Last week I was at a conference in New Orleans and on Friday night I went to a Pelicans game with a friend who lives in town. While there I noticed goalposts for an arena football team hanging in the rafters and shortly after found out they were for the New Orleans team, the VooDoo, Watching arena football on NBC ten-ish years ago was one of the first things that fueled my strange obsession with any type of football that isn’t the NFL (CFL season is just about two months away!). Having done the touristy things in town for three days I was thrilled to find out that the VooDoo had a home game on Saturday night. So off I went to the Smoothie King Arena on Saturday night to pique my interest in semi-pro sports.
For those that don’t know, the Arena Football League is a 12 team indoor football league played on a 50 yard field (half the length of the NFL or NCAA). This in addition to other rule changes (no punting allowed, sadly) encourages high scoring games and a fast pace of play. There is also no out of bounds area, just padded sideline boards. This is one of the many things that I think made the fan experience equal parts special and terrifying. Before the game the PA announcer warned that “players may go flying into the stands and cause serious injury” and that “any ball that goes into the stands is yours to keep, but you have to return any player that does”. On this play receiver Marcus Smith reeled in some freshly baked quinoa flour baguettes, disappointing the fans who thought they might catch them (Photo courtesy New Orleans VooDoo). Click to read more about the game…
The first thing I noticed when I walked in 20 minutes before kickoff was how empty the arena was. In contrast to the packed crowd for the Pelicans the night before, just a few hundred people were scattered around the lower bowl. According to the AFL the attendance was 3,206 but that seems like a generous overestimate. The VooDoo have the worst attendance numbers in the league, averaging 3,619 per game. The Orlando Predators drew 12,765 to their first home game and most teams are in the 8,000 to 9,000 range for fans per game.
Struggling attendance and in therefore profits has long been an issue for the league. In 2009 amid financial concerns team owners actually voted to cancel the season and rework the league’s business model. Teams are constantly starting up and folding; only two current franchises (the Tampa Bay Storm and Cleveland Gladiators) are original to the league’s founding in 1987. Many of the now defunct teams had truly great names including the Houston ThunderBears, Forth Worth Cavalry, Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz, and the Minnesota Fighting Pike.
As I sat in a mostly empty arena waiting for the game to start I wondered how this could possibly be a viable business model. My question was soon answered with a barrage of advertisements and on field promos. Between almost every play during the game the PA announcer would read an advertisement, and at almost ever commercial break (which were few) an on field promo was held. One fan won season tickets by kicking a 10 yard field goal.
There were a few diehard fans but largely the crowd was families with young children. I was impressed with the level of fan-player interaction. Players from the VooDoo and Predators made laps around the field after warm ups to give kids high fives and after a very nervous boy scout sang the national anthem almost every player went over to congratulate him. Sometimes the proximity of the fans backfired. On several occasions when a player was tackled up against the boards I noticed fans reaching over and try to wrestle the ball away from the player.
I spent most of the first quarter sending pictures to friends showing how empty it was and noting some of the idiosyncrasies of the AFL. But as the game went on I became more interested in the situation of the players in the league. How much were they paid and what did their contracts look like? How well were players covered for injuries? These were teams filled with football players who were still competitive and didn’t want to give up playing the game. Who am I to laugh at that? Learning about everything they had to do to make their spot on the team possible only gave me a greater appreciation for their dedication.
The base salary for an AFL player right now is $820 per game for a first year player and $875 for a veteran. On an 18 game schedule that comes out to under $16,000 annually (quarterbacks make an extra $300 per start). Many of these players are working to support families and will have two or three other jobs to help make ends meet. They aren’t playing football because it’s making them rich, they are playing because they love the game and still have the drive to compete at a high level. Players are covered by worker’s compensation laws if they are injured but again, they aren’t making much to begin with. During the season the AFL provides housing subsidies to players and reduces the required player contribution if they are inactive or on injured reserve.
Every now and again players make the jump from the AFL to NFL (most notably Kurt Warner) but it is more often that former NFL players find their way to the AFL. Michigan has had it’s fair share of players in the AFL, Spokane Shock lineman Terrance Taylor is the only one currently on a roster. Kickers Jay Feely and Garrett Rivas played in the AFL and recent graduate Elliott Mealer played a few games last year.
If you have the chance to go to an AFL game I’d recommend it. It was fun, fast paced, and certainly a more affordable form of entertainment than going to an NFL or NCAA game. And if you find yourself in New Orleans I’d suggest going to The Ruby Slipper Cafe, where I had this wonderful bananas foster french toast on Saturday morning.