Goodbye, Arena Football. It’s been fun. I guess. As I am sure you have probably heard, the AFL liked taking the last year off so much that they have made their absence permanent. They have ceased operations indefinitely, and are reportedly about to declare bankruptcy. It’s the end of a 22 year era.
I have precisely one personal memory of the AFL. In 1997 the Iowa Barnstormers played an exhibition game in my home town. The game was a lopsided blowout, and one Iowa player stood out as the clear star. A couple of years later the NFL was enjoying one of its’ great Cinderella stories, and I pulled out the AFL program to confirm something. Sure enough, the Kurt Warner who was on his way to the MVP was the same Kurt Warner I had seen rip New Jersey apart in the arena football exhibition.
That was a neat experience, and the game was fun to watch, but it never even came close to converting me to a convert to the league. It had a number of problems as I see it. Among them:
1. The season was at a bad time. I love football as much as anyone, but I appreciate the offseason. Taking half a year off from football gets the anticipation up and gives you time to get really excited. I’m looking forward to the start of the college season right now so much that I can hardly stand myself. The AFL season came right when I was ready for a break. It was over-saturation, and at the time I was ready for other things – college basketball, baseball, horse racing, and so on. Football has its place, and the AFL fell outside of that place.
2. It was a terrible TV sport. When you saw it live it was high paced, thrilling action. None of that translated to TV. You had to be there to get the most out of it, and no league on the scale the AFL aspired to can be supported just on live ticket sales. It also made it very hard for the league to grow or to attract fans outside of their markets.
3. It seemed like a gimmick, and it never got over that. I enjoyed watching the game, and I thought it was a lot of fun, but I never considered it to be a real sport. It had more in common in my mind with roller derby or Slamball than with a real sport. That makes it hard for the league to draw truly fanatical fans of the sort that make the major sports work so well. It also makes it hard for the league to get extensive, lasting media coverage.
4. It tried to fill a niche that didn’t exist. Like I said before, I don’t really believe we need more football. If we did than one of the countless expansion leagues would still exist. I’m also not at all convinced that we need another major sport – we have more than enough already. By trying to position itself as a major football league it was trying to sell what no one really wanted to buy.
5. It never drew top talent. One big reason we like to watch the major sports is because they feature the best players in the world. The AFL saw a very few guys use their league as a springboard to the NFL, but for the most part it was the home of misfits and castoffs who couldn’t cut it anywhere else. People only care about Triple A baseball within the markets it is played in because everyone knows that the players there all aspire to be somewhere else. The AFL had the same problem. Half the country grows up wanting to be a pro football player, but no one honestly and truly aspires to make $50,000 playing in the AFL instead of the millions of the NFL. That makes it a de facto minor league, and we are a continent of major league sports fans.
All that and more leads to the conclusion that the league was doomed from the outset. Really, it was a miracle that it lasted as long as it did in a lot of ways. A decade or so from now we’ll have all but forgotten about the league unless we are reminiscing about things we vaguely remember – like the USFL or WUSA.