Jovi and the credibility that comes with Ron Jaworski's affiliation. A game is still a nice value for a family outing, especially compared with the ever-rising prices charged by the four major sports.

It's not a bad niche to fill, but that's what it is. A niche.

This was as good a chance as the Soul had ever had to gain serious ground in this market. The Flyers and Sixers not only failed to make the playoffs, leaving a giant void, but they both traded away their best players during the season. NHL and NBA TV ratings are down, and most of the playoff talk was about how boring the tournaments were.

The Soul began their season on March 9, perfect timing for filling that void. They started 4-0; then, two games later, quarterback Tony Graziani got hurt. The team went through its version of the Mike McMahon era until Graziani came back. With last night's win, the Soul got back to 8-8, with a chance to host a playoff game.

That would be a first for the four-year-old Soul.

If the Arena League can't steal fans in this climate, then it's probably not going to happen. After four years of declining ratings on NBC, the AFL debuted on ESPN this year. According to the Nielsen ratings, the average AFL broadcast is seen by about 300,000 viewers this year, compared to 1.2 million last year.

So it's not the Soul. It may not even be the league. The reality is that, except for the all-powerful NFL, TV sports ratings are trending downward across the board.

Maybe the deeper message is that you can't force things on people. ESPN bought a share of the AFL, then used all of its "platforms" to expose its new toy. That meant more AFL highlights on SportsCenter, AFL games on ESPN Classic and, of course, games on ESPN2.

A few months after the AFL debuted, ESPN suddenly started treating mixed martial arts like a major sport. Does UFC build a fan base, draw the attention of the networks and mainstream publications like Sports Illustrated, and earn coverage organically? Or do a bunch of suits in a boardroom, desperate for fresh ways to attract eyeballs, decide to create an artificial buzz about something?

You suspect that the first way works, but that the second way is more common. Consider televised poker. It went from inexpensive time-filler to legitimate phenomenon, and this is coming from someone who would rather weed the backyard than watch people play cards on TV.

Actually, I'd rather watch people weed their backyards than play cards on TV. The point is, people know when something is being pushed on them and, like little kids forced to eat spinach, they resist.

Case in point: soccer.

Interest in a sport can't be faked or forced. It comes from the people, not from network execs.

When Bon Jovi and his group brought the Arena League to Philadelphia four years ago, the question was how many people would embrace the new team and new sport.

The answer is in: enough to fill a niche, but not to challenge the Flyers or Sixers.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

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