With its padded walls, 50-yard fields and net-backed end zones, the Arena Football League doesn't look much like the NFL.
Off the field, though, it's beginning to.
The Georgia Force will play the Colorado Crush today in the ArenaBowl, the league's championship game at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Force is owned by Arthur Blank, who also owns the Atlanta Falcons. The Crush is co-owned by Denver Bronco owner Pat Bowlen, St. Louis Ram owner Stan Kroenke and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.
Five of the arena league's 17 teams belong to NFL owners, and two more NFL owners -- Washington's Dan Snyder and San Francisco's John York -- have the rights to future AFL expansion franchises.
"It's kind of energized some of those NFL owners to be part of a game that is so grass-roots and so exciting," said AFL Commissioner David Baker, who said he expects the league to have 20 teams within a few years.
Plenty of arena teams have come and gone since the league played its first season in 1987. There have been 47 franchises, including 14 that moved, nine that changed names and 24 that went out of business.
All but three of the current arena teams were formed in 2000 or later, among them the Avengers, who began playing five years ago. During that span, the value of teams has increased dramatically, in part because of an NBC contract and sponsorship deals with such companies as Nike and Electronic Arts.
"We've made a focused effort to upgrade the quality of our teams -- owners, markets, operations, players," said Casey Wasserman, who paid an unheard-of $5 million for the Avengers in the late 1990s and has seen the cost of AFL franchises triple since then. "That has attracted a lot of partners that we never would have dreamed of."
Still, the league has plenty of room for improvement. Despite a supercharged marketing campaign starring Elway and rocker Jon Bon Jovi, part-owner of the Philadelphia Soul, arena games have averaged a TV rating comparable to that of professional bowling.
The league still fights the image that it's merely a weak imitation of the NFL.
"The AFL," Baker is fond of saying, "is a complement to the NFL, not a competitor."
Although many of the elements are the same, many are different. Arena teams feature a 20-man active roster -- less than half the size of an NFL team's -- with eight players on the field at a time. Arena players line up on offense and defense, with the exception of the kicker, quarterback, one offensive specialist (usually a receiver) and two defensive specialists (usually the cornerbacks). Unlike the NFL, where players are shuttled in and out every down, all non-specialists in the arena league may substitute only once per quarter.
Some arena coaches insist there are plenty of NFL players who do not have the varied skill sets and endurance to play offense and defense the way arena players do. Avenger Coach Ed Hodgkiss agrees with that ... to a point.
"Yes, there are certain players in the NFL who could never play in the arena league, that's true," he said. "What's also true is that Warren Sapp would be the best defensive lineman in our league, and Terrell Owens would be the best receiver."
As for arena players making the step up? "There are guys in the arena league that could definitely play in the NFL in the right situation," he said. "There are a lot of guys right on the cusp."
Of all the arena players to play in the NFL, none is more famous than quarterback Kurt Warner, twice named the NFL's most valuable player when he was quarterback of the Rams. There have been others who have made the jump -- in both directions -- but none is a household name.
Three years ago, the NFL had a chance to buy half of the arena league but allowed the option to expire when it became clear there weren't enough owners willing to make the investment. Now, the NFL is making the investment one arena team at a time. Among the other NFL owners who have arena teams are Jerry Jones of Dallas, Tom Benson of New Orleans and Bud Adams of Tennessee.
"It's a logical extension of the business," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "It's part of the marketing equation to build a football fan base in a market where you can offer multiple ways for fans to consume the sport."
The arena league is banking on a lot of people consuming the sport today, the first time a neutral site has played host to the ArenaBowl. Today's game comes after four days of activities such as awards banquets, concerts, skills competitions and a FanFest event. Bryan Adams is playing the halftime show, and Kool and the Gang is performing afterward -- not exactly the Super Bowl's Paul McCartney, but arena league executives make no apologies for that.
"We think that Las Vegas and the Arena Football League have a lot in common this week," Baker said. "There is going to be a lot of action, a nonstop party that we're all excited about."
The Crush got a reminder last week about the perils of partying too soon. They prematurely set off a confetti cannon before needing overtime to beat the Chicago Rush and reach the ArenaBowl.
That gaffe could be viewed as a reminder to the entire league: Despite the recent success and all the heady attention from NFL owners, getting comfortable can be deadly.