Arena Football League Closes Down After 22 Years

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Arena Football League Closes Down After 22 Years
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Arena Football League that gave players an opportunity from future Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner to little known guys like QB Raymond Philyaw, closed down operations on August 5, 2009.

As a self-proclaimed “Football Junkie,” I have to admit that I liked the scoring, commonality, and toughness of the Arena Football League. The minor indoor football league helped bridge the gap between long, boring summers and the start of NFL training camps for many.

But after 22 years of thrills, pinball machine-type scoring, family value-priced fun, and guys crashing into padded walls and each other, the indoor Arena Football League this week announced that it would be no more. 

The league that gave anyone gutsy enough to put on a helmet a shot—for basically peanuts—from former college stars (Major Harris, Woodrow Dantzler, and Michael Bishop) to future NFL players (Kurt Warner, Mike Furrey, Oronde Gadsen, and Troy Brown) to NFL washouts (Todd Marinovich, Quincy Carter, and Marcus Nash) did not have enough backing in this bad economy to keep afloat their very flawed economic model.

Despite a modest television contract with ESPN, the league clearly had become two worlds of the “Have’s” and “Have Nots” as teams in Philadelphia, Denver, and Dallas—all backed by high-powered owners—clearly could not carry the leagues weaker teams (Los Angeles and others) any longer.

The AFL had previously called off play for the 2009 season, but had said it planned to return in 2010. However a to-the-point one-paragraph statement announced that the league had suspended operations. The statement said the AFL’s board had been “unable to reach any consensus on restructuring the league over the past eight months.”

The AFL’s board also added, “there are no other viable options available to the league right now.”

By all apparent accounts the league is likely to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. The loss of another professional football league may seem like the National Football League is ruling the block again.

But unlike past failed professional leagues (WFL, USFL, and XFL), the AFL never tried to compete with their larger cousin as they marketed themselves completely different.

The excitement built from playing in a hockey arena type environment’s 50-yard field with eight-on-eight player action on the field—many players played both on offense and defense, nets, smaller goalposts, and padded walls thrilled crowds from Utah to Albany. 

The AFL went from a little over 130,000 fans attending games in its inaugural season (1987) to its own EA Sports video game. The AFL brought football to the masses at a good price and most importantly they gave fans what they wanted most, scoring—I once attended a game that ended 70-68. 

Even though the majority of players were largely unknown, fans flocked to places like Veterans Memorial Auditorium (a/k/a “The Barn") in Iowa to see men play their guts out and then sign autographs for what seemed to be every fan in attendance. 

The league’s last champion was rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s Philadelphia Soul, who broke the City of Brotherly Love’s championship drought in June 2008 by winning ArenaBowl XXII with a score of 59-56 over the San Jose SaberCats. 

With the AFL going by the wayside along with NFL Europe in recent years, you have to now wonder where players not of NFL caliber will apply their trade. The NFL clearly needs a developmental-type league as rosters include only 80 players in training camp until they are cut down to the regular season limit of 53 players and an eight-player practice squad. 

The new United Football League (UFL) starting in September 2009 may be an option for some, but I don’t know how any league can compete with the NFL in the fall even if games will be played on Thursdays and Fridays. 

For those that still need their indoor football fill there is still af2, the AFL’s offshoot is currently playing this season and is in the midst of the ArenaCup playoffs.

There are 25 teams in the af2 and there has been talk that the AFL’s former little brother—the AFL owns 50.1 percent of the af2—might be able to absorb some of the AFL’s stronger teams.

According to af2’s Iowa Barnstormers co-owner Jeff Lamberti, the af2 is solvent, self-funded, and pays its bills so it should keep going despite the AFL going bankrupt.

Philadelphia Soul All-AFL receiver Chris Jackson said of the bygone league, “I feel bad for the fans because for 22 years it was one of the most unique, most loved, most fun sports I’ve ever been a part of. It’s just a shame there’s no more Arena Football League for people.”

I guess people seeking some minor league sports action will have to go to tractor pulls and bull riding contests at their local arena.

Many thanks go out to AFL players like Sherdrick Bonner, Connell Maynor, Hunkie Cooper, and many others for 22 years of “There’s a Rumble in the House” memories. 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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