After a one-year hiatus, the Tampa Bay Storm appears to have picked up right where it left off. The five-time Arena Football League champions are in contention for another title under the newly organized Arena Football One.
Not much has changed for local fans of the indoor sport, in which the same size players line up on turf the size of a hockey rink and the 25-yard line is midfield. Team colors, logos and uniforms are the same as before, and a few veterans are back on the new roster.
Yet the Storm has its share of detractors, and not just those favoring its nearest rival, the Orlando Predators. A former team owner has filed a lawsuit claiming the current version isn't the genuine article he paid for prior to the AFL's bankruptcy and subsequent reorganization last year.
Pigskin LLC, owned by Tampa orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert Nucci, accuses former Storm owner Peter “Woody” Kern and current head coach Tim Marcum of withholding information about the league's shaky financial status prior to selling the franchise to him in November 2007. Nucci paid $9.6 million of an agreed-upon $18.9 million price, but now he wants a refund along with millions in damages.
Nucci was the Storm's majority owner for only a year before the AFL decided in December 2008 to cancel the following season. The league filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2009, later converting to Chapter 11, then reorganized late last year after selling rights and assets to Arena Football One for $6.1 million.
Nucci also names the AFL among the defendants in the lawsuit, along with the current ownership group Tampa Bay Storm Partners LLC. The group includes team president Todd Boren and partners Michael O'Quinn, Steven Jones and Robert Dixon.
In the lawsuit filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court on June 25, hours before kickoff of a Storm game at the St. Pete Times Forum, Nucci alleges Kern was aware that the AFL was laboring under $24 million debt at the time they negotiated their transaction. He describes Kern, who owned the Storm the previous 14 years, as an “archetypical insider” of the league.
Furthermore, Nucci calls out Marcum in the complaint as, besides being close to Kern, having been involved in the AFL since its 1987 inception. Marcum led the Storm for the previous 14 seasons and posted his 200th win in May.
Beyond local meetings with Kern and Marcum, Nucci also met with AFL senior executives and other team owners. At no time did any of them provide Nucci any information that would have allowed him to make a sound investment decision, according to his attorney, Steven Burton of Broad and Cassel in Tampa.
“No one ever disclosed the massive financial difficulties the league was then experiencing, nor did they disclose the league's intent to change its financial model to a single entity league,” Burton stated in the lawsuit. “To the contrary, they went to great extent to conceal it.”
Nucci's lawsuit refers to the current Storm as “counterfeit” and calls the AFL “little more than a disguised Ponzi scheme” that was never profitable and depended on money from expansion teams. He previously had a four-year payment plan to buy the Storm outright in a league-brokered deal, he contends.
Marcum, Kern and current Storm ownership have all declined comment on Nucci's lawsuit. The defendants have 15 business days from the date of filing to respond and will likely use all of its time on the clock.
Meanwhile on the field, the Storm leads its conference with an 10-3 record and three games remaining in its regular season, putting it in solid contention for the AFL playoffs. Two rounds of weekend games will be played prior to the Aug. 20 ArenaBowl, which will be hosted by the team with the most dominant record.
“We're off to a good start,” says Jim Robinson, the Storm's director of media relations. He adds that the team receives similar press coverage as in past seasons, with games televised locally on the Bright House cable system and nationwide on NFL Network. (The National Football League was a prior investor in the AFL.)
Robinson notes that attendance at Storm games this year is comparable to where it was in the 2008 season, at around 16,000 per game. That includes Friday and Saturday nights when games at the Forum have gone up against Tampa Bay Rays baseball games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.