A commanding presence

Arena Football League Commissioner C. David Baker with Pepperdine University Vice Chancellor Ronald Phillips.

Arena Football League Commissioner C. David Baker talks about the league in a trip to the Pepperdine School of Law; says league is “growing like crazy.”

By Kevin Connelly/Special to The Malibu Times

Minutes before a meeting Thursday at Pepperdine University, to break the ice, Arena Football League Commissioner C. David Baker cracked a self-deprecating joke with reporters regarding his size.

“I hope this elevator doesn’t have a weight limit,” the prodigious man quipped.

The joke was well received, but the 51-year-old commissioner could have held his breath. He had them at hello.

At 6-foot, 9-inches tall, Baker’s presence alone commands attention. With the stature of a power forward in the National Basketball Association and the frame of an offensive lineman in the National Football League, he is not exactly inconspicuous. Fortunately, for the AFL, neither is his presence as commissioner.

When he isn’t rendering members of the media as Lilliputians in elevators, the father of two is busy attempting to elevate the status of the AFL in the country’s sporting consciousness.

“Baseball will always be America’s pastime, but football is America’s passion,” Baker said. “The AFL is a different form of football [than the NFL] in many respects. It is a different kind of football. It is high scoring, heart-stopping, helmet-popping action.

“I find it difficult to get my sons [21-year-old Benjamin and 19-year-old Sam] to go to a baseball game,” he continued. “They find it long and slow. They come from a video game world. Arena League football is really close, hard-hitting, video game football. These are great athletes playing offense, defense and special teams.”

The commissioner is not embellishing the truth when he says the AFL and the NFL are different entities. There are scores of rules that differentiate the two sports. For one, the AFL requires its athletes, excepting the kicker and the quarterback, to play offense, defense and special teams. The AFL also fields eight players at a time on each side of the ball as opposed to 11 in the NFL.

Even the dimensions of the fields are different-whereas the NFL plays on a 100-yard-long field with 10-yard end zones, the AFL uses a 50-yard-long field with 8-yard end zones. With such a smaller field, scoring in the AFL is dramatically higher than in the NFL. It is not uncommon for a team to score 50 points in an AFL game, a true rarity in the NFL.

Following one season as chairman of the AFL’s Board of Directors, Baker was named the league’s fourth commissioner in November 1996. As commissioner, Baker drafted the AFL’s first-ever Mission Statement as well as a Fan’s Bill of Rights. Amongst various other decrees, the Fan’s Bill of Rights promises a “wholesome” and “affordable” game to its fans.

Under Baker, the AFL has expanded from a league of 14 to 17 teams, team values have increased from $400,000 to $16 million, a developmental league has been created called arenafootball2 and a network television agreement has been made with NBC Sports.

“There is no doubt that [the AFL] is the fastest growing league in sport out there right now,” Baker said. “We are about to announce our eighth expansion team since 9-11. We’ve been growing like crazy so there are a lot of people coming to it.”

In March of 2002, NBC Sports and the AFL announced a broadcast partnership. Beginning in 2003, NBC has televised AFL regular-season games every Sunday along with every postseason game and the Arena Bowl finale.

In 2004, the AFL set an all-time record with 1,920,405 total fans. The average attendance in the league is up 31 percent since 2001 to 12,024 per game. Baker said he believes these numbers will continue to increase. With his successful track record, it is hard to argue with the man.

After a brief stint as a professional basketball player in Europe, Baker attended Pepperdine School of Law. He graduated with honors from Pepperdine and also served as editor-in-chief of the Law Review. He did his undergraduate work at the University of California at Irvine from 1971-1975 and is also a former mayor of Irvine.

“I really feel like I got a great education here,” he said, referring to the Pepperdine School of Law. “It’s not a requirement that you have to be a lawyer to be a commissioner of a professional sports league, but it sure helps. I deal with so much law every day in what I do.”

The AFL is in its fifth week this season and the L.A. team, the Avengers, is currently 3-2.

“It is a different kind of football.

It is high scoring, heart-stopping,