As the 2017 Arena Football League season is now officially closed, it’s a fine time to look at the various indoor and arena leagues and where they are. Some have shrunk, others expanded. Some folded, others launched. While there are several sets of detractors speaking out against the AFL and NAL because of recent instability, it appears they aren’t the only ones with issues surrounding their short term futures. Are leagues dead? Are certain codes of the sport dead? A worst-case scenario is life support, and even then there’s an argument against that.
To full look at where the indoor game is, it’s best to look at the sport in tiers. First, note that there are some slight, but important, differences between arena and indoor football (motion rules, nets, timing, running, etc.). Second, each version has two tiers, with Tier 1 being the top level and Tier 2 being just a notch below (be it size, talent, etc.)
A code that’s been around for just over 30 years. However, times have been tough since 2009. One season in the dark, and a league struggling to even maintain, let alone grow, since a return in 2010. Between issues with finances, owners, and changes in leadership, there’s been a series of changes and questions amidst a run of “transition years.” Nevertheless, there may be hope.
Two leagues in this tier: the founding Arena Football League and the China Arena Football League.
Arena Football League
The Arena Football League, as mentioned above, is going through a rough period. For the first time in league history, the ArenaBowl was not televised. After spending nearly a decade hovering between 16 and 19 teams, the league dropped (first steadily, then dramatically) from 18 teams in 2011 to just five in 2017. As teams left in droves and the league changed commissioners and locations headquarters, there were doubts if the league would even survive.
Now, with an expiring collective bargaining agreement and talk of expansion, signs are trending upward. If things come to pass, there will be two owners who control three teams in the major four North American sports, with a steady focus on finding solid ownership in good markets. A reduction of the season is necessary and in talks, but the one major hurdle is salary.
When Joe Hills left the Tampa Bay Storm late in the season to join the National Arena League’s Jacksonville Sharks for their playoff run, fans and pundits alike had questions on both ends. How much money was involved? Who was making the decisions? Would the NAL continue to poach players? How would the AFL respond?
In the end, Hills’ stint with the Sharks was just one game. His suspension from the AFL was only one game after an initial announcement he would miss the rest of the season. This will, and should, be a sticking point with the AFLPU in upcoming negotiations. If it leads to any sort of work stoppage, the league won’t be able to recover from this.
If it’s squared away before the new year, then 2018 and beyond will be a booming time in the AFL. Will it mean a return to former glory? Probably not, but again, there’s hope.
China Arena Football League
China enjoyed a fantastic debut season in arena football. Granted, coverage in the US is a little iffy, but that can grow with time. The barnstorming format worked perfectly, and it could work again for season two.
However, with the decision to move the season back from the summer to the spring to be concurrent with the AFL, there are bigger plans. There’s talk of a true world championship, and it would be fantastic if done properly (e.g. rotating hosting between league champions). But, the CAFL can’t be a five-week deal if this happens. If there are new owners looking to expand to ten teams, great.
Even at six, a triple round-robin, 15-week schedule would match either a double round-robin, 14-week schedule or a triple round-robin, 15-week schedule stateside.
Conjecture aside, between the draft, the accommodations, and the growth of the game internally in China, if the CAFL survives through the early 2020s, this can and will be a force to be reckoned with. To survive that long, the league needs to stabilize quickly. Two teams changing cities in the offseason can be a good thing, but it can’t be a pattern.
This is where things can get tricky. There are two leagues in this tier: the National Arena League and the American Arena League. One sprang up out of the blue thanks to a defection from the AFL, and the other is a result of a merger that’s struggling to get a foothold.
National Arena League
Jeffery Bouchy of the Jacksonville Sharks was not happy with the AFL and the direction they were going. The feeling was extremely mutual thanks to rumors and fines of excessive player payments, as well as building superteams and making personnel decisions based on hosting playoff games. Rather than shaping up, Bouchy shipped out and joined a group that formed the National Arena League. Bouchy got what he wanted: a championship and a nearly-perfect season. However, it came at a price.
The Dayton Wolfpack couldn’t find an arena in Ohio, so an Atlanta-based ownership group took over and the league became a traveling team with all home games canceled, altering the league schedule and possibly the playoff race. Then, another ownership group took over midseason and used the league as a pilot to launch their own team (the Georgia Doom).
