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 embarrassing."
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 out."
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."