- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2017

The field is half the size, the ball, somehow, never goes out of bounds and the final tally looks more like a basketball score. Welcome to arena football — Ted Leonsis‘ latest offering for the D.C. sports fan.

The Wizards, Mystics and Capitals owner’s newest franchise, the Washington Valor (he also owns the Arena Football League expansion team in nearby Baltimore) is a far cry from the NFL. But the Verizon Center-based franchise, which plays a 14-game regular season schedule from April to August, seems specifically designed to give pigskin-starved fans an air-conditioned snack to tide them over until the annual fall banquet of football.

So far, there seems to be an appetite, at least locally: 15,700 people attended the Valor’s April 7 home opener — well above the 2016 league average of 9,342 fans. Amazingly, the Valor’s opener isn’t that far behind the NBA’s Wizards, who averaged 17,000 fans at Verizon over the 2016-17 season.

The Valor, part of a five-team, mostly East Coast-based league, are 1-2 going into this weekend’s home game with Tampa Bay (3-1).

Washington, coached by Dean Cokinos, practice at Athletic Performance Inc., in the Maryland suburbs. The facility looks more like a place a family might take a vanload of kids for weekend indoor soccer than a professional football practice facility.

The practice facility’s design is simple — a small turf field, enclosed by a bubble, with inflatable walls on three sides to simulate the walls that surround the 50-yard long AFL field.

The atmosphere in the home opener against the Baltimore Brigade, according to Cokinos, an AFL veteran, was fantastic.

“It was like a playoff game. I’ve been in and out of the Arena League and we’ve played some big buildings in capacity. To get 15,700 in your first game is impressive. We have a lot of support in the community.”

The league has been around, in one form or another, for 30 years. Franchises, players and owners come and go, but the league has some famous alumni, including Redskins coach Jay Gruden, a former AFL MVP and four-time champion as a coach, started his pro career in the AFL.

Cokinos‘ previous coaching experience includes stints in bigger markets like Nashville and New Orleans as well as smaller cities Duluth, Georgia and Huntsville, Alabama.

Like most AFL coaches and players, Cokinos started in the outdoor game, playing running back at the University of Massachusetts Boston before getting into coaching. His biggest challenge as a coach remains helping players adapt to the differences.

The shorter field, with eight men per side instead of 11, speeds up the pace significantly, and games are often high scoring. The Valor won against Baltimore, 51-38. Scoring is the same as traditional football, except two points are awarded if a kicker makes a drop-kick extra point. No player has successfully completed a drop kick extra point since 1997.

The field also looks much different visually. In addition to the walls that surround the field, there are nets that extend outward from each goalpost. The net extends 40 feet above the playing surface, so every ball that would go out of play bounces back onto the field. If a ball hits the net during a play, it is live.

To ensure that games are high scoring, pass rushing rules are modified. There’s no “stunting” or “twisting” by defensive lineman. In other words, players are required to power past offensive lineman.

But perhaps the most important change from traditional football is the man in motion. At the snap, one offensive player may already be going into forward motion. This changes the timing between a quarterback and receiver significantly.

For Valor quarterback Erik Meyer, the man in motion is the biggest point of emphasis he stresses as he works with younger receivers.

“The guy in motion adds a whole different aspect to the game,” Meyer said. “You have to make sure you’re on time with him.”

Like his coach, Meyer is a veteran of the league. The 34-year old began his career with the Spokane Shock in 2010, playing five seasons before moving on to the San Jose SaberCats and now the Valor. Meyer won the Arena Bowl championship with San Jose in 2015 and was the league MVP in 2013 with Spokane.

In its mid 2000s heyday, the Arena League had as many as 18 teams. Today, the league features just five teams. Three of the five teams Cokinos has coached for in the Arena League — the New Orleans VooDoo, Alabama Vipers, and Georgia Force — no longer exist. The San Jose SaberCats ceased existence the same year Meyer led them to a championship.

Leonsis, who heads the Monumental Sports ownership group, is attempting to revive the league.

The ownership of two of the other three teams — the Cleveland Gladiators and the Tampa Bay Storm — also have stakes in the NHL and NBA. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffery Vinik also own their cities’ respective AFL teams.

If the attendance numbers from Washington’s season opener are an indication, Leonsis could be onto something. Cokinos has certainly bought into Leonsis and Monumental.

“Hands down the best organization I’ve ever worked for,” Cokinos said. “I’ve worked in the NFL, college, Arena League. Hands down, first class from the top on down. How they operate as an organization. How they treat people. How it’s all the same message. Community is important. All the things we believe in they believe in. They understand what’s important and how to work together.”

The Valor host the Storm on Saturday at 7 p.m.

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