The Arena Football League: Small Fields, Big Hits

Colm Ryan

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The Philadelphia Soul (in possession) yards from the end zone. Credit: Michael Feagan – flickr

The Super Bowl may have come and gone and if you caught the American Football buzz, you’re in with a not so short wait for preseason. A great selling point of gridiron football is that it only has one main competition – win the NFL and you are the best in the world.
Unlike soccer where a litany of competitions claim to crown an undisputed champion from FIFA’s ludicrous claim of the Club World Championship to the top domestic leagues and the Champions League. And that’s just club competition.

But combine this with the NFL’s relatively short season and a lack of alternatives and it’s easy to see how impatient fans flock to such events as Draft Day held in New York’s Radio City Music Hall each May.

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Where dreams are made, the NFL Draft.  Credit: Marques Stewart – flickr

Numerous upstart leagues have tried to either fill the void or compete directly with the NFL, from the bland regional competitions to the in your face XFL set up by WWE supremo Vince McMahon. The league tried to redefine the sport with a different playing style but shuttered after one season.

Over half a dozen outdoor minor leagues exist but they don’t match the play on the field or the all-round fan experience of the NFL. There’s also the Canadian Football League (CFL) starting in June, but a few changes aside feels like NFL Lite.

Instead, the best alternative is the Arena Football League (AFL). Founded in 1987 it’s the premier indoor organisation with games played in, you guessed it, basketball and ice hockey arenas set up to cater to the reduced size game.

But there’s nothing reduced about the action with the smaller field allowing for a higher paced play and with less run off space, tackling that often sees one or more 250 lb behemoths spill into front row.

Currently 12 teams across two conferences and four divisions form the AFL as 2015 sees current champions the Arizona Rattlers look to set the record breaking sixth title passing out joint five time champs the Tampa Bay Storm.

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Rallying the Troops, The Arizona Rattlers pre game. Credit: Dinur – flickr

The league structure of regular season and playoffs are similar to the NFL, culminating in the aptly named ArenaBowl each August. The tighter playing area sees just eight players on the field and twenty on a roster. Naturally distances during plays are marked shorter too.

Aside from that the basic premise is still the same, get to the opposition’s end zone in whatever manner is necessary albeit with a more narrow playing style.

The most striking difference for newcomers will be the giant goalposts suspended from the ceiling at each end. These futuristic looking structures have large nets each side bordered in bright yellow trussing with a small gap for the ball to pass through should a kick be successful. Truly unique in the world of sport.

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Goalposts at Talking Stick Resort Arena, home of the Arizona Rattlers.  Credit: MPR – flickr

Crowds averaging almost 10,000 per game across large cities like Philadelphia, Vegas and Orlando is a healthy number for any minor league but clearly no match for the storied NFL. Big cable TV deals also exist but the reality is no one dreams of an AFL career just as no one dreams of a career playing in the lower reaches of the Football League.

The quality of player reflects that with many players on rosters having previous issues with injuries or lack that extra little bit of physical size or technical ability that would have ruled them to be household names.

But in a hybrid sport which looks for different qualities than traditional football, players lacking some of the aforementioned qualities can all of a sudden become key men for their teams.

 

However, that doesn’t mean there is no talent on show. A host of past and future NFL stars have used the AFL as an means of rebuilding broken bodies and broken careers. One only has to look at past stars such as the likes of Kurt Warner (a Super Bowl MVP winner) or Tommy Maddox (who received a Super Bowl ring with Pittsburgh) to see the benefits to players starting regular games in the league and in turn revitalising their careers.

 

The league has struggled financially at times, even cancelling the entire 2009 season but things are looking healthier now, not least with the addition of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of KISS fame as owners.

In what is a sure sign of health for the future, one of the world’s most financially successful bands (and brands) has taken advantage of Los Angeles’ lack of professional football introducing the LA KISS for 2014.

KISS not known for their covertness have fused a rock concert and sporting event together complete with cage dancers suspended from the rafters, cheerleaders that look like groupies from the heyday of rock (but without the ridiculous hair, of course) and players running through an entrance way flanked by flames.

 
Perhaps not the designed for the sporting purist, but definitely not bad for a fledgling league.

Catch full games, highlights and news of the AFL here

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Colm Ryan