Due to contract issues, the Sharks had two extra home games than anyone else. On top of that, the league took control of two teams (the Corpus Christi Rage and the Georgia Firebirds), and the Rage suspended operations in their bye week.
While the announcement of five expansion teams should be good news, the fact that the league sent an open invitation for teams and the Aug. 15 deadline came and went without any further announcements aren’t. This could be a one-and-done league if this pattern continues, especially if there’s no real salary agreement set in place for the NAL. There’s a lot of pre-2008 AFL signs present here, if not worse.
American Arena League
The aforementioned Georgia Doom are charter members of the AAL, formed as a merger between Arena Pro Football and the Can-Am Indoor League, with some Supreme Indoor Football teams sprinkled in. Yes, this is a rookie league, but there are already nine teams and an established regional presence up and down the east coast. How the schedule sets up and how travel is arranged could be a determining factor in what happens, but this is a good alpha year. Ideally, an NAL/AAL title game would be great to see eventually, but that’s years down the road at a bare minimum.
Much like the schism in rugby, there was a schism in arena football in the early 2000s. With different rules, indoor leagues sprang up and competed quite well as the AFL ran into their trouble. But since then, indoor football has had troubles of their own.
There’s only one league here, the Indoor Football League. As of late, a safe haven for teams fleeing the AFL (Arizona, Colorado, Spokane) with good regional rivalries and a great scheduling setup has taken a sharp downturn. Project FANchise, who took over ownership of two teams (Colorado and the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles, decided to bail on the league to start their own (based on a concept that fans pick head coaches and call plays during the game…not visually appealing to say the least, and fans lost interest after the first touchdown).
Again in a mode of radio silence, both Colorado and Salt Lake went up for sale, with Spokane suspending operations a month later. With a Sept. 1 deadline for commitment in 2018, only five of the remaining seven teams (Arizona, Cedar Rapids, Green Bay, Nebraska, and Iowa) have made the leap of faith, while Sioux Falls have left for the Champions Indoor Football (CIF) with the Witchita Falls Nighthawks expected to follow them.
The league could mirror the AFL and pursue with five teams, but Arizona could find themselves as isolated in the IFL as they did during their last years in the AFL. If that’s the case, the Rattlers could be a team without a home once again. Unlikely to start their own league with teams out west (unless they dig up San Jose, Sacramento, Portland, and some other teams by the wayside), a cornerstone franchise could come to an abrupt end.
This is another league to watch as the season turns to autumn. There are more teams that could say goodbye, and the league itself may cease to exist.
There’s a little twist to this tier, as originally there was only the one team set for this feature, but there’s a new league that’s just decided to introduce themselves.
Champions Indoor Football
The largest of all the leagues mentioned so far (13 teams), the trend has been far more expansion than contraction. While two teams did leave, the Quad City Steamwheelers of the old af2 (they had issues there, banned from the playoffs in 2002 because of salary cap violations and losing once in their first two seasons) came to the rescue. Expansion hasn’t been rapid, but very steady, which is good. But losing teams because of either fees or lack of opponents isn’t. This is a league that needs commitment and financial stability from its owners if it wants to stick around and replace the IFL as the Tier 1 indoor league. It can, but it won’t be easy.
Elite Indoor Football
If you haven’t even heard of this league, you’re not alone by any means. The Savannah Steam founded this league. Never heard of them, either? Again, not alone. Long story short, the Steam is owned by a man who is also the head coach, and has ducked leagues due to not paying bills (this sounds somewhat familiar). What’s worse, the team changed cities because they’re currently forbidden to play in one because of payments. Even worse, owner Bobby Dammarell’s wife Jenny filed for Chapter 13 and spent time in jail for passing bad checks to owners and staff.
This is a team that’s starting a league, and once played in a converted warehouse. Ever see bets involving crazy tattoos for game outcomes? I’m on the verge of starting one gambling on this league’s launch, let alone survival.
The sport is not dead. There are several things to fix, but I’m willing to give it at least another year or two. Granted, if certain decisions go the wrong way, then 2018 may be the last season we talk about any sort of meaningful indoor football.
If we arrive at springtime with nothing but bad news following us there, then it may all be just about over. I’m not here to bury indoor and arena football, but to praise it. I want something to keep praising. While the last three seasons have not been encouraging, there is a level of optimism. Can that optimism bring in owners? Maybe. Can it bring in fans? Likely. Can it keep a sport going? Like always, there’s hope.