Since its inception, the National Gridiron League has been an enigma. Media coverage has been scarce and the front office folks seem to like it that way. On the outside, the NGL is a boutique in the chic section of town, whose bright display windows showcase 12 teams symmetrically balanced into two divisions covering half the continental United States. They’ve conducted regional combines and have held a player draft. They’ve published a set of rules and a fans’ bill of rights. Their front office includes both a Communications Director and a Director of Social Media, each listed on a handsome website just under the regal gaze of President Joe McClendon.
Yet I’ve continued to feel the NGL is an acronym for Never Getting Launched.
To date, the NGL has cloaked itself in a shroud far too thick for my tastes. Despite rolling out National Gridiron Radio as a proprietary information outlet in early January, secrecy and covert operations continue to be the order of the day. Very little fungible, verifiable information has been distributed – until this past Sunday, that is. That’s when its highly-anticipated schedule was finally released. Not bad, considering it’s been four months since the A-League and the International Arena Football League published their inaugural schedules. For a while it looked like fans would have to pile into their cars on March 30 and await last-second directions on where to drive, reminiscent of a ransom delivery scene on one of those TV dramas.
As luck would have it, the reclusive McClendon made his first appearance on National Gridiron Radio last night. Given my skepticism, I felt obliged to dial in and grant him and his league this one mulligan. And my sense of diligence was repaid with what will undoubtedly go down as the low-water mark in the history of podcasts. McClendon’s 40-minute segment quickly disintegrated into an exchange of sweet nothings with hostess Daria Ray that pantsed the NGL as another amateurish clone in a long line of wipe-outs since Jim Foster first rode his wave of celebrity many years ago.
Last night’s episode was in form a demonstration that McClendon really does exist, but in substance a filibuster aimed at keeping him insulated from callers who were kept on hold while Ray performed various audio feats such as reading off the names of each team with considerable help from a timely-placed cheat sheet. The entire night was a display of ignorance, both in terms of Ray’s knowledge of the league and McClendon’s understanding of what it takes to be a front man. Other than some insightful predictions in which Ray picked the Virginia Iron Horses to make it to the inaugural NGL championship game for no apparent reason other than that was the one franchise she could recall, and the night’s most tender moment when McClendon declared the National Gridiron League as that championship game’s true winner, this episode was a passage of time emptier than the sum total of the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive possessions last Sunday night.
The sad part is that National Gridiron Radio provides an ideal pulpit from which McClendon could have jump-started a branding campaign. It’s not that there hasn’t been anything positive to report. By all accounts, experienced head coaches are in place for all twelve teams, and most – if not all – of them have fully-staffed assistants. And McClendon did effectively articulate the importance the league places on community involvement in each of their twelve host cities. He rightfully pumped his chest when talking about the depth of skills among signed players, of which an estimated 35% to 40% come from Division I schools.
Even at a minimum, this podcast could have been a window to the outside world where sunshine can illuminate those dark little corners the league has dwelt within. One of those corners is certainly player acquisition. At least three of the 12 first-round draft picks from last October have chosen to pass on the NGL, including two of the top four. One first-round pick has still never been contacted by his team and no longer plans to play. With tryouts largely concluded and camps set to open one month from today, 36% of the 35-man roster spots remain vacant, and the plethora of talent in free agent pools after their ranks were depleted by top-tier leagues like the AFL, NAL, and IFL will exacerbate efforts to make that up in a meaningful way.
Perhaps the darkest corner yet is in securing arenas, and I figured on this being the headliner for last night’s episode. Ray offered spirited advice for listeners to “get your tickets,” but she didn’t elaborate on how to go about that. Only a couple of venues have been formally announced and just one – the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Evansville, Indiana – lists NGL games on their events calendar and offers tickets for sale. And don’t pay any heed to the arenas listed on the schedule. The reality is that employees from general managers’ and event managers’ offices in a least seven of them claim that leases have not been finalized, while those in two others have never heard of the NGL. No venue has been announced for the Pennsylvania Pioneers; the best – and arguably, sole – arena in the Wilkes-Barre area with a sufficient indoor playing surface and seating for more than a few hundred fans is the Mohegcan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza and representatives there say