There was no mention of the NFL at ArenaBowl XXXI, until Washington Valor interim head coach Benji McDowell found a moment in the post-game press conference to brag about his players.
McDowell, after a 69-55 victory over the Baltimore Brigade at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore that secured the Valor’s first Arena Football League championship, was seated between ArenaBowl MVP Arvell Nelson (five rushing touchdowns, three passing) and defensive lineman Jake Payne.
“We have so many guys that are NFL type of players,” McDowell said, “and it’s not just us, it’s all around this league. You look and you see guys who’ve had those opportunities or should have those opportunities. I’m sitting next to two of those type of guys that could literally play in the NFL right now.”
This wasn’t the NFL. NFL fans might riot if a 2-10 team like the Valor sniffed the playoffs, let alone won the league championship. But the AFL’s best path forward is not to copy the bigger league, according to Valor and Brigade owner Ted Leonsis, who said he was drawn in by the “anti-NFL” aspects of arena football.
“Why would you want to be a poor man’s version of the giant of the sports landscape and not take advantage of it being indoors?” Leonsis told The Washington Times.
One of the reasons league owners like Leonsis and Ron Jaworski are serious about expanding the AFL again is because they see a built-in audience for the product. The AFL has only missed one season since it was founded in 1986, and some of its fans have stuck around the entire time.
In today’s football landscape, where the long-term health of the NFL greatly differs based on who you ask, the AFL chugs along. Could the NFL learn something from its indoor sister?
To be fair, just 8,183 fans attended ArenaBowl XXXI — a record low for the game. The website arenafan.com reported that Royal Farms Arena opened the upper bowl to sell $10 tickets, but those seats were largely empty Saturday.
But the diverse group of fans who did attend took in a show. On the field, it was the high-octane, 8-on-8 version of gridiron football at its best, but that’s not the whole picture. Before the gates opened, many fans recognized first-year AFL commissioner Randall Boe mingling with fans. Once inside, DJ Chris Styles pumped in remixed music as fans headed to their seats, many of them just yards away from the bumper-protected sidelines.
But the big draw is in the “party zone,” where fans can stand over the wall of an end zone, eat and drink with friends and maybe catch a stray pass like it’s a foul ball at a baseball game.
The Valor and Brigade are two-year-old teams, so they have new and growing fan bases filled with newcomers like Phil Allin.
“If you want that experience of being on the field, chit-chatting a little bit with players, maybe catching a football which you get to keep, it’s awesome,” said Allin, a Valor fan.
However, Saturday’s championship game also drew people like Ken Gill, who came down from Scranton, Pennsylvania and wore a retro Arizona Rattlers jersey. He called himself a 31-year fan of the league.
“Even though I’m nervous about only four teams, I like the fact that Jaworski and Leonsis are running it. They’ve had success everywhere else,” Gill said. “It can only go up.”
Some fans like Gill strongly preferred the arena game to the NFL, while others just liked adding the AFL to their football diet.
“It’s more fun than you should have. It’s a time in which we don’t actually have football active,” Valor fan Justin Rollins said. “It’s before the NFL games start. It’s after the draft. It’s kind of a whole area in which, if you’re a fan of football, you can go see quality players.”
Ultimately, the reasons these fans enjoy the AFL are precisely things the NFL cannot replicate, nor would it wish to. It’s played during the NFL offseason; the league is smaller with an arena experience some fans relish more than NFL stadiums; and most resoundingly, fans have “access” to AFL teams and players.
Jordan and Dana Ziegler, a couple from Fairfax, Virginia, wore matching T-shirts autographed by every player on the Valor. The ArenaBowl was just the second Valor game they attended.
“I think the NFL is just a little big,” Jordan Ziegler said. “They do a lot to try to connect with their fans through media, all kinds of media, and it’s just not really the same as getting really close to the team.”
That’s not only the chance to talk with players between plays from the “party zone.” One perfect example: Valor season-ticket holders got to go bowling with players after the season last summer in Georgetown.
“The great thing is for us being close to the field, we actually know the players,” Allin said. “We feel like we’ve had some interaction. We’ve had events with them.”
Though the AFL fell off the mainstream radar in recent years, it used to have television deals with the likes of ESPN, and Bud Light was ArenaBowl XXXI’s presenting sponsor. It has corporations’ attention.
With its relatively small but passionate fan base, and with serious and ambitious owners in place — who McDowell, the Valor coach, said “can sell ice to eskimos” — the AFL is already thinking about 2019.
“Right now, we’re like, ‘What are we going to do next year?’” McDowell said. “A few years ago, soon as you win the ArenaBowl, you’re like, ‘What is next? I might not even be here.’”