Eight weeks into this season, the American Arena League is still a hot mess. Nevermind that two teams folded before the season started, and rumors are swirling about the East Carolina Torch joining them. Put aside the abrupt departure of a league co-founder whose resignation was accepted at exactly 9:08 on April 14 with an implication that not another minute could pass, the Federal grand jury indictment of one ownership group, and the lengthy rap sheet of another owner that was punctuated by his own feces, which he smeared onto the lens of his jail cell surveillance camera. Throw in three canceled games and you’re looking at a second-stage cluster-fuck even before we get to the real problem, which is the inherent imbalance that comes with a league that never once had direction or identity.
This may be the most expansive collection of franchises ever assembled, one with a foot mired in the pigsty of semi-pro football as the other lunges for the green pastures that come with being an AFL feeder league. It includes a team that plays in a high school gym where the free-standing dasher boards quiver like a bowl of jello when a player hits them, and another that plays with only one goalpost, necessitating the ‘losers walk’ rule of street football after every score. Then there are the Roughriders, who play in the 12,000-seat Richmond Coliseum. Three teams have no broadcast or media presence of any sort, while at least two produce behind-the-scenes documentaries and another has Scarlett O’Hara reporting from the sidelines whenever the broadcast booth needs a blow.
While this Vaudeville-on-carpet act may offer something for such a mix of disparate resources, it offers nothing for the fan. Through eight weeks, 34 league games have been played (there were two interleague games with EIFL opponents), and the average margin of victory is 34.2 points. Fully one-third of all AAL games – 11 in all – have been decided by 42 points or more; eight by 60 or more. The typical game is a blowout, which shouldn’t be surprising. After all, where else does a wide receiver who never played beyond high school get thrown to the ground by a former NFL cornerback?
The AAL’s problem is more of concept than of either leadership or execution. Although it was on the draft board before either the Arena Pro League or Can-Am Indoor Football League – its original progenitors – ended their 2017 seasons, the AAL nevertheless retained a thrown-together feel all winter as all but one Can-Am team folded before ever joining, and replacements were stitched together on a first-come, first-served basis from the remnants of other one-and-done leagues like Supreme Indoor Football. Rosters, too, were stitched together, initially seeded with hopefuls who dropped $100 for a tryout and a free tee shirt until they could be replaced by bigger names trickling down from bigger leagues that began jamming the paths of younger players those bigger leagues were looking to the AAL to blaze.
The AAL has in fact sold out its own mission in the hope of turnoff ing a few bucks at the gate, and that has failed miserably. Tune into any YouTube broadcast and you can count attendance for yourself. I couldn’t find 50 at the last Torch game in the Duplin County Events Center, a venue that holds 100 times that. Fans don’t want 4-A players; they want rising stars.
Granted, it’s going to be hard for the AAL to find an identity in the midst of this Sybil-like season, but there are things that can be done. With so much talent wasting in free agency pools, centralized player recruitment and assignment by positional need would push underperforming teams back onto the road toward parity rather than allowing them to stagnate in the culverts with cheap – or often free – local players. To ensure front office integrity, the league could collect the minimum per-game player salary in advance and pay players directly. Teams that cancel games would see that minimum pay advance become a fine. And finally, hire some nearby college interns to chart play-by-play so the league website can be a central repository of accurate game results and player statistics.
If the AAL is going to see another season, it has to learn that what’s good for the players is good for the league. And even better for the fans.