Never fails. Once every month or so, somebody will track down
Jim Foster and ask his help in going public with a new sport,
breathlessly pitching the novelty game as the next great thing.
A little while back it was indoor golf. "This guy had a course
all laid out where you play shots off the walls," says Foster.
Coming soon to a warehouse near you! These would-be Naismiths
know the story of how Foster, then a marketing executive with
the NFL, watched an indoor soccer game 22 years ago at Madison
Square Garden and sketched out the skeleton for Arena football
on a manila envelope. Six years later the game was launched on
faith and little else.
They know too that the Arena Football League teeters today on the
fence that separates the mainstream from the marginal in American
sports. On one side are football (outdoor), baseball, basketball,
auto racing, golf and hockey; on the other side, soccer, tennis,
lacrosse, track and others too numerous to list, each capable of
generating occasional buzz but rarely much more than that. Arena
football could go either way. It has quietly survived in the face
of considerable odds for 17 years, a high-scoring, full-throttle
hybrid of football as we know it, played on a 50-by-28 1/3-yard
field surrounded by padded hockey boards, with nine-foot-wide
goalposts and towering end zone netting that is very much in
play. In the last four years the game has raised the stakes by
moving to bigger markets, enlisting wealthier owners and, most
important, signing a unique contract with NBC that puts the AFL
on national TV on Sunday afternoons from February through June.
"This is a legitimate product," says Ken Schanzer, president of
NBC Sports. "The one giant variable is, Can we grow the game? Can
we attract more people to it?"
The AFL and NBC climbed into bed together in March 2002. The
AFL's needs were obvious: The league had been on ESPN for all but
one year of its existence, but it craved major-network exposure.
NBC, meanwhile, had walked away from showy, but potentially
money-losing deals with Major League Baseball, the NBA and the
NFL, and had been humiliated by the ill-fated and spectacularly
ill-conceived XFL. The network needed a fresh sports property.
"This time around," says Schanzer, "we wanted a partner."
A groundbreaking two-year deal was struck, beginning with the
2003 season, in which NBC paid no rights fee to broadcast the
games. Instead, the AFL and NBC will split all TV advertising
revenue 50-50 after the network's production costs ($10.5 million
per season) and the league's costs (approximately $3 million) are
paid, in that order. After the initial two years NBC has the
option to renew the contract at four-year intervals in
perpetuity. Burned by the all-hype XFL ("Bottom line: The
football wasn't very good," says Schanzer), NBC has not only
aired multiple AFL games every Sunday but also presented them
with an NFL Films--like reverence. Gone from the booth is Jesse
Ventura, replaced by Pat Haden. Ratings have been modest: an
average of 1.6 over the first four weeks, roughly comparable with
college basketball's, better than the NHL's, but far short of
golf's and NASCAR's. "It's very much in line with what we
expected," says Schanzer. "But it's got to move somewhere
eventually. A 1.6 isn't going to do it."
The AFL has benefited greatly from the ripple effects of the NBC
contract. Virgil Williams, 63, an Atlanta entrepreneur who is the
largest shareholder in Bank of America, studied the AFL for two
years but paid $12 million for the Georgia Force only after the
NBC deal was consummated. "I've bought and sold a number of
businesses, and I believe success is a matter of timing," says
Williams. "When the NBC deal was struck, I felt the time was
right." A Denver-based ownership group that included John Elway,
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Stan Kroenke, owner of the NBA's
Nuggets and the NHL's Avalanche, bought an expansion franchise
shortly after the TV deal was made. "The NBC contract brought
legitimacy," says Elway. (Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had
come on board two years earlier, buying the hometown Desperados.)
Players also took notice. When former University of Florida
wideout Travis McGriff was cut by the Atlanta Falcons at the end
of their 2002 training camp, after having spent the previous 2
1/2 seasons with the Broncos, he looked hard at the Canadian
Football League and NFL Europe before signing with the Orlando
Predators of the AFL. "With this TV thing," says McGriff, 26, "I
think there's a chance for this league to grow."
