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AFL Before and After

Jonathan Willis
Wednesday May 7, 2014

I first started watching Arena Football 10 years ago and despite some (okay, a lot of) initial resistance, I grew to appreciate this peculiar game and the niche it began to hold in my sports watching schedule.  After some initial confusion about the different rules, the game was easy to pick up and I got more and more into it with each season.

It took a few seasons, but I finally took the full plunge back in 2006 when I went to an Orlando Predators game with my good friend Adam Markowitz.  The atmosphere was electrifying, the game was intense, and the quality of football was fantastic.  While the players weren't on par with guys in the NFL, or even the CFL, it was still a quality product out on the field.  Many of the players that you watched over the course of the AFL season would end up playing in Canada or the NFL by the time the ArenaBowl had been decided.
When the league folded due to financial problems at the end of the 2008 season, people questioned whether the AFL could ever come back and if so, what kind of damage had been done to the reputation of the brand.  This last weekend, I took my first trip back to an AFL game since the league resumed play in 2010, and while the fan support was close to what it was when the league folded, the talent on the field was sadly not comparable to what I witnessed on the field six years ago.  I respect the players and the effort they put forth, but facts are facts.  The league has a long way to go to catch up to where it was at before it reorganized in 2009.
Let's look at the quarterbacks, the lifeblood of any good AFL team.  2008 saw a healthy mixture of great veterans and a solid class of up-and-comers who should be in the prime of their careers right now.  However, only a couple of those guys are still playing in the AFL, and there is only one superstar QB in the league right now, Nick Davila of the Arizona Rattlers.  2008 saw great quarterback play from almost every team with virtually every starting quarterback completing at least 60% of his passes.  So far in 2014, only four starters are completing over 60% of their passes, a dreadful number for a league that relies so heavily on the passing game.   Six years ago, fans also saw competent back-ups in case the starter went down.  Nowadays, a starting QB going down is not just a time to panic, but a time to pull the ejection cables and get out of the cockpit.  
There is no depth at all in the league anymore, something I saw firsthand at the Orlando Predators-San Jose SaberCats game I attended.  Predators' QB Jason Boltus was injured late in the first half trying to bring Orlando back into the game and back-up QB Wilson Masoud could only muster six points in the second half to make the game a laugher early in the third quarter.  Masoud made a habit of throwing inaccurate passes, and San Jose's defense responded by teeing off on the young quarterback, registering seven sacks in the blowout win.  
The sad thing is though, the energy wasn't quite what it was in 2008; it could conceivably get back to that point with adequate investment in the product on the field.  The talent isn't what it was before the lockout and won't get there without significantly raising player salaries.  The AFL has always been the most fan-friendly league in America and will continue to enjoy a certain level of support among diehards, fans missing football, and families looking for a fun night of entertainment at a reasonable price.  For the league to grow and thrive again though, the quality on the field must improve.  Fans watching at home don't get to see, hear, feel, or experience what makes the AFL so unique compared to other sports, and without that atmosphere, viewers must judge the merits of the game on the gameplay.  Until this improves, the AFL will only be seen as a very niche league with little help of finding traction with new viewers.

Jonathan Willis is a lifelong sports fan currently residing in Monterey, CA. A small part of him died when NFL Europe was cancelled and now lives vicariously through the CFL and the AFL. He will always relish Brock Berlin throwing pick sixes both for the University of Miami and the Hamburg Sea Devils.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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