Arena League Celebrates 20th Birthday

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    By Ashley Green

    While many pigskin fanatics may not consider arena football “a real sport”, there are hundreds of thousands of fans across the country who think the AFL is playing the game how it was meant to be played.

    It is only recently that the AFL has even been able to get on ESPN. As late as last year, AFL highlights could only be seen on SportsCenter’s Plays of the Week, and then they wouldn’t show any of the amazing receptions or kicks. Naturally, they would show the guy getting tossed over the boards onto his head-something that never happens in “real football.”

    Now in its 20th year, with 19 teams across the nation, regular season AFL games are finally being broadcast on ESPN.

    AFL games were actually broadcast on NBC for the 2003 through 2005 seasons, but last December ESPN bought a minority ownership stake in the AFL. Games began being broadcast on all ESPN TV and radio stations at the beginning of the 2007 season and will continue to do so until at least 2011.

    AFL basics

    While the AFL is finally getting some of the credit so long overdue, the league had very humble beginnings.

    Jim Foster, a former NFL and USFL executive, came up with the idea while watching an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden in New York. He jotted down ideas for rules, and in 1990, was granted a patent on the rules and game-specific equipment (such as the rebound nets on either side of the goal posts), forcing other indoor football leagues to play under different rules. To date, this is the only known patent on a game in the world. However, the patent is due to expire in September.

    The 1987 inaugural season featured only four teams, each playing a six-game season. This culminated in ArenaBowl I, in which the Denver Dynamite defeated the Pittsburgh Gladiators in Pittsburgh.

    The league received limited exposure through the next 10 years, most often through tape-delayed games broadcast on ESPN in the late night and early morning hours.

    The AFL received extra attention and gained some credibility in the sports world in 2000 when quarterback Kurt Warner, who had previously played for the AFL’s Iowa Barnstormers, took his team, the St. Louis Rams, to a Super Bowl win in his first season as a starting NFL quarterback. He became one of only six players to be named league MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same year.

    Notably, several AFL teams are tied to celebrity owners. The Colorado Crush is owned by NFL legendary QB John Elway, the Philadelphia Soul is shared by rocker Jon Bon Jovi and former Eagles’ QB Ron “Jaws” Jaworski, the Chicago Rush is co-owned by former Bears player and coach Mike Ditka, country music star Tim McGraw has part ownership in the Nashville Kats, and former Dallas Cowboys star Deion Sanders owns part of the Austin Wranglers.

    The league was really designed with the fans in mind. There is a league-wide Fans’ Bill of Rights, which includes rights to a wholesome environment, to a “total entertainment experience at an affordable cost” and “to interact with and have access to players and coaches for autographs and conversation.”

    Utah Blaze players, coaches, dancers and the mascot, Chief, come out onto the field after every home game and spend time with their fans, signing autographs, taking photos, commenting on the game and even making weekend plans.

    Fans are an integral part of every game. If a ball should fly into the crowd, the fan gets to keep it and can always get it signed after the game.

    “It’s fast-paced fan interaction,” said Jason Lammeres, a face-paint-wearing, orange-wig-sporting Blaze fan from Orem. “We get to yell at the other team and congratulate our team.”

    At one recent Blaze game, a Colorado Crush receiver fell over the boards and was then tackled by the anxious Blaze fans sitting on the front row. The fans refused to let the receiver go until an AFL official came over and restored order.

    That just doesn’t happen in “real football.”

    But don’t you wish it did?

    Same ball, different games

    The AFL may use the same ball as the NFL, but they certainly don’t play by the same rules.

    “I like arena football because it’s football on steroids,” said Bev Jaques, die-hard fan and Northern Member Representative for BlazeNation, the Blaze’s booster club.

    For starters, arena football is played on a 50-yard field, rather than the standard 100-yard field. End zones are each 8 yards deep and may have square or rounded corners, depending on where they play.

    Most arena football teams play in arenas that are primarily used by basketball or hockey teams. Since the Utah Blaze play in the EnergySolutions Arena, home of the Utah Jazz, their end zones are squared at the corners.

    The close quarters of the smaller field cause fast-action play and high scoring games-usually more than 100 combined points in one game.

    The field is surrounded by four-feet-tall dasherboards similar to those in a hockey rink, except the boards are padded with high-density foam. They are always in play, unless the player with the ball is forced into them while in possession of the football. It is routine for players to be slammed against or even over these boards into the stands where eager fans watch intently.

    In addition, there are eight players on each team, instead of 11, and the offense can have one player in motion towards the line of scrimmage prior to the snap.

    Each game has four 15-minute quarters, but the clock stops only when play goes out-of-bounds or after the “one minute warning” sounds in each half.

    The goal posts are only nine feet apart and the crossbar is 15 feet high. On either side of the goal posts are 32-feet high, 30-feet wide rebound nets that keep the ball from going into the stands on every kickoff. Scoring is the same, with the exception being that an extra point is given for drop kicking either a field goal or a post-touchdown conversion.

    Sports commentator Brian Ross joked in his blog on “Major Blogs of Minor League News” that the difference between an AFL quarterback and an NFL quarterback was “about one inch and $13 million.”

    “That has always been the problem for the Arena Football League,” he continued. “No matter what they do, they have always been an inch short in the eyes of those who believe that the NFL is the be-all, end-all of football.”

    The 15,000 fans who come out to every Blaze home game beg to differ.

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