If you think Ron Jaworski is bothered by a four-team Arena Football League, think again.

The longtime former Eagles quarterback, who has owned a piece of the Soul since their 2004 inception, is a self-proclaimed football junkie. Nearly three decades removed from his last NFL snap, Jaworski, 67, can't get away from the game that made him a Philadelphia sports icon.

"I'm a football whack-job," Jaworski said. "I love the game of football."

In 13 seasons, the Soul have grown from an expansion team to the AFL's flagship franchise. With back-to-back ArenaBowl titles, Jaws' team is a model for success.

The Soul are, however, the only remaining team from a league of 12 just three years ago.

‘People like us’

The AFL began play in 1987 with just four teams: Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington. Five years later, the league stretched from coast to coast, adding new teams from Charlotte to Sacramento and reaching double-digit sides for the first time. Except for 2009, when the league filed for bankruptcy and shut its doors for a season, the AFL maintained its national footprint.

After the 2015 season, though, three teams folded and another left the league, cutting the AFL by a third. The next year, five more teams departed. And after last season, the Cleveland franchise temporarily suspended operations.

If not for expansion franchises in Washington and Baltimore, both led by Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, it might have been a swift end for the AFL.

Jaworski, though, does not see the end. In fact, he sees the current four-team league as a train nearing a light at the end of its tunnel.

"We've lasted 31 years and to a certain degree, ownership has tried to screw the game up. I'm being blatantly honest with you," he said. "There have been some owners in this league that should not have been Arena Football League owners.

"We want people [owners] like us. We want people that love the game, [that] when we're not making money, we can write a check and keep moving forward."

Soul ownership partner Dick Vermeil and majority owner Ron Jaworski celebrating after the Soul beat the Tampa Bay Storm to win the ArenaBowl championship at the Wells Fargo Center last August.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Soul ownership partner Dick Vermeil and majority owner Ron Jaworski celebrating after the Soul beat the Tampa Bay Storm to win the ArenaBowl championship at the Wells Fargo Center last August.

Part of that process has already begun in upstate New York.

The entire Philadelphia ownership, including Jaworski and Soul president John Adams, partnered with newspaper mogul George Hearst III to launch the Albany Empire. Through eight weeks of their inaugural campaign, the Empire are second, to Baltimore, in the AFL standings at 5-3. With an average attendance of 9,657, the Empire are just about even with the Soul (9,710) and well ahead of the league's other two teams — Washington at 6,982 and Baltimore at 5,005.

"Our challenge is to rebuild league revenues because, at the moment, we need to generate a lot more in terms of national sponsors," commissioner Randall Boe said. "Philadelphia has done consistently well [with ticket sales], Baltimore and Washington are relatively new teams, so we're working to build up a fan base, and then Albany has done fantastic. They really have hit it out of the park up there and managed to build a pretty enthusiastic fan base."

All-around success in Albany has challenged the theories of league executives. Instead of forcing the league into major markets, mid-market cities might be just the niche the AFL needs to be financially viable.

Although players this season will make an average of about $30,000 to $35,000, there still are prohibitive costs to running a professional sports franchise.

"There's more than one way to be successful," Adams said. "It's about looking at the market from a 360 perspective and not pigeon-holing yourself into the market's not big enough, or the market doesn't have this or that."

On the cutting edge

The AFL should be back to double-digit teams within the next three years. Or at least that's the plan.

To get there, the league brought in Boe, a lawyer and longtime friend of Leonsis dating to their days with America Online in the mid-1990s, as the league's commissioner in March.

Boe says that 12 to 15 cities have expressed interest in adding an AFL expansion franchise, and he believes the legalization of sports betting will give the league the financial wherewithal to make that happen.

In April, the AFL partnered with DraftKings, as well as technology giant SportRadar and Vegas Sports and Information. Although no specific deal has been negotiated yet, the league expects to receive a portion of the gaming revenues.

John Law (88) of the Washington Valor pushes the Soul’s Jera Richardson into the boards.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
John Law (88) of the Washington Valor pushes the Soul’s Jera Richardson into the boards.

"Innovation is what the Arena Football League will be about," Jaworski said. "We'll be a petri dish for any innovative technology that people want to bring to us."

The league's current television deal with CBS Sports Network expires and the AFL plans to explore several options to expand its broadcasting reach. Jaworski hinted at several streaming-only possibilities, such as Google, Twitter, and YouTube, all of which would get AFL games in front of more eyeballs.

Everything from multi-camera broadcasting options to helmet cams to in-game gambling are among the more radical ideas under consideration.

And if top pro leagues such as the NBA and NFL eventually follow suit, Boe feels that's a good thing.

"I'm a big believer in the first-mover advantage," he said. "If we're successful, I'd expect for people to imitate us — that's what always happens. But we have the opportunity and we are aggressively pursuing the opportunity to build this into something that is unlike any other sports platform in the country."

From the top down

Before 2012, Soul coach Clint Dolezel had never stayed in one place for more than three seasons — an AFL journeyman, the former Division II quarterback at East Texas State played 13 seasons with five franchises before coaching three indoor teams from 2009-11.

The Texas native finally stuck with the Soul and credits Jaworski for helping make Philadelphia home.

"It starts with ownership. They do a good job taking care of the coaches, the players. They do it first-class all the way around," Dolezel said. "They don't mess with me too much as far as on-the-field, off-the-field stuff. It's just, 'What do you need? And here's what it takes to win.' "

Dolezel's Soul teams haven't missed the playoffs. They have made three trips to the ArenaBowl and won it twice, and just once have they failed to advance to the conference championship game.

"We don't just give winning lip service," Jaworski said. "Everyone that comes into our organization understands that. We don't want to be good. We want to be great."

Everyone recognizes Jaworski's passion for the AFL. Even though he has invested in everything from an American football league in India to seven golf courses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, this team is both his heart and, well, his soul.

"I love the game, I love being around the players — it keeps me young to a certain degree," he said. "I always get back to the foundation. It's football, and people love football."