- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

Quarterback Mike Scipione dropped back smartly and lofted a high pass toward pay dirt.

A very high pass.

Over and over it spiraled majestically - over the goal line, over the end zone, over a restraining fence at D.C. Armory in Southeast. Scipione, who was a record-setting passer at Division III Western Connecticut, did better on his second attempt of the evening. This one cleared the goal line and end zone but fell short of the fence.

Such was life Saturday night for the D.C. Armor in their first home game as an expansion member of the 3-year-old American Indoor Football Association. Although Scipione eventually threw two touchdown passes, the visiting Reading Express found enough chinks in the Armor’s defense to notch a 39-19 victory.

Of course, the result wasn’t really what mattered. The size of the crowd was, and Armor owner/general manager/chief investor Corey Barnette proclaimed the evening “an overwhelming success” because 2,114 paying customers attended.

Actually, Barnette was being conservative in that evaluation. Erik Moses, CEO of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, and PA announcer Jim Clarke referred to it as a “historic” occasion, which might have been stretching a point or two.

Yet there is no reason to pan the Armor, except perhaps for a defense that has permitted a total of 120 points while enduring two losses in three games. The team, composed mostly of players who failed or didn’t get a chance at a higher level, has 11 games left. So maybe the defense and Scipione will learn to flatten opponents and passes, respectively, before the season ends in June.

Indoor football is nothing new hereabouts. A team called the Washington Commandos played at Capital Centre several decades ago but didn’t last long. In recent years, the Arena Football League gained some attention but apparently not enough because it has suspended operations at least for 2009. But the way Barnette and Moses see it, that leaves a hole to be filled.

Armor tickets at the 68-year-old Armory cost as little as $20, making the games attractive for family outings. That amount might get you parking at FedEx Field, provided Redskins tickets were available. But it remains to be seen whether the area’s passion for pro football will rub off on the Armor.

Any resemblance between the NFL and AIFA is strictly accidental. Most players are paid a couple hundred dollars a game, use a red-and-white ball and perform on a 50-yard field. And the less said about the skill level the better. Scipione wasn’t the only jock who struggled in the opener, to use the politest term possible.

The biggest culprit, however, might have been the AIFA schedule maker. While the Armor labored mightily Saturday night, D.C. United was booting a soccer ball across the street at RFK Stadium. Elsewhere in town, the Nationals and Wizards were playing, and Cherry Blossom events were unfolding. Plus, the Final Four semifinals were on TV. Under the circumstances, it wouldn’t have been surprising had the Armor drawn 214 spectators rather than 2,114.

“That’s a heck of a lineup to go against,” Barnette admitted ruefully, “and there’s an educational process where indoor football is concerned. But our games will be on TV [later each week on WJLA Channel 7], and I’d feel good if we could average a solid 4,000 for the season.”

That seems somewhat unlikely in this major league market, but who knows? If fans like to root for an underdog, both the Armor and their league could catch on.

“Where else can a family of four see a game for under $100?” Moses asked rhetorically. D.C. Sports & Entertainment brought the Armor to town “to enrich the local community,” but even its CEO appeared less than enthralled by the proceedings.

“I have to get home right after the game,” Moses said. “I’m a North Carolina alum, and I want to see the Heels beat Villanova [in the Final Four].”

First things first when it comes to being a sports fan. But maybe on the District’s sporting scene, there could be a bit of space for the Armor.