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KISS puts on a great show, if you don't count the football

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KISS is still KISS, but as time goes by football will have to be as good as the entertainment

Above each goalpost, a cheerleader dances in a cage suspended from the ceiling. Below, motorcycles race onto a field of gray turf, revving engines between pyrotechnic flames. Behind one end zone a live band plays.

And in the midst of all this, the LA KISS is getting ready to play football.

Not particularly good football, mind you. The team has a record of 3-13 in its inaugural season and has lost 11 of its last 12 games while getting outscored by an average of 18 points.

Yet, the KISS isn't being judged entirely by wins and losses. Team executives say this first season has been about establishing the KISS brand in the Arena Football League, and combining other forms of entertainment with football in the same arena.

"Vince Lombardi would criticize us if they saw what we were doing," co-owner Brett Bouchy says. "He would say it's too much of a distraction from the game."

With the KISS performing as it is, there's nothing wrong with a distraction — or 10.

Besides the band, cheerleaders and Harleys, the KISS has experimented with things such as lowering players from the ceiling during pregame introductions and encouraging its players and ushers to dance on the field during breaks in the action. As long as it's family friendly, it's on the table.

"Our games last about 2 hours and 40 minutes, and you need to be entertained the entire time," Bouchy says. "In our sport, there's about 40 minutes of game action. Why shouldn't a fan be entertained for those other two hours?"

If home attendance is an indicator, the KISS is building a fan base despite its on-field struggles. Even with the third-worst record in the league, the KISS is second in attendance, averaging almost 11,000 per game. The KISS is the only team in the league to have drawn at least 10,000 to every home game.

Of course, it helps that the KISS can build off the brand started by two members of the band KISS, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, who are hands-on co-owners of the team.

"Fans are more attached to the brand of KISS and the brand of the LA KISS, and I think we've delivered to them," team President Schuyler Hoversten says. "Now it's on us to try and figure out the missing ingredient, which is the football team."

Oh, yeah. That.

One big reason the football hasn't measured up is that the team has been beset by injuries. On a 21-man roster, the KISS has shuffled more than 70 players through the lineup. Bouchy spent 16 years with the AFL's Orlando Predators before joining the KISS ownership group, and he's seen double the injuries this season as he did in any with Orlando.

Another issue is that the KISS was formed last August, after many free agents had been locked up by other teams for this season. The KISS brought in a big name after the season started, trading for AFL legend Aaron Garcia — arguably the best quarterback in league history — but the experiment failed. The 18-year veteran has completed just 53% of his passes and has 26 touchdowns with 17 interceptions. A top AFL quarterback such as the Arizona Rattlers' Nick Davila has completed 68% of his throws for 114 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

Still, there are positives. Defensive end Beau Bell was on pace to set an AFL single-season sack record before he was injured two games ago. Wide receiver Donovan Morgan is third in the league with 126 receptions. Backup Kenny Guiton, the athletic Ohio State product, has shown flashes of becoming the KISS quarterback of the future.

Those are good building blocks, but KISS fans can expect a major roster overhaul before next season as the team works to bring more established players into the league's biggest market. A new reality show called "Fourth and Loud" that debuts Aug. 12 on AMC should provide an additional boost.

The show will examine the KISS' first season, from profiling players who made the team to chronicling the ups and downs they experience on and off the field. Bouchy says the show is the kind of high-profile opportunity that rarely happens for an AFL team.

Because the KISS is an expansion franchise, and because of the entertainment aspect, fans seems to be willing to be patient. An established AFL franchise wouldn't be drawing more than 10,000 fans per game in the midst of such a poor season.

Brian Fox, a member of the LA KISS Army, the team's fan club, said he comes to games for the football but the season has gone the way he expected. "With any sport in the first year, the attendance will always initially be up. It's the second and third year where the football begins to matter," he says.

"I understand what KISS is doing, they are getting fans who like the band. I think we are going to lose some people next year who don't like the football part — it's not like Gene and Paul are performing every game. But at the same time, there's a lot of people who haven't seen AFL and went for KISS, and they got hooked."

At halftime of recent 75-34 drubbing by the San Jose Sabercats, Hoversten noted a long line for season tickets. He says more than 1,200 of the team's 8,000 season tickets have already been renewed.

The team also hasn't given up on this year. On Saturday, in their final home game of the regular season, the KISS play the 1-15 San Antonio Talons with a chance to make the playoffs.

Four of the six teams in the AFL's National Conference qualify for the postseason, and because of how bad their division is, the KISS is still in the playoff hunt with two games to play. They need two wins plus a pair of losses by the Portland Thunder.

Team executives have their fingers crossed because even with a team trotting out other forms of entertainment, they know fans won't wait around forever.

"Everything worked," Hoversten says. "The one thing that didn't is our football team, and that's one thing we really need to change. Nobody wants to watch a team lose week after week."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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