But the AFL has no intention of becoming an NFL feeder league.
The AFL has gained immeasurable props and goodwill because of the
NFL success of its alumni, most notably St. Louis Rams
quarterback Kurt Warner, but also Pittsburgh Steelers
signal-caller Tommy Maddox and wideout Oronde Gadsden, a free
agent late of the Miami Dolphins. And there is little question
that many AFL players are putting on pads every week only because
they dream of getting another shot in the big league. "I'd say 60
percent of the guys are just happy to be playing football," says
Jay Gruden, the younger brother of Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super
Bowl--winning coach Jon and a player or coach in the AFL since
1991. "The other 40 percent think they're going to the NFL. Half
of those guys are totally unrealistic, and the other half just
need a break."
Maybe fewer than that. "Most of the guys in the Arena league are
retreads to us, people we've already cut," says Rick Spielman,
the Dolphins' senior vice president of football operations and
player personnel. "The guy who makes it into the NFL from that
league is a guy we've rejected, who plays Arena ball and then
something just clicks for him. In most cases we'll take a college
free agent over an Arena league guy."
Talk like this doesn't bother AFL commissioner David Baker, a
tireless, 6'9", 412-pound Arena evangelist. Since becoming
commissioner in 1996, the 50-year-old Baker has driven up the
value of AFL franchises from less than $400,000 to $12 million,
relocated them in large cities and deftly pushed out lightweight
owners from the AFL's small-market past (among them Foster, who
now owns a team in arenafootball2, the 27-team Arena minor
league). The average capacity for an Arena facility is 15,200,
and this year's average attendance through Sunday was 12,051, up
23.5% from last year's. Baker envisions expanding the 16-team
league to as many as 20 by next year. Teams can dress 21 players
for each game (six players go both ways in the eight-man game)
and are ruled by a hard salary cap of $1,643,000 per team, a
figure that will rise a minimum of 2% next year and 3% in 2005.
Players make as much as $200,000 for the five-month season and as
little as $24,000, but salaries have gone up steadily. Hunkie
Cooper, a wide receiver and linebacker for the Arizona Rattlers,
says he was paid $350 a game as a rookie in 1993 and now makes 10
times that amount for the 16-game regular season, plus benefits
from the AFL Players' Association. He, like all other AFL
players, is expected to earn his pay not only by playing a
violent game on a hard surface but also by courting fans who are
empowered by Baker's AFL Fans' Bill of Rights. On Sunday more
than 10,000 fans--heavy on the kids--slogged through sheets of
rain to watch the winless home team, the New York Dragons, play
unbeaten Orlando at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
They were treated to an indoor football clinic by the best team
in the league, as the Predators ran their record to 5-0 with a
72-56 win. Orlando started the season with the 36-year-old
Gruden at quarterback, but he injured his right ankle in Week 4,
so now he's helping call plays for Connell Maynor, which is not a
stretch, since Gruden was Orlando's coach from 1998 through 2001
before coming out of retirement last year. (He also worked as an
offensive assistant on his brother's Tampa Bay staff last
season.) Sunday's win was full of Arena moments: Nine days shy of
his 30th birthday, Orlando's 300-pound Ernest Allen was a terror
on both sides of the ball, and wideouts McGriff, Cory Fleming and
Thabiti Davis combined for eight touchdown catches. Bodies
bounced off the padded boards. Footballs were caught off nets and
walls, and those that flew into the seats became souvenirs.
When the game was done, tables were placed in one end zone, and
Dragons players (and dancers) took seats to sign autographs, one
of their contractual obligations. Lines formed, hundreds deep,
awaiting a sweaty scrawl from the beaten home players, who signed
until the fans were sated. This too was an Arena moment. A good
football. The other 40 think they're going to the NFL."