In 1996, Jason Gibson found himself flat broke with a gas tank nearing empty on the drive to an open tryout for the Albany Firebirds. He was forced to spend the night at a rest area off the New York State Thruway until his dad could send him enough cash to cover a fill-up and the $75 tryout fee. Although his pursuit of becoming a Firebird didn’t last long, the experience of sleeping in his car for a night has endured through his twelve seasons coaching the NAL’s Columbus Lions.
Gibson understands firsthand the challenges today’s athlete faces in balancing life with the dream of playing football, and that’s why off-seasons are different in Columbus. The Lions have always eschewed the money-grab of open tryouts, so while much of arena football conducts itself like some Tijuana back alley lined with merchants vying for every passing athlete’s dollar this offseason, Gibson will be hosting invitation-only free agent workouts.
He’s not alone. Click on the Carolina Cobras’ open tryouts page, and you’ll get a message from Vice President of Player Personnel Clayton Banner telling you there are none. His shun of open tryouts is one facet of the modus operandi he has cultivated through his 26-year career in player relations.
“That’s the way I was taught to do it,” he says of his formative days in player development that date back to 1993 with the AFL’s Charlotte Rage. “No one wants to go to a cattle call workout. Professionalism is the separation point – how you conduct yourself, how you conduct your team.”
Cattle call or not, open tryouts are a time-honored tradition sitting squarely on the fault line between the professional and semipro aspects of arena football. They will always be the lifeblood for developmental leagues that must conduct grassroots talent searches without the resources to build scouting networks. They also remain a vital pipeline to more established leagues.
In Macon, the Georgia Doom got the open tryout season underway two weekends ago with a turnout that Player Personnel Director Otis Covington described as “modest.” Despite the Doom’s well-advertised financial woes that caused them to withdraw from the AAL playoffs last spring, Covington reports free agent interest above last year and he plans to hold three to four more open tryouts through the winter.
“We’re looking for more players from our region than last year,” Covington says of the recruitment season ahead. He expects to build half his 2019 roster through open tryouts, but he’ll have to barnstorm Georgia to get those numbers.
“The Macon area is not as large as other [arena football] areas,” he explains. “There are not a lot of football-supporting organizations here.”
Even in highly-developed leagues like the AFL and NAL, open tryouts are a means of connecting with the local community, and often prove to be a sandbed well worth sifting for the occasional nugget of gold.
“We have always held open tryouts and have found some of our best talent at them,” says Lehigh Valley Steelhawks EVP and co-owner Mike Clark. “We found [Joe Powell] at an open tryout and two years later he was playing in the NFL.”
Whatever their value, open tryouts have become a feeding frenzy that proliferates each year. Social media pages are covered with posters announcing tryouts bedecked with the lure of a free tee shirt and becoming part of something great. The EIFL-champion New England Bobcats recently took things to a new level by announcing a tryout fee for their existing roster, although any player who helped win that championship gets a $15 discount. Adding to the melee are new teams in new markets or expanding leagues. It’s to the point where teams like the Lions and Cobras are finding open tryouts a disingenuous way to build rosters.
“Columbus doesn’t need to hold tryouts to make money,” says Gibson, who spends his time upfront scouting players and analyzing film before inviting in prospective free agents who have a legitimate chance to make his camp roster. He doesn’t waste the time and money of every local who played a snap of high school football. Nor does he degrade proven athletes by putting them up against receivers in wife-beaters or defensive backs wearing backward baseball caps while a quarterback in work boots sails a pass five feet over everyone’s head.
“I think you’re doing kids a disservice,” he says of the traditional open tryout paradigm.
Like Banner, Gibson has more of the player’s perspective at heart. That’s not surprising. Gibson first met Banner when the latter signed him as a wide receiver to the AF2’s Greensboro Crawlers in 2000. The recruitment process awed Gibson, whose memories of sleeping in cars were still fresh. It was the embodiment of his ideal for a team-player relationship.
The two soon moved on to the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts together and stayed in touch even after their paths diverged. In 2014 it was Gibson who brought Banner into the Lions organization, where the two honed one of the best player recruitment models in arena football. Banner then introduced it to the expansion Cobras last spring when he took his current player personnel role.
At its core is the concept that the first encounter between organization and prospective player should begin a professional relationship that extends beyond the direct team-player business relationship. As Banner says, the commodities he deals with are careers. Both Banner and Gibson charge workout fees but refund them to players who make the final roster. Workouts are filmed and attendees can use them with other teams. Both have extensive networks of contacts and they will help athletes get signed elsewhere. Best of all, they conduct exit interviews with each athlete.
“I call every single kid,” says Gibson. “If they don’t make it, I tell them why. I want them to walk out of Columbus saying we do things right.”
It’s a simple idea whose elegance has been tarnished by a cottage industry that often serves as a Go Fund Me for franchises unable to sustain themselves through customer demand for their product, and that look to fill the gap by exploiting every kid who looks to become the next Vince Papale as his high school buddies sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the corner bar watching him on YouTube TV next spring.
Nonetheless, if you’re still cutting your teeth in arena football, it’s a circuit you’ll need to hit. Just make sure you target teams that have affiliated with a league for 2019 and are in need of players at your position. Avoid teams with reputations of overstocking camp rosters then cutting throughout the winter as they find more established players through back channels. And, most importantly, make sure that gas tank is full before you hit the road.
If you’re an established player, check out the player personnel pages of each team’s website for information on getting on their scouting radar. Both the Carolina Cobras and Columbus Lions featured here have online registrations and instructions on providing game film.