Arena Football: a league that has gone off the deep end, gladly

The notion that sports fans will buy anything for a while, if it is presented in a clean environment and involves professionals, probably isn't that far off the mark. Take the Arena Football League, which is about to complete its second season, up from an original four-team concept to six franchises this year operating coast-to-coast.

This is a sport which stages its game indoors; pays all its players the same basic salary; plays eight men to a side, 19 on a squad; and has rules nobody ever heard of before. It also thinks scores like 57-42 are the answer to everything the public ever wanted.

Since the success rate of most new leagues is about the same as that of man-powered airplanes, will Arena football make it? Will it last for a while and then disappear, like box lacrosse and other such sports gimmicks, or will it build a strong enough following to survive?

``All of our national market studies done over the last two years seem to indicate that we are going to be a success,'' explained Jeremiah Enright, the league's director of media relations. ``Sure, Arena football has had its share of growing pains. Any time you take a new sport into a new market, there is a lot of work to be done, a lot of educating the public, a lot of trying to convince sports editors that you're worthwhile.

``Actually the second year is always the toughest with any league, because the newness is off,'' he continued. ``You don't have curiosity to sell anymore. By now you have to feel you've convinced people that you're giving them something they want, and I think we've done that.''

Attendance is averaging around 8,500 this year - close to the 9,000 that league officials say is needed to show a profit.

``I can't say for sure that any of our teams are going to make money this year,'' said Enright, citing increased expenses, ``but we know that financially we're right at the break-even point.''

Certainly this league has its individual detractors, who are turned off by a half-field game and other forms of football miniaturization. Many fans can't accept rules that allow footballs to remain in play after they have bounced off oversized 30-foot-wide pitch-back baseball screens, or rules that have outlawed the punt and nearly eliminated the importance of the run.

Arenaball (as it often calls itself) was the brainchild of Jim Foster, a former advertising manager for Maytag and later promotions manager for National Football League Properties. Foster is youthful, bright, full of ideas, and anything but a clock watcher. He really is a 25-hours-a- day man!

Foster was watching an indoor soccer game in New York's Madison Square Gardens in 1981, when the idea hit him that if soccer can be played indoors, why not football? Reaching into his briefcase, he pulled out an envelope, upon which he sketched the league's basic plan.

Foster even spent his own money to test-market an Arena football game in Chicago in 1985, renting an arena, hiring local players, and videotaping a game that would later be shown to potential investors and advertisers.

But instead of selling franchises, Foster only rents them.

``It would take hours to explain all the financial ins-and-outs ... '' Enright said. ``But basically Jim wanted the commissioner's office to control everything, including the pay scale of the players and coaches. It was like he sold the owners a condominium, only the association retains the power to run everything.''

Franchises cost $750,000. Owners must also produce a $250,000 letter of credit that is held by the league office in the event of any financial problems.

The four teams that played in what Foster calls Arenaball's 1987 preview season were the Chicago Bruisers, Denver Dynamite, Pittsburgh Gladiators, and Washington Commandos.

Only Chicago and Pittsburgh decided to return for the 1988 season. However, they were soon joined by the Detroit Drive, Los Angeles Cobras, New England Steamrollers, and New York Knights. All teams play a 12-game regular season that is followed by playoffs culminating in the league's championship game July 30.

If you are a purist you are probably going to think that Arena football is pulling your leg, taking your money (tickets range from $8 to $18 apiece), and wasting your time.

But if you like continuous action, a game where a lead is rarely safe, and there's a chance to reach out and pat your favorite pass receiver on the back as he goes by, this could be the game for you.

Among the things first-timers need to know are that the field is 50 yards long instead of 100, and that with a width of only 28.3 yards, running is next to impossible. Basically, it is a short-pass game.

Except for quarterbacks and kickers, everybody plays both ways. The offense is usually minus three linemen from the conventional 11-man regular football setup, while the defense goes without two linebackers and one defensive back as compared with the most common 11-player formations.

Goalposts are still used, but the crossbar is 15 feet off the ground instead of 10, and only nine feet wide instead of 18.

Among the the game's most striking innovations are two 30-foot-wide nets strung taut on both sides of the goalposts. Kickoffs and missed field goals that bounce off those nets are fair game for everybody, meaning they can be turned into instant scoring opportunities by either team.

``We don't ever want to compete head-to-head with the National Football League,'' Enright said. ``We're a spring and summer league and we intend to keep it that way. Although everybody's base salary is $1,000 a game, there is an extra $150 per winning player, plus league bonuses for spectacular achievements.'' Enright says these are decided by a committee that reviews game films.

One of the perks of Arena football is an idea it stole from baseball. If a football goes into the stands in Mr. Foster's league, the fan is allowed to keep it!

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