It started off as a joke.
The Sunday after Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003, I was flipping through the channels trying to get my football fix. I wanted football and it didn't matter what kind. Reruns of college games, Canadian football, NFL Films, I would have settled for rugby...I didn't care. Well, the football gods have a warped sense of humor because I ended up flipping to NBC, which was doing the pre-game show for the upcoming arena football game.
Even though the league was nearly 20 years old at the time, I had never in my life heard of arena football. But football is football, right? I decided I'd give it a chance.
It was fucking ridiculous. A 50 yard field? No punting? The 1 minute warning? Jesus, the biggest penalty was for the ball hitting the scoreboard on a kickoff. I couldn't stop laughing at the absurdity of it all. It was like football if Ed Wood were the commissioner.
I watched that first game in a state of ironic fascination and watched the remainder the season intermittently...when I remembered that the sport existed at all. My "allegiance" was for the Chicago Rush mostly because they were the local team and I consistently got their games on TV. My heart wasn't in it, and I thought of it more as a joke than a real sport.
A year later, after a frustrating NFL season that saw the boring Patriots winning their second consecutive Super Bowl, I was a little more excited for the upcoming AFL season. I entered and won a contest for free tickets and attended my first game. After sitting in the $8 nosebleed seats of the All-State Arena, my entire perspective on the sport changed.
First, the Rush had some die hard fans. These people were so fucking crazy, I thought they might have flown in Oakland Raiders fans and dressed them in blue & silver. Second, all the players signed autographs after the game. I found out later that they were contractually obligated to do so, but that ceased to matter when little Timmy got his program signed by the starting quarterback. Furthermore, I found out that these guys didn't make much money. The average salary was about $25,000 per season. Most of the players had jobs in the off-season to supplement their income.
The other thing I noticed when I saw the game live is that these guys weren't fucking around. Half the guys played offense and defense, which impressed the hell out of me. On TV, seeing a guy being hit into a padded wall didn't seem all that dangerous. But when it happens live, it's another story. That wall had about an inch of padding on it, and when you're being rammed into it by a 275lb lineman, the padding doesn't do all that much. Also, I was lucky enough to see one of the most gruesome injuries ever: Malcolm Moore jumped up to deflect a pass, came down awkwardly, and broke his leg.
At that moment, this wasn't a joke anymore. This was real football. It wasn't the NFL, but it wasn't trying to be. These guys were playing because they wanted to be football players. They got hit hard, broke bones, played both sides of the ball, and then had to sign autographs for a bunch of creepy fat-asses from Schaumberg. All for the love of the game.
I became a convert that day, and cheered for the Rush through thick & thin. Unfortunately, efforts to convert friends and family failed miserably. Some people had never heard of the sport. Others, assuming I was talking about the XFL, seemed puzzled that I was watching a league they knew to be dead. The few who had seen the sport mockingly dismissed it the same way I had. They weren't alone. Half the time when Arena Football was mentioned in the media, it was the punch line of a joke.
Still, the sport grew exponentially in terms of media awareness. More games were televised and the local evening news even began showing highlights. Efforts were made to bring the sport to a wider audience, and eventually a TV deal was inked with ESPN. The team owners banked on the exposure to create a larger fan base, but the masses still ignored it. The ESPN television deal purportedly brought in a measly $250,000 for the entire league. Unfortunately, like most ESPN telecasts, the coverage focused on large-market teams. This left smaller markets with reduced television coverage, which meant smaller revenues and almost certainly contributed to the league's decision to cancel the 2009 season.
Earlier this week, the AFL unofficially announced that it was suspending operations, which is a pussified way of saying that it folded. I understand that most of the population still thinks that the entire sport was a joke. I can't really fault anyone for that. Shit, I did too at first. Even though I'm sad that I'm losing one of my favorite sports, I feel just as bad for all the football fans out there who won't ever know what they missed. At least I've got my memories.