Special thanks to @KedgeOnline for dropping by to write this piece. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.
I went to the very first game in the history of the Dallas Desperados in 2002, then I went to the second, then the third and then eventually every game for the first four years of the Arena Football League club’s existence.
I was hooked the second I saw the field, the giant nets that took up the entire end zone and heard the silly coyote howl that played over the PA system that marked the opening kickoff. I lived and died with every result. Cheered every touchdown like it was in the Super Bowl and gritted my teeth at the hated Arizona Rattlers and Orlando Predators.
Starting in 2002 I couldn’t consume enough AFL content and just one year later that content became easier to consume than ever.
The year 2003 was the first year of the AFL on NBC. NBC desperately needed live sports coverage after losing the broadcast rights of the NFL to CBS, Major League Baseball to FOX and the failure and capitulation of the XFL.
Their answer was to turn to the Arena League; if they couldn’t bring America the NFL then they would try to cure the offseason blues by giving the nation an alternative product and the product was really good! NBC took it seriously, had the excellent Tom Hammond do commentary, promoted the league hard and aired regional and national double-headers.
The national television contract elevated the league from niche to nationwide and saw an influx of financial backing that was thought impossible. The salary cap soared to $1.65 million per team and each team’s two highest paid players only counted 50% toward the cap.
The league had become so mainstream and popular that two AFL video games were created during this run of success, Arena Football, and the sequel Arena Football: Road to Glory. The league even had its own minor league, AFL2, where small-markets could watch potential future AFL stars.
But this sudden injection of cash is what led to the eventual downfall of the league. Overnight the AFL became a league of haves and have-nots. Teams with wealthy benefactors like the Desperados, Philadelphia Soul and Colorado Crush could spend to this cap and beyond and individual players were making $350-400 thousand.
The competitive imbalance became astronomical and many of the games uninteresting blowouts. With ratings and teams falling out of the sky, NBC dialed back its coverage to a ‘game of the week’ style set-up in 2005 that drew criticism from fans of the smaller market teams, who were almost never featured.
In 2006 NBC announced that they would not be renewing their broadcast contract with the AFL. They had just signed a monster deal to host the NFL’s new marquee show, Sunday Night Football, and a deal with the NHL to show a Sunday game of the week after the Super Bowl. They had football season figured out and another major sports league to tide fans over.
NBC didn’t need the AFL anymore.
When NBC went, the AFL signed a deal with ESPN for a fraction of the price. The salary cap went back down but teams were still in huge trouble. The fans had seen the league at its highest level and weren’t going to accept going back to where it was pre-2003.
In 2008, New Orleans VooDoo, one of the best attended and most heavily financed teams, announced they were ceasing operations and the AFL scheduled a dispersal draft that would never come.
Commissioner David Baker suddenly retired and it was clear that there would be no 2009 Arena Football League season. It came back in 2010 but it was an exponentially worse product with significantly less attendance. Many small-market teams were wiped out, and to field a complete league, many old franchises from the now-gone AFL2 were subbed in for that season.
The league still exists today but it just a part of the greater web of regionally based indoor football leagues. The AFL is now centered solely in the Northeast and only has five teams, down from 19 at its height in 2004.
It is likely the league will always exist in some form but if you are looking for a nationwide indoor football league with national television coverage, I think you will be waiting for quite some time.