There were menacing glares and vulgar words, the threat of
violence cutting through the climate-controlled air. Anyone who
questioned the intensity within the Arena Football League would
have been swayed by the scene that took place on a November 1995
afternoon in St. Louis, as fierce competitors waged a bitter
battle that would help propel their struggling sport to a new
level of legitimacy. ¬∂ Alas, the action took place not on a
50-yard indoor field but in a hotel conference room, where
contentious team owners berated one another over various issues,
including whether to retain commissioner Jim Drucker. It was an
unsettling introduction for David Baker, the rookie owner of
the Anaheim Piranhas, whose first thought was, What have I
gotten myself into? "It was total chaos," Baker recalls. "Guys
were yelling, screaming, storming out of the room and
threatening to sue each other." After a similarly mean-spirited
meeting the previous year in Orlando, Joe O'Hara, then the
owner of the Mass Mauraders, had floored Drucker with a punch
to the face in a hotel lounge in the Disney World compound.
"Not our finest hour," remembers Arizona Rattlers vice president
Gene Nudo, who witnessed the blow. "To have a guy flattened in
the place where every kid goes to have a good time was
Fourteen months later in St. Louis, with Drucker's head
figuratively on the chopping block this time, it was Baker, a
former politician, who found himself holding the swing vote. He
stood up and declared, "I think what we need here is some
stability--and some civility." Drucker would serve out the final
year of his term, and without knowing it Baker had made an
indelible impression. He left the meeting early to fulfill a
speaking commitment, only to learn later that his fellow owners
had elected him chairman of the board. The next year, after
Drucker chose not to accept a contract extension, the owners
turned to Baker, a massive man with even bigger ideas.
Who says size doesn't matter? The Arena League may not approach
the NFL in profits and popularity, but it does boast a
commissioner who makes Paul Tagliabue look like a wet piece of
tagliatelle. With his booming voice and mammoth frame--6'9" and,
thanks to a recent diet, he says, "a few cupcakes shy of 400
pounds"--Baker had little trouble restoring order. Gazing up at
Baker shortly after his ascent to the commissioner's post, a
longtime corporate sponsor remarked, "Nobody's going to punch you
Six and a half years later, as the AFL continues its
counterintuitive run of success in a depressed economy--average
attendance for the recently completed regular season was 11,397,
up 15% from 2002 and 25% from 2001--owners are more likely to
drop to their knees and kiss Baker's hand. The 17-year-old league
has credibility (no fewer than 10 owners of other major pro
sports franchises own or hold interests in Arena teams), exposure
(a TV deal with NBC and teams in eight of the top 10 U.S.
markets) and stability (a collective bargaining agreement with
its players' association that lasts through 2010). AFL
franchises, which cost less than $400,000 when Baker became
commissioner, sold for $12 million last year.
"Only a unique individual could have taken us from there to here,
especially with so many people hoping he'd fail," says Los
Angeles Avengers owner Casey Wasserman. "When you don't have a
Michael Vick to be the face of the league, it's huge to have
someone like Dave Baker who can be your focal point." Dallas
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says Baker, who persuaded him to buy
the expansion Dallas Desperados in 2000, "is probably the most
significant reason I feel good about our future in the AFL."
Interview the 50-year-old Baker at the league's New York offices,
and he spends the first hour giving you a Power Point
presentation on the AFL's virtues while sitting in what he calls
the Arena, a conference room made to look like a miniature
playing field complete with artificial turf. Turn him loose at a
game, such as the May 17 regular-season-ending showdown between
the visiting Avengers and the defending AFL champion San Jose
SaberCats, and he becomes a sponsor-schmoozing, fan-soliciting,
baby-kissing dynamo. "Don't you love this?" Baker says over the
din of Steppenwolf's Born to Be Wild as the SaberCats'
cheerleaders are driven onto the field by 16 bikers on their
choppers. "I love my two sons more than anything in the world,
and I look at the AFL almost as a third child."
