ATLANTIC CITY — Barring an unexpected development, a professional football franchise is coming to the city this spring.
Officials have tentatively scheduled a news conference for Jan. 22 at a site to be determined to announce that the Arena Football League will place an expansion franchise at Boardwalk Hall that will begin its inaugural season in April.
“To put it in football parlance, we’ve driven 99 yards and we’re first-and-goal from the 1-yard line,” Ron Jaworski, chairman of the AFL’s executive committee, said late Wednesday in a phone interview. “It’s going to happen, and I’m absolutely thrilled. The people of Atlantic City and South Jersey deserve it.
“I can’t say enough about the overwhelming support we’ve received from the City, the CRDA (Casino Reinvestment Development Authority), the casino industry and the people. Everyone’s been behind this 100 percent.”
Jaworski, a former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who owns Blue Heron Pines Golf Club in Galloway Township, is also a majority owner of the Arena League’s Philadelphia Soul. He staged an Arena League game at Boardwalk Hall in May 2015, when an announced crowd of 6,514 watched the Soul post a 51-43 victory over the now-defunct Las Vegas Outlaws in the short-lived DraftKings Boardwalk Bowl game.
Jaworski, 67, was also responsible for initially bringing the Philadelphia-based Maxwell Football Club to Atlantic City. It will hold its banquet in town for the 16th straight year March 8 at Tropicana Atlantic City.
“This is great news,” City Council President Marty Small said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Atlantic City is always looking for ways to appeal to residents and visitors with new and different amenities, and this definitely fits. I’m for anything that will bring family-oriented entertainment here.”
Sports betting is one of the reasons Atlantic City was selected for an expansion franchise. Seven casinos now have sports books on their properties. DraftKings, which has a partnership with the Arena League, operates one at Resorts Casino Hotel. It also launched the state’s first online and mobile betting platforms Aug. 1.
Fans are expected to be able to bet on games and even in-game action at Boardwalk Hall.
“It’s not hard to imagine in the near future fans on their devices analyzing data, placing bets and communicating with each other in real time during games,” Ted Leonsis, owner of the AFL’s Baltimore Brigade and Washington Valor, wrote on his blog in August. “Legalized sports betting will only bring fans closer to the game, ramping up the action in each minute and creating more intensity.”
Atlantic City will be the fifth active franchise in the Arena League, joining the Soul, Brigade, Valor and Albany (New York) Empire. One franchise, the Cleveland Gladiators, is on hiatus while its arena undergoes renovations. Another, the Tampa Bay Storm, has folded.
Other teams are expected to be added in the coming weeks and years.
The Arena League team in Atlantic City — the name of the team will be chosen by fans in a contest — will try to succeed in a market where other professional sports teams have failed. It will be the fifth professional sports franchise to come to Atlantic City in the past 20 years. None of the previous four are still here.
The Surf played from 1998-2008 in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (1998-2006) and Can-Am League (2007-08). It won the inaugural Atlantic League championship in 1998 and hosted the league’s All-Star game at the former Sandcastle that year. It folded before the 2009 season.
The Boardwalk Bullies of the East Coast Hockey League played at Boardwalk Hall for five seasons (2001-05), but despite winning the Kelly Cup in 2003 failed to draw enough fans to stay. The franchise relocated to Stockton, California.
The Seagulls won three titles in the now defunct United States Basketball League during its six-year tenure (1996-2001) while playing at Atlantic City High School, Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom and finally at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing. In 2001, it became the first USBL team to go winless (0-28) in a season and disbanded.
There was even an indoor football team in town 14 years ago. In 2004, the Atlantic City Cardsharks of the old National Indoor Football League played at Boardwalk Hall.
Small, a former standout basketball player for Atlantic City High School and Stockton University, was a member of the Seagulls team that won the USBL title in 1998.
“Being with the Seagulls, I’m well aware of the struggles that come with trying to make it as a professional team in the city,” Small said. “I’m hoping the Arena League team can make it.”