The AF El-way
What have we done? We’ve created a monster. When "names" became a part of the AFL such as Jon Bon Jovi, Ron Jaworski, Mike Ditka, Tim McGraw, and the aforementioned Elway, the league’s exposure boomed. Games were no longer broadcast on TNN, rather on the glitzy and glamorous NBC. The ArenaBowl became a giant spectacle, players were making the most money they have ever made, and more and more stable franchises were making their mark on the league.
We weren’t fooled, though. We knew that the neutral site ArenaBowl was a sign of things to come. We knew that we had been sold out in the name of corporate sponsors. The game was changed. We were resigned to that fact. But beyond all else, the game on the field was the same game we have always had. Sure, a few minor rules have been tweaked along the way and the coaching strategies have perhaps put a different spin on the game’s evolution, but it was the same old game. We were content to be a small league. We were a niche sport, but it was OUR niche sport.
My friends, our monster is now out of control. We are now merely a puppet. Though the silver lining in all of this is that an association between the NFL and AFL assures that the league will continue growing for years to come, a trip across the Atlantic Ocean will prove just how detrimental this statement of Mr. Elway’s is.
Let’s travel to Frankfurt, Germany, home of the Frankfurt Galaxy. The Galaxy are one of the 4 founding teams in NFL Europe (then the World League) from 1991 and the only one of the four to still be in existence. Last season, the Galaxy’s oldest player was 27 years old and the mass majority of them were allocated by NFL teams. Only 9 of the 55 players returned to the Galaxy from their 2005 campaign, 3 of which were national players, those players who represent a specific country rather than a specific team in the NFL. On your average 24 man AFL roster, this means that you’d see 3 or 4 returning players from the previous season. None of the starting quarterbacks in NFL Europe over the past three seasons have played for more than 1 year with their club, so if the AFL is going to become "NFLized" and become an NFL development league, we can throw out the idea of seeing a quarterback for an entire game, let alone an entire season or multiple seasons. NFL Europe is basically a haven for young players to hone their skills. The quality of football is extremely low, simply because these teams have a short period of time to gel together and the fact that playing time is split regardless of how talented a player is.
Literally, this could change the entire face of the league. All of the single season and career records will never get a chance to be broken. Coaches will no longer be so interested in winning games. The goal of a developmental league isn’t to win, but to develop young talent. Fans will no longer be associated with anything but their coaches, as they are the only constant in the league.
Maybe it’s a coincidence… The first coach of the Frankfurt Galaxy? Jack Elway, John’s father.
Okay, perhaps I am taking this a bit too far. But seriously, would it surprise anyone? It simply didn’t occur by chance that the AFL is likely to be found on some combination of NFL Network and ESPN this season just like the NFL. It wasn’t just a coincidence that all of these announcements occur on the heels of the AFL allowing free substitution (or abolishing the Ironman rule… however you choose to look at it). It’s wasn’t just lucky that there are so many former NFL players being signed as free agents this year. As it has been dubbed on the message boards by several fans, we have turned into "NFL Lite." What’s to say that receivers moving forward before the snap will be next to go? Or the walls are suddenly out of bounds and no longer live? Or the NFL timing rules be added? Or the jack linebacker being allowed to roam wherever he wants? Anything is possible. I never thought I’d see the day of free substitution. I can’t even imagine what is next in making the game "as much like the NFL as possible."
My fellow fans: I stand here today knowing that my voice cannot be heard alone. I have said this on several instances, but the time is now to speak up. Contact your team representatives, the league, and all of your fellow fans to speak up in unison. You can take away or Arena Bowl, you can take away our Ironmen, but don’t take away our game as we know it. We don’t need to be "NFLized." We are perfectly content like we are.
But this isn’t the fans’ way anymore. The league used to be run by the fans. What we want is no longer the way the league is run. Now it’s run the "El"way.
And Mr. Elway, with all due respect, the AFL is a very "watchable" game… unless of course there’s a playoff in the golf tournament before it.
Adam Markowitz is a freelance sports writer living in Orlando. As a Florida State graduate with degrees in music and history, the garnet and gold will forever be a part of him, but he bleeds the black and red of the Orlando Predators like none other. Adam has been following the AFL since 1991 and has been at well over 150 games, including 12 ArenaBowls. You can follow Adam on Twitter @AFLGuru.