WASHINGTON — In the first test of its ability to win fans and influence future investors, the Arena Football League scored high marks, although those connected with the new league know it is far too early to predict long-term success.
Attendance for the opening games in Pittsburgh and Chicago last weekend was higher than league officials had expected. They say a large walk-up crowd on the day of the game was a major factor in the 12,117 who turned up at the 15,052-seat Pittsburgh Civic Arena on Friday night and the 10,103 at the 14,000-seat Horizon in Rosemont, Ill., Saturday.
Jim Foster, president of the four-team league, said he had originally anticipated a crowd of 8,000 to 9,000 for what turned out to be the Pittsburgh Gladiators' 48-46 victory over the Washington Commandos.
"The prediction right along was that they would draw a good crowd in Pittsburgh," Commando assistant coach Jim Williams said as the team began practice this week for Saturday's home opener at Capital Centre against the Denver Dynamite.
A Capital Centre spokesman said about 4,600 tickets had been sold for Saturday's game, and that attendance of 12,000 to 14,000 is expected, based on the walk-up sales of 3,000 to 4,000 in Pittsburgh and Chicago and increased interest in the next few days because of a heavy schedule of local television advertising. A spokesman for the Chicago Bruisers said advance sales for this Friday's game between Chicago and Pittsburgh were at the 5,000-ticket level.
At this point, of course, most "fans" are simply curious about this miniaturized version of football.
Eight players--all of whom, except quarterbacks and kickers, must play both offense and defense--compete on an artificial-turf field that is about one-quarter the size of a traditional football field, designed to fit inside a National Hockey League rink. The field is 85 feet wide and 66 yards long (50 yards for play and two eight-yard end zones).
The goal posts--much narrower and slightly higher than the NFL version--are flanked by a pair of nets (30 feet high by 35 feet wide). A pass or kick that hits the net is still in play.
Six points are awarded for touchdowns, one for a conversion by place kick, two for conversion by pass, three for a field goal by place kick, four for a field goal by drop kick and two for a safety. The game consists of four 15-minute quarters.
Dwayne Dixon, the Commando wide receiver who caught 11 passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns in Washington's loss, said the league's major task is to turn curious fans into permanent followers.
"At first it's a novelty. Once (fans) see the game, they'll say, 'This is the game we've been waiting for the last 50 or 60 years,' " he said.
Asked how long the game will have before its novelty wears off, Denver Coach Tim Marcum said arena football is, and always will be, something different from the NFL.
"You want it to be a football purist game, and it is not," he said. "We're always going to have those nets. I don't know the story of indoor soccer, but it's not soccer, it's indoor soccer. We're not football, we're indoor football."
Fatigue was a major factor for all four teams last weekend, even though players prepared themselves to play both ways.
"Psychologically, they're not as ready for it because they haven't done it in a while," Commando Coach Bob Harrison said, comparing the Commandos' first effort to the first time "a heavyweight goes 15 rounds. The first time, he doesn't think he can make it. The second time, it becomes easier."
"I came in with the idea that it's a quick, fast-paced game," said Denver wide receiver-defensive back Larry Friday, who played four seasons for the Cleveland Browns. "Being tired is just a way of life."
Denver running back-defensive back Chris Brewer said he was told about the quicker pace and prepared for it, but "still, the game was so fast." He said the most tiring aspect of the Dynamite's 52-44 overtime win over the Bruisers was, oddly enough, celebrating after touchdowns.
"After the fourth or fifth touchdown . . . we might have to get like the Lakers and just point at each other (following scores)," he said. "After a while, it wears you out."
Brewer, who played one season for the Denver Broncos, said that although some players may not be thinking about an NFL career, he is "definitely interested" in making it back. "That's part of the reason for coming out here. But there are only so many spots in the NFL. I'm 25 years old and haven't been operated on yet."
Although running, tackling and blocking are the same everywhere, Marcum said, arena football requires a different coaching strategy from the conventional game.
"You have different plays as opposed to a 53-yard-wide field (in the NFL)," he said. "It's like a game of its own . . . We know we have man coverage, and we know we have a 26-yard (wide) field."