In 1981, NFL executive Jim Foster was watching a soccer game in Madison Square Garden when an idea came forth: If soccer can be played indoors, why not football?
Six years later, Foster's idea came to fruition. Four teams--the Chicago Bruisers, Denver Dynamite, Pittsburgh Gladiators and Washington Commandos--gave birth to the Arena Football League.
How far has the league come since then?
The 2000 season has 17 teams, including expansion franchises in Los Angeles and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., divided into two conferences.
Attendance leaguewide has surpassed 1 million the last four seasons. League officials reported 1,130,322 people watched the 1999 regular-season and playoff games, not too far from the peak attendance of 1,220,344 in 1996. Franchises in Houston, Florida and New Jersey are struggling at the gate, but Chicago and Detroit, where franchises failed in the past, are set to rejoin the league next year.
New Orleans Saint owner Tom Benson is also expected to put a team in New Orleans for the 2001 season, and other NFL owners applying for teams include the Jacksonville Jaguars' Wayne Weaver, the Cleveland Browns' Al Lerner and the Philadelphia Eagles' Jeff Lurie.
In February, the NFL agreed to an exclusive option to purchase up to 49.9% of the Arena league. Many consider that a first step toward becoming a developmental league for the NFL.
In November, league officials signed contracts with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and the Nashville Network. The deal is worth about $25 million over three years, according to Neal Pilson, the league's TV consultant.
TNN will broadcast a Thursday night game of the week throughout the 15-week regular season. Eleven playoff games will be on TNN and both ESPN outlets. ABC will show the Arena Bowl league championship game Aug. 19.
"We're in our 14th year now. That is longer than the USFL and the World Football League," league Commissioner Dave Baker said. "It's longer than the Canadian Football League's excursion into the U.S.
"We've got NFL owners interested in applying for franchises. We've got a higher quality of league owner that's funding a better operation, that's securing better coaching talent. And we are moving out of smaller and medium-sized markets to big markets."
Los Angeles, although a new franchise, is already a major player within the AFL hierarchy.
League owners aren't blind to the fact the Avengers' home arena, Staples Center, is state of the art. Or that owner Casey Wasserman, who paid $5 million in franchise fees for the team 19 months ago, has deep pockets and deep connections within the Los Angeles power structure as the grandson of former Universal/MCA chief Lew Wasserman.
"We want L.A. to succeed for our credibility," league spokesman David Cooper said.
Wasserman, 25, is the youngest owner of a U.S. professional sports team. He's already tired of the label.
"Age has no correlation to running a sports team," he said. "But I think my youth is an advantage to us. I can connect to players in a different way than a 60-year-old man or woman can. And I'm a fan and have been for a long time. I have the energy and excitement and the enthusiasm.
"I hope after the first season people will go, 'Hey, the Avengers are great,' and not 'Oh yeah, that kid runs the team.' "
Wasserman realizes every move he makes, from the saucy billboard advertising campaign that piqued interest and sparked outrage throughout Southern California, to landing Staples Center for home games, will be scrutinized. Under league rules, he's committed to keep the team in L.A. for three years.
"We've set out to build a model organization from the beginning so we have no problem with that microscope on us," Wasserman said. "We fully assume we will live up to what they expect from us. [The league] is pointing a lot of other expansion candidates and new teams to us to gain some insight in starting up a new team in a big city."
The league got a great deal of free publicity because of the play of quarterback Kurt Warner, a former Iowa Barnstormer who led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl championship and was the NFL and Super Bowl most valuable player last season. Warner is one of 22 former Arena players in the NFL. Five coaches have also moved on to the NFL, with three of them--Marty Mornhinweg (San Francisco 49ers), Tom Rossley (Green Bay Packers) and Jim Bates (Miami Dolphins)--as offensive or defensive coordinators.
Which is why Arena owners believe their league is past being a novelty.
"The owners today have been true to the game and have been careful to bring in the right people who won't treat this as a toy," said Dan DeVos, owner of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Rampage, which will host the Avengers in their opener Saturday. "It is a business; we have people depending on us."
This is not the first time Arena football has been in the Southland. The Cobras played one season, 1988, in the Sports Arena, and the Anaheim Piranhas lasted two years before folding in 1997. Wasserman vows to not make the same mistakes.
"In the case of the Cobras there was pretty good fan acceptance for a sport nobody had ever heard of and was really in its first year," he said. "And it had no marketing behind it; they just rolled it out there.
"The Piranhas did a tremendous amount of marketing their first year. But when ownership changed in the second year they did not do that."
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The Arena League teams listed in alphabetical order:
* Western Division--Arizona Wildcats, Los Angeles Avengers, Oklahoma Wranglers, San Jose SaberCats.
* Central Division--Grand Rapids Rampage, Houston ThunderBears, Iowa Barnstormers, Milwaukee Mustangs.
* Southern Division--Carolina Cobras, Florida Bobcats, Nashville Kats, Orlando Predators, Tampa Bay Storm.
* Eastern Division--Albany Firebirds, Buffalo Destroyers, New England Sea Wolves, New Jersey Red Dogs.