You better believe National Arena League Commissioner Chris Siegfried is all smiles these days. He has every right to be. By this time last year, the NAL was already three full weeks into its offseason, basically ceding the arena world to the AFL for the balance of July and all of August. But this year, Siegfried rolled out an ambitious 46-game regular season schedule with teams playing 15- or 16-game slates, and that all flipped around. Now it’s the AFL watching as the NAL enters a climatic final week with all four playoff seeds up for grabs.
Usurping center stage was a calculated risk for the NAL. There are a multitude of ways in which they could fall flat on their face – non-compelling matchups, sloppy play, poor officiating, empty seats – and there would be nowhere for Siegfried to hide. But in a league where everything has sparkled all season, that’s not going to happen.
For one thing, its most polarizing team – the Jacksonville Sharks – are on a tear. As they say when the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Yankees are winning, that’s good for the league regardless of whether you love or hate them. A successful Sharks season is the rising tide that lifts all. They sit as top seed with control of their own destiny, and that could mean two home playoff games where the passion of Jacksonville fans will bleed out into our living rooms. If that happens you can’t help but to get hooked. Last Saturday, the Shark Tank outdrew the Arena Bowl, and the latter was played within commuting distance for fans of both teams.
The NAL offers innate rivalries, not those fake ones forced on us by AFL spinsters. I really don’t care which of Ted Leonsis’ Beltway teams has bragging rights over the other, but I’m fascinated by the Massachusetts Pirates and Carolina Cobras vying for attention as the league’s best expansion team. And who would pass on a Sharks game up in Columbus? Fans want passion, rivalry, hatred. That’s what fuels football.
Right now, the NAL is so hot that even its two non-playoff teams – yes, AFL, regular seasons really do mean something in other leagues – are garnering interest. The Maine Mammoths, winners of four straight, are almost as hot as Jacksonville, while the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks are racing to the brink of a winless season in a looming trainwreak from which no one can avert their attention.
All of which begs the question, has the NAL surpassed the AFL as the top arena league in the world?
It’s a fair question that should not be dismissed on the basis of talent. The AFL unquestionably has a greater depth of high-caliber players. Coaching staffs, too, are on equal footing. But the AFL is presently and exclusively comprused of two unrelated ownership groups whose Eastern Seaboard franchises are governed by absentee landlords in Las Vegas. The last time oversight was that remote, they threw tea in the harbor and waged a war.
You have to admit it was a shaky season for the AFL, which saw its on-field product debased by front office issues of labor unrest, another involuntary contraction that reduced the already-paltry field to four franchises, and an absurd postseason that allowed a team with just one win heading into the final week of the season to claim its championship. That’s akin to the NAL inviting the Steelhawks to the postseason on the basis that everyone deserves a second chance.
Even while it busies itself crowning an authentic champion for 2018, the NAL is focusing on 2019. It recently announced expansion into New York. And while rumors swirl about the AFL adding as many as four teams, nothing has been formalized. Given this is a league with a history of late-stage folds that inevitably keep them treading water, there’s not a lot to assure anyone the days of fully-inclusive postseasons with aggregate-scoring gimmickry are behind them.
That’s not to say things have been perfect for Siegfried & Co. The league has an epidemic of red flags and three-hour games, and there was that matter of firearms discharge. The refs have a bad reputation, especially in Columbus, and folks generally don’t care for those New England broadcasters covering the Pirates. But just like your cable bill, the greater good must come bundled with a certain cut of bad. If you want your HBO and ESPN, you’ve got to keep your landline phone to make it all work.
Everything from its website and social media presence to its outlook for 2019 is better in the NAL at this point in time and the gap is only going to widen before it closes, if it ever does.
Maybe the AFL can use its own landline and dial a day back when it was a viable league. Today, however, belongs to the NAL.