There was a time where the start of the Arena Football League season was a big deal.
At its peak, there were 19 teams across the county, nearly 13,000 fans per game, TV contracts with ESPN and NBC, large player salaries and even video games.
Those days are long gone, but the league lives on, barely, and starts its 30th season tonight looking more to the future while trying to put a rough six years behind them.
To put it mildly, this not the Arena Football League you grew up watching. Player salaries are borderline criminal, the league has gone from 18 teams in 2011 to just five today, two of which are expansion franchises that probably kept the league alive for another year.
The league had eight teams last year, and following the conclusion of the 2016 season, five teams either folded or left for other leagues.
AFL staples in the Arizona Rattlers and Jacksonville Sharks jumped ship to the Indoor Football League and National Arena League, while teams in Orlando, Portland and Los Angeles just plain up and folded, leaving the league with three teams.
In stepped Washington DC mogul Ted Leonsis with two teams. The first are the Washington Valor, who had been teased and were announced during the 2016 season and from all indications, have been well received by the city and should see pretty decent crowds in their first season.
Less than six months before the start of the season Leonsis announced he was adding the Baltimore Brigade as the league’s fifth team. It seemed hasty, rushed, and like a cash grab to fill seats in Baltimore. Even more so after it was announced three weeks ago that the team had sold only 500 season tickets.
Fittingly, Washington and Baltimore will meet tonight in DC to start the season in a game that will be broadcast nationally on CBS Sports Network.
The only teams left from the Arena Football League are the Cleveland Gladiators, Tampa Bay Storm, and defending ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul.
So essentially, the league went from having half its teams on the west coast and half on the east coast, to being an entirely east coast league in the span of five years.
I won’t even try to pretend to preview the teams, with all the teams that left, folded, and were added, there’s no telling what type of talent each of these teams might have. And to be honest, I’m not sure the teams even know what they have at this point in a league with only five teams.
But if you made me try to guess the order of finish, I’ll go ahead and give it a stab, with the teams who have AFL experience probably dominating. So: Philadelphia, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Washington, Baltimore is the order I’ll go with.
With only five teams in the league, it raises so many questions. How do you build momentum week-to-week with only two games on the schedule? What the hell does that random fifth team do each week? Will fans stop coming after they get tired of seeing the same four teams over and over? And perhaps, most importantly, with only five teams, is this the last call for Arena Football?
Yet, for all that has gone wrong for Arena Football since cancelling the 2009 season, you could view this as a rebirth for the league and the sport.
Gone are all of the phony owners who had fame but no real money to run a team. You won’t see a drunken Vince Neil in the crowd at games, as much fun as that was during his short run as the owner of the team in Las Vegas.
Every team in the league now has money behind it, and actual big arenas to play in. And that’s the blueprint the AFL needs going forward. MLS is doing it, and it seems to be working for them as record money and attendance rolls in.
Perhaps other owners with arenas, say, Detroit, Long Island, St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus, or Milwaukee, will notice that the league is trying to start fresh and join in to put the league back on steadier ground.
You could call 2017 a transitional year for Arena Football as it tries to shake the ghosts of its past, or you could call it a swan song, because with five teams, people from the outside are going to have their doubts about its viability going forward.
Regardless of how things shake out off the field, on the field, it’s going to be another fun year. The same nets behind the end zones that you love are back, and the high-scoring, tons of passing games that lead to basketball-like scores are back.
So settle in, Arena Football is back. We don’t know what the hell is coming, but either way it’s going to be awesome. It’s either going to be the rebirth of what was once a national brand, or the sad, slow end to one of the weirdest rises and falls in US sports history.
Enjoy the season.