Force was scheduled to play 8 games at arena

After more than a week of denials, the Arena Football League acknowledged what had been more than whispered about constantly over that time.

The league announced the cancellation of the 2009 season for its 16 teams - including the Georgia Force - subject to an agreement and cooperation with the AFL Players Association to work on "developing a long-term plan to improve its economic model," in a statement released Monday.

"Every owner in the AFL is strongly committed to the league, the game and, most importantly, the fans," AFL acting commissioner Ed Policy said in the statement. "Owners, however, recognize that, especially in light of the current unprecedented economic climate, the AFL, as a business enterprise, needs to be restructured if it is to continue to provide its unique brand of this affordable, fan-friendly sport."

The announcement was in stark contrast to one delivered by the league last Wednesday which said the owners had voted not to suspend the season, and means the Arena at Gwinnett Center, where the Force played their home games for the first time since 2004 last season, will be dark for the eight home games the team was supposed to host in 2009.

"We are disappointed that we will not be playing in the 2009 season, but we agree with and support the need for the Arena Football League to take this time to strengthen its financial foundation to ensure long-term success," Force president Dick Sullivan said in a statement released by the team Monday. "We are proud of the achievements of the Georgia Force over the last four seasons of ownership and we hope to field another strong team in 2010."

Signs of trouble had been evident since last summer, when then-commissioner David Baker abruptly resigned just two days before Arena Bowl XXII.

Since then, one team, the New Orleans VooDoo, ceased operations and the dispersal draft to distribute its players to other league teams had been postponed, as had the AFL's free-agency period.

Rumors then began to swirl last week that the future of the league for at least the 2009 season was in jeopardy.

While no Force players could be reached for comment, at least one AFL player with local ties - former Berkmar standout and three-year Columbus Destroyers veteran Harold Wells - said Monday's announcement didn't totally come out of the blue, it was still somewhat surprising.

"(Monday) was kind of a shock for a lot of players," Wells said. "I figured it was probably going to happen when (the league) kept pushing the dispersal draft and free-agency period back. When they do that, that means nobody's getting signed. Without players, you can't have a season. But when everything happened last week, it's still very surprising."

The disappointment of the cancellation of the season was felt throughout management, including Force owner Arthur Blank, also the owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

"As four-year owner of the Georgia Force, I have enjoyed our affiliation with Arena Football," Blank said in the AFL's release. "In addition, our club is very proud of its leadership position in the league in many areas on and off the field. We want that to continue for our fans, so we support the decision to focus our energies on securing the long-term success of the Arena Football League."

Since its inception in 1987, the AFL has carved a niche for itself on the county's sports landscape.

Several of its players have gone on to play in the NFL and several high-profile individuals have been involved in team ownership, including Blank, Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and musician Jon Bon Jovi.

The Force came to metro Atlanta in 2002 relocating from Nashville, Tenn., and have alternated playing at Philips Arena and the Arena at Gwinnett Center ever since, and have had success on the field and off.

The Force have won three division championships in the last four seasons, which included a berth Arena Bowl XIX in 2005.

And while the Force's average attendance of 10,291 last season ranked 15 of 17 teams, it still represented 90.6 percent of the arena's capacity of 11,355.

While officials from both the AFL and the Force are targeting a 2010 return, no specifics as to exactly how or when the team or league may return have been revealed.

That leaves a lot of uncertainty for many, including officials at the arena which will have to fill eight dates reserved for Force games between February and July.

"We love working with the Force," said Julia Karrenbauer, marketing manager for the arena. "The fans fully support them, as do we. Anything we can do to help them so they can be back (in 2010) we'll do.

"I don't know what (the suspension of the 2009 AFL season) means in terms of booking, but we do try to host as many events as possible."