Amazing, Alluring - And With An Asterisk
What would an ArenaBowl mean to Cleveland?
"I keep saying LeBron James is the second biggest story in town after us," coach Steve Thonn joked.
Remember when Barry Bonds passed Hank Aaron? When a once sleek-suddenly brawny San Francisco Giant stole baseball’s home-run mark? He had that mark, still has that mark, but always with an asterisk.
Maybe an asterisk is the best way to understand how Cleveland would react to an ArenaBowl title. Look, it matters here – probably more than it would in most cities. When the Gladiators downed the Orlando Predators to advance to the ArenaBowl, their victory was featured on the front page of Cleveland’s leading periodical, The Plain Dealer.
Not just Page One of the sports section – Page One of the paper, period. The Plain Dealer headline summarized why it mattered: "A football championship in Cleveland?"
"It's huge," quarterback Shane Austin said. "I know they haven't won one for a while."
Of course, to many Clevelanders, it was as educational as it was celebratory. For many Clevelanders, this was their first introduction to the Gladiators. And therein lies the limit. Cleveland, you see, is not a bandwagon town. This is a town where life hangs on the Cleveland Browns, no matter how paltry the results. Read Cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer’s website, sometime. The most read stories nearly always read like this:
Cavaliers Minor Free Agent Signing
Browns Quarterback Battle
Indians Trade Rumors
This is a sports town. A Browns, Cavaliers and Indians town. This town – to use a relationship term – is taken. The Gladiators may be hot - but it's just not the same. So, would a Gladiators championship matter? Sure, the Gladiators are certainly relevant – due in no small part to the efforts of Dan Gilbert.
Wide receiver Dominick Goodman’s visage hangs from Quicken Loans Arena – in plain view through the left field crevice of The Jake (yes, these fans here are adamant about it being The Jake, not Progressive Field).
When you build it, they will come.
And they’ve come. The Gladiators were third in the Arena Football League with more than 10,000 fans per game this season. 14,543 fans came to the American Conference title game. The top five single-game attendances in the League this season:
*Denotes Cleveland home games
That means the second-highest, fourth-highest and fifth-highest attendances in the League all belong to Cleveland.
"The fans have been great all year long," defensive back Dominic Jones said. "That's why we wanted to continue winning. Toward the end of the season, people were like, 'Are they going to rest guys?' No, we wanted to have the playoffs here and the ArenaBowl come through Cleveland. That's what we believe, man,"
So, in short, it will matter.
Perhaps, most important, as a pretty thread in the growing narrative about Cleveland's revival. First, winning the Gay Games, then drafting Johnny Manziel, then earning the right to host the 2016 Republican National Convention and then bringing back LeBron James.
Downtown occupancy is above 95 percent. Construction is all over. Cleveland's young adult population is better educated than that of Chicago, Seattle and Austin. In some ways, the Gladiators' rise is powerful because it intersects so neatly with Cleveland's.
"Cleveland's beautiful too," Austin joked, when asked about previous stops, including college in Hawaii. "I've been a lot of different places, but right now, I wouldn't rather be anywhere but here. I'm having a blast here in Cleveland. The guys have been good to me. The city has been great."
Team on the rise. Town on the rise. And yet when I asked my girlfriend whether she’d join me for the ArenaBowl, she said no. Why? The Browns are playing right next door.
Asterisk, it is.