Baker has fortified the league through astute business practices
and the sheer force of his personality. "He's made Arena Football
meaningful," says Rick Burton, who runs the University of
Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "There was a time when
off-stream sports would not receive any coverage, but the Arena
League has seeped into the national consciousness. They've got a
fast-paced game with lots of scoring, crazy tackling and balls
bouncing off the net, and ticket prices are affordable. What's
not to like?" Baker's ability to draw in NFL owners such as
Jones, the Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder and the Detroit
Lions' William Clay Ford helped rid the AFL of its renegade
element, as coats and ties replaced shorts and Hawaiian shirts at
league meetings. "I hate to say it," says Ramune Ambrozaitis, the
SaberCats' managing general partner, "but our meetings have been
very boring since Dave took over."
Corny as it may sound, Baker begins each meeting by reciting the
AFL mission statement that adorns the back of each league
employee's business card. The statement reads, in part, that the
league will strive "to serve our community with pride and passion
as a quality example of individual and team excellence on the
field, in the office, at the arena and within the community."
"Our goal is to be the most fan-friendly league in the world, and
that's not totally altruistic," Baker says. "Anyone who's good at
business will tell you that pleasing the customer also benefits
you as a company. [But sports is sometimes perceived as] a bunch
of greedy owners employing a bunch of spoiled, wealthy athletes,
and the fan should be happy just to be in the building."
He may be the face of the Arena League, but to a stoic security
guard in the post-9/11 era, Baker is just another dude without a
credential. "I don't care who you are," the guard outside San
Jose's HP Pavilion says, staring eye-to-chest at Baker. "You
can't get in here." Baker shrugs and walks back toward the
parking lot. Having surrendered his credential to longtime
girlfriend Colleen Hall, who has gone back to the couple's hotel
room to retrieve their forgotten tickets, Baker can only laugh
when reminded, "You know Tags doesn't have to put up with this."
Then again, as Baker readily points out, Tagliabue, with whom he
is friendly, probably isn't as comfortable roaming the nosebleed
sections and having his picture taken with kids on his shoulders.
Baker feels no sense of entitlement. His father, Carl, worked for
32 years in a lumber mill, and his mother, Beuna, was a caregiver
for foster children. Growing up in Downey, Calif., a blue-collar
suburb of L.A., Baker adopted conservative values that belied the
tumultuous times. As student body president of Warren High in
1970, he sponsored a Support America Week, for which he was
honored by the Freedoms Foundation. Yet on certain issues Baker
was more open-minded than his father, who hailed from Possum
Trot, Miss. After accepting a basketball scholarship to UC
Irvine, Baker invited an African-American teammate to have dinner
at his parents' house, and the two drove up in the big center's
baby-blue convertible Volkswagen Beetle. "We got to the front
door," Baker recalls, "and my dad wouldn't let him in. I cried
that night, a lot."
At 30, after a stint as a real estate lawyer, Baker became the
youngest mayor in Irvine's history and was working his way up the
Republican Party food chain. He ran for Congress in 1988, and a
hard-fought primary campaign culminated in a messy fiscal scandal
that changed his life. "There was a lot of mudslinging," Baker
says, "and I got caught up in it and made some mistakes. I needed
cash to counter an attack, and I wrote a check from an account
that wasn't mine, knowing I had money coming in the next day. It
may have cost me the election, but it taught me a lot about
Shortly thereafter Baker and his wife of 13 years, Patty,
divorced, though the two have remained on good terms. Their boys
became accomplished offensive linemen--Ben, 20, played one year
at Duke before leaving school to work at the AFL's headquarters,
and Sam, 17, will attend USC on a scholarship this fall--and
Baker, even after taking the AFL job, resolved to be at every one
of their games.
Though air travel is a dicey proposition for Baker--"For one
thing, I don't fit well in those bathrooms," he says. "And I'm
afraid of flying, period"--he considers the skies to be
fan-friendly. He inevitably bonds with passengers and crew
members and invites them to Arena League games; in fact, his
greatest asset may be his ability to connect with an audience.
"He's a great salesman, and he totally believes in what he's
selling," says Colorado Crush president and CEO John Elway, the
former NFL great. "He's one of those guys who you can talk to for
half an hour and you feel like you've known him for 10 years."
Yet for all his amiable crusading, Baker has been known to play
the schoolyard bully. When talks over the formation of a players'
union stalled in 2000, Baker threatened to shut down the season.
And in his continual efforts to make the league strong from top
to bottom he has disbanded or relocated seven franchises since
the end of the 2001 season. (At that time there were 19 AFL
teams; now there are 16.) After last season the New Jersey
franchise was moved to Las Vegas, the Toronto team was folded and
the Crush--Baker had recruited Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen
and Stan Kroenke, owner of the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver
Nuggets, to buy a team--joined the league as an expansion club.
Despite a 2-14 record in its inaugural season, the Crush sold out
all eight home games, averaging 17,434 at the Pepsi Center.
However, while the TV deal with NBC is creative (the network pays
no rights fees to broadcast the games, and the two parties split
the TV advertising revenue down the middle after production and
league expenses are paid), the ratings haven't been as high as
either side had hoped. For the regular season the average rating
was 1.1, down from 1.6 for games over the first four weeks.
"That's a modest start in terms of ratings," Baker says, "but we
hope to do the opposite of what the XFL did and increase them
As the Arena League moves into major-market mode--only the Grand
Rapids franchise, which had average home attendance of 9,675 in
2003, remains as a link to the league's small-city heritage--the
offshoot AFL2 is filling the gap, with 28 mostly lesser-market
teams. "There are 148 minor league hockey teams in the U.S.,"
Baker says, "and we think someday there could be more than 100
Arena2 teams." Baker's also thinking global: Last September the
AFL conducted a Pacific Rim tryout camp in Australia, and he
envisions franchises in Europe, Mexico and Asia. "We have an
opportunity," he says, "to have the first worldwide league."
But will Baker be around to enjoy it? His contract expires in
December, and he hints that he may walk away, saying, "My son
will be at USC, and I want to see him play every week. New York
is a great place to work, but I also think that Southern
California is the greatest place to live. I hope this isn't my
last job. But what does a guy do after being commissioner?"
Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president who serves as a
broadcasting consultant to the AFL, has an idea. "I don't want to
create a groundswell," Pilson says, "but down the road he might
have the opportunity to be the commissioner of a larger, more
successful American sport." Jones, the Dallas owner, agrees,
saying, "Put it this way: He's as qualified an individual as I've
seen in sports. He's that good."
For now, Baker relishes his role as the common man's commish.
Working the nosebleed seats during the third quarter of the
Avengers-SaberCats game, Baker signed a few autographs and
chatted up a tattooed season-ticket holder before venturing out
to the concession area. Spotting an eight-year-old boy in a San
Jose jersey, Baker broke into a wide grin. "As commissioner, I'm
in a weird position," he said. "I work for the owners, but
sometimes, when I discipline them, they might think they work for
me. But do you see that kid right there? That's who we're all
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE PRICE HIKE The value of AFL teams has soared to $12 million under Baker, who says he's "a few cupcakes shy of 400 pounds."
B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF UC IRVINE FAN FRIENDLY A basketball player at UC Irvine in the early 1970s, Baker still likes to get in on the action.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WOLTMANN CATCHING ON For smaller markets like Peoria, Ill., Baker founded AFL2, a 28-team league he hopes to grow to 100.
"I love my two sons more than anything, and I LOOK AT THE AFL
almost as a third child," Baker says.
"They've got a fast-paced game with lots of scoring, and ticket
prices are affordable. WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE?"