To the uninitiated, the NFL is synonymous with professional football. Despite new additions like the XFL, the National Football League has a chokehold on national broadcasting and viewership. After all, football is America’s favorite sport.
But not too long ago, another player entered the game: the Arena Football League. Yes, from 1987 to 2008, Arena Football represented an alternative to college and pro-ball. The league actually had a brief revival in 2018, but ultimately shuttered its doors in 2019, filing for bankruptcy.
Arena football is technically a different version of the game we watch every Sunday. It was invented in 1981 by Jim Foster, a former executive of the NFL, inspired by the success of the Major Indoor Soccer League. Arena Football similarly plays indoors and on a smaller field that’s closer in size to a hockey rink. As a result, the game is frequently higher scoring, with turnovers happening more often. Rather than having distinct lineups, linemen play both offense and defense. Because of the size of the field, punting is barred but besides that, it looks a lot like normal football.
The AFL stayed largely on the outskirts of American sports, but games frequently attracted between 10,000 and 13,000 fans. The league likely peaked in national attention in 1989 when Pittsburgh Gladiators coach, Joe Haering, punched AFL commissioner Jim Foster. An altercation that started between players soon incorporated coaches and executives in a first, and likely only, for professional football.
Beyond the occasional fights, the AFL gave us some great games and teams, including the Portland Forest Dragons, the New York City Hawks, the Connecticut Coyotes, and the Albany Firebirds. The Tampa Bay Storm (originally the Pittsburgh Gladiators) and the Arizona Rattlers were the most dominant teams, with five championship wins apiece.
The AFL expanded to include a developmental league in 1999, called af2. Different from baseball’s minor league, af2 did not have strict team associations. Players could and would move from af2 to the AFL, but teams couldn’t “shotty” them. As a result, expansion teams formed in lesser-populated cities, like Lexington, Kentucky, Boise, Idaho, and Youngstown, Ohio. Players made $200-$500 per game, with a minimum $50 victory bonus. Ah, the good old days.
Truth be told, we miss the heyday of arena football. Sure, it’s hard to compete with the NFL, but the AFL tried its best, and we’ll always love it for that.
Check out our full collection of Arena Football League t-shirts.