TAMPA — The Arena Football League has dubbed its upcoming 25th anniversary season "The Year of the Fan."
So far, it's falling well short of the slogan.
The AFL Players Union called for a strike Friday night, just hours before the Pittsburgh at Orlando season opener. AFLPU executive director Ivan Soto tweeted about two hours before kickoff: "The AFLPU is on strike. All teams playing this weekend are on strike!"
Pittsburgh and Orlando had replacement players ready to go in the event of a strike.
How the strike will affect the Tampa Bay Storm's opener tonight at Chicago is unclear. The team participated in a walkthrough Friday morning, then flew to Chicago. Coach Dave Ewart said he was preparing the same way, regardless of who was in uniform.
"I'm ready to coach some football and get prepared to play some football," he said. "We will be ready."
Storm vice president of football operations Jeff Gooch didn't say whether the Storm had replacements on standby, but he said the game will be played, even if the players strike.
"We will have enough to play, and the game will go on," he said. "We will have enough to fill the field."
Storm linebacker/fullback Eric Ortiz said he doesn't know whether the Storm players will suit up tonight.
"As of right now, I'm not really sure," he said. "We haven't made that decision."
Ortiz said players have been in contact with the union.
"They've been talking to us, and we're just trying to figure the whole thing out and do what's best," he said. "We just want what's fair.
Negotiations have been ongoing between the players union and the AFL since December, but they broke down this week.
Most players make $400 per week. The union was seeking an increase.
In an open letter to fans on the AFLPU website, the union proposed a "wage increase (that) equates to about $850 per player per week." According to multiple reports, the AFL has countered with an increase to $500.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, the Power released its entire 24-man roster before kickoff in Orlando after the strike was announced. A handful of Power players crossed the picket line and suited up against the Predators. The game had a mix of roster players and replacements.
Pittsburgh owner Matt Shaner told the newspaper that players who did not re-sign would not be on the team flight back to Pittsburgh and would be responsible for their own travel expenses.
"The players were released," he said. "Neither the team nor the Arena Football League have any travel obligations to them."
It was an inauspicious beginning to what was supposed to be a celebratory season. Only the few players who crossed the picket lines had names on the back of their jerseys Friday night, and the NFL Network announcers didn't initially have rosters to identify players to the television audience.