Arena Football League Begins 20th Season

From the Associated Press

The Arena Football League is undeniably quirky. And quite popular.

The AFL enters its 20th season, quite a milestone for something many wrote off as a fad when kicks first started bouncing off nets back into play, and football was stuffed inside basketball and hockey arenas.

The AFL is no longer a novelty. And as much as football fundamentalists may hate it, it's not going away.

"Before, maybe one out of 10 knew what the AFL was. Now, maybe one out of 10 doesn't know," said David Baker, now in his 10th season as AFL commissioner.

From a fledgling four-team league that added some intrigue to the 1987 summer cable TV lineup, the AFL is at 18 teams with plans to grow; has a development league in smaller markets; and network television deals with NBC and Fox Sports Net.

Turns out adding a few twists to the old game was a hit.

While the USFL and ill-fated XFL couldn't develop enough interest in football after the Super Bowl to survive, the indoor game has thrived. Cutting the field in half, collisions at the padded walls along the sideline, and the live-ball rebounds off the end zone nets make the game different enough to attract people inside to watch it.

"We are not a minor league of the NFL. It's a different game with different skills and different types of players," said Danny White, the former Dallas Cowboy quarterback and a veteran coach in the AFL.

White is coaching the expansion Utah Blaze, the latest franchise to join the league that AFL founder Jim Foster thought of while watching an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden. Foster, who drew up his idea on a manilla envelope he still has locked away in a safe, is one of the men who ran the league before Baker. He's still part of the game as a partial-owner of the Quad City Steamwheelers, a member of af2, the development league that is at 23 teams and counting.

Foster said from the time the AFL debuted with the Washington Commandos playing the Pittsburgh Gladiators in the summer of 1987, it was clear the indoor game could be a hit.

"They didn't come out going, 'Wow I just saw an imitation of an NFL game.' They came out saying 'Wow -- that was something different,' " Foster said.

It certainly is. It's eight-on-eight instead of the standard 11-player teams. There is no punting and virtually no running the ball, leading to fast-paced games with plenty of scoring.

Just about anywhere on the field is within field goal range. And the trademark nets to each side of the goalposts are in play, so when the ball hits them and bounces back it can be returned, adding another quirk to the game.

Rosters are much smaller, so most players play offense and defense instead of specializing. And the sidelines are basically hockey boards with some padding -- and advertising -- running the length of the field.

"My best friend in the NFL was the sideline. I was fast enough that I knew I could get there before anyone could catch me. You don't have that here," White said. "You run into a wall."

The AFL got an unsolicited public relations boost in 1999 when former Iowa Barnstormer quarterback Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl title. Warner's journey from the AFL to NFL and Super Bowl MVP discredited the theory the indoor game was made up of athletes who weren't NFL caliber.

And for those who still thought it was a fluke that wouldn't last, AFL teams have some big-time financial backing. Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway (Colorado Crush), singers Jon Bon Jovi (Philadelphia Soul) and Tim McGraw (Nashville Kats) and coaching legend Mike Ditka (Chicago Rush) are parts of ownership groups.

Bon Jovi said he's happy to promote his team and wears his Soul jersey at concerts. But he wants to see the players get more attention.

"I don't mind stirring the pot some more because until they start marketing this game, we're going to be 'Jon Bon Jovi's football team,' " he said. "I'm fine with that, but eventually it's just got to equal out.

"It's honestly not uncomfortable because I believe in the product. If I was here doing something I wasn't comfortable doing, then yeah it's a chore."

The AFL isn't the NFL, nor has it really tried to be. Foster had worked in both the NFL and USFL and saw firsthand how hard it could be to compete against the most successful U.S. sports league.

Football fans who prefer a more traditional game, played on a 100-yard field of grass -- with maybe a little mud and cold temperatures thrown in -- may not be lining up for the AFL, but plenty of others are. Attendance went from an average of 9,155 fans in 2001 to 12,872 last season. Utah and Kansas City give the league an all-time high of 18 teams.

Kansas City wasn't supposed to join until next season, but was added this year because of the devastation Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans, home of the VooDoo. That franchise is temporarily on hold and sent 15 players to Kansas City while cleanup continues in New Orleans.

And if the rapid expansion isn't enough to solidify the AFL, it's also about to hit the video game circuit. EA Sports, producer of the Madden NFL and college football video games, is adding the AFL to its lineup this season.

"You're kind of not a major league unless you have a video game," Baker said, only half joking. "People have accused us of being video game football and now video game football has its own video game."

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