Arena football finally got rocking last weekend as the upstart Massachusetts Pirates and Maine Mammoths opened the National Arena League’s second season before an energized crowd of nearly 5,500 at the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts on Saturday night.
The game, a convincing 51-24 win for the Pirates behind former Ivy League and AFL quarterback Sean Brackett’s six touchdown passes, was significant more for its production than competitve value. From pregame tailgate parties to fog and lightshow introductions to a halftime performance by national recording artist Kid Ink, youthful Pirates president Jawad Yatim and his staff spared little in enthralling fans who’d been cast into an AAL-induced coma ever since Punxsutawney Phil’s prognosis for a late spring.
So how did the 28-year old Yatim manage to do something that more experienced league execs could not? Simple. He combined onfield talent with a generous measure of front office give-a-damn, an apparently elusive formula to stodgy ownership groups in the AAL and lesser leagues such as the EIFL who lack any regard for making their games a viewing experience.
The Pirates began appealmg to fans through an aggressive ad campaign on New England’s most popular CBS Radio sports station even before the AFL knew it would have an upcoming season. Earlier this month, they secured a deal with New England Sports Network, broadcasters of Red Sox and Bruins games, to televise their full eight-game home slate while the AAL and EIFL were cancelling scheduled games.
It was a bold marketing ploy for Yatim that paid off as fans from all over New England flocked to centrally-located Worcester in numbers greater than in Saturday night’s three AAL games combined.
Meanwhile, 700 miles to the south, it was Quaalude Night at the Greensboro Coliseum, where the Carolina Cobras dulled the modest crowd in a 41-38 loss to the Jacksonville Sharks. Any scintilla of energy at the outset was quickly extinguished after a tedious opening drive of nearly 14 minutes that featured ten penalties and five passes targeted to fans as many as ten rows deep. The promise of free footballs did keep folks from heading over to the Ballroom Dance Showcase at the Carolina Theatre down the street, but it also underscored a deficiency of talent that Yatim’s opening night did not lack.
Both the Pirates and Mammoths have rosters stacked with Division I collegiate talent who have been on and off arena, CFL, and NFL rosters and – excepting the kickers – managed to keep the ball inside the dasher boards all night. But it was the play of seasoned Pirates veterans such as Eddie Norrils and John Griggs on defense, and Orlandus Harris, Brackett, and the beastly Dashawn Johnson on offense, that stoked the crowd, who returned the favor to make it an electric first night.
With the AFL finally returning this weekend, Saturday nights of watching arena football on YouTube and listening to broadcasters calling players by their jersey numbers will now be limited. But in the case of the Pirates, it’s comforting to know there will still be options.