You have to give the Arena Football League credit for perseverance.
Founded nearly three decades ago, the indoor football league known for its video game-like offensive frenzy has been through wild growth spurts, celebrity ownerships, a parade of franchises, a canceled season in 2009 and, most recently, the loss of five teams.
However, the league still has a pulse, and now Baltimore and Washington sports fans will have ringside seats for the high-octane game … and what may be a look into the future of pro sports.
Monumental Sports & Entertainment -- owner of the NBA Washington Wizards, NHL Washington Capitals, WNBA Washington Mystics, Washington's Verizon Center and a slew of other sports and entertainment enterprises -- has added two AFL franchises to its portfolio. The Washington Valor and a still-unnamed Baltimore team are expected to start play in a newly constituted, five-team AFL sometime in the spring at the Verizon Center and Baltimore's Royal Farms Arena, respectively.
When Ted Leonsis, founder and CEO of MSE, stepped in to add first Washington and then Baltimore to the Arena Football League, the AFL was in the midst of a contraction to three remaining franchises in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Tampa Bay, Fla. Five teams either folded or defected to other leagues after the 2016 season.
Throughout the years, more than 50 teams have joined and (mostly) left the Arena Football League, typically a summer-spring league. A Washington/Maryland franchise, the Commandos, played in the AFL's early days. And perhaps the league's most notable claim to fame is two-time NFL Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner quarterbacked the AFL's Iowa Barnstormers in the mid-1990s.
These days, the Arena Football League finds itself in reinvention mode, and the person charged with guiding that effort is commissioner Scott Butera, whose executive background is nursing distressed business operations back to health, mostly in the casino industry.
Butera's career involves a stint working for President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Entertainment Resorts; for Trump's buddy, billionaire Carl Ichan, at Tropicana Entertainment, where Butera steered that company through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy; and for Foxwoods Resort Casino, when Foxwoods ran into severe financial trouble.
Apparently, that makes Butera the right guy to turn around a sports league that has had its share of near-death experiences.
"That's what he's empowered to do," said Roger Mody, a member of the MSE ownership group who will serve as managing partner of the two new teams. "This is a reset for the Arena Football League, and it's the right reset. We have the right ownership groups behind this league now. We'll be highly selective about who we allow to own franchises. This is going to be by invitation-only."
The foundation of the Arena League's reset is its ownerships.
Besides Leonsis, other AFL owners include Dan Gilbert (Cleveland), who owns the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena; former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski (Philadelphia) and Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay), owner of the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning.
"In the past, we had a lot of teams that were brought in for the wrong reasons," Butera said. "There were owners who thought they wanted to be owners, and then, they didn't."
Indeed, there were some curious front offices in the AFL. For instance, rockers Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS were part owners of the now-defunct Los Angeles KISS, and Motley Crue's Vince Neil owned the Las Vegas Outlaws.
Some franchise dissolutions were more painful than others. Butera said, in some cases, franchises "piled up liabilities."
"But Arena football is a great product with a very loyal fan base," Butera said. "Now, we have a platform of strong ownership, and we'll only consider owners who have a track record of owning sports franchises and, preferably, who either own arenas or control leases for arenas."
Mody, the executive for the new Baltimore and Washington franchises, outlined a slow growth plan that could see the league reach eight teams in two to three years and 12 teams several years later. Butera said the growth would be east to west.
The 2017 season is expected to start in either March or April, with teams playing 16 games. A March-July run might give the league's players a better chance to try to make an NFL roster.
Unlike the old days, when some AFL players earned six-figure salaries, current Arena players get paid by the game. Next season, the rate is likely to be about $900 per game, including housing and meals.
What may be the most interesting aspect of the new iteration of the AFL is how it intends to incorporate technology into the fan experience.
The AFL helped pioneer concepts that have become mainstays of more established leagues, such as both teams getting an offensive opportunity in overtime and mid-game interviews with coaches.
The next frontier is technology.
"Fans, especially younger fans, aren't content now to just settle into a chair with a drink and a hot dog and simply watch. They're going to want to be part of the action," Butera said. "We intend to take fan engagement to the next level, where you are going to part of the action."
Perhaps most immediately with mobile technology, fans will be able to follow the action on the field with smart phones and tablets, and views on those personal devices will be from novel vantage points, such as cameras mounted on player helmets.
There's also the in-running wagering, a type of betting where fans get to wager on, say, whether the next play will be a run or a pass, or whether a team will make a first down. Naturally, laws have to permit such a thing for the Vegas team's games, according to Butera.
"It was a big hit," he said.
Still, Butera wants arena football to be a family attraction, and while he talks about in-running wagering, in the next breath he describes picnic areas in the arenas.
"Whatever we wind up doing," Butera said, "we want it to be social, and we want it to be appropriate, and we're going to make sure that it is just that."
Get Familiar With Frenzied Football Format
The style of football played by the Arena Football League is fast-paced and high-scoring. Here's a primer on how it works:
The field is 50 yards long with 8-yard end zones. The sidelines are padded walls and behind the end zones, there are nets where players can catch balls on
the rebound. Goal posts are just 9-feet wide with a 15-foot high crossbar.
Each team fields eight players. The offense is required to have four men on the line of scrimmage; the defense is required to have three down linemen.
Rosters have 21 players with three inactive.
Like in outdoor football, the offense gets four downs to make a first down, but there is no punting.
There are four 15-minute quarters with a 15-minute halftime. Overtime periods are also 15 minutes.
Scoring is the same as in the NFL with two rare exceptions. Extra-point conversions and field goals are typically place kicks (one and three points), but if a team elects to go with an old-fashioned drop kick, there's an additional point, so a drop-kick extra point conversion is two points and a drop-kick field goal is four points.
Issue 228: December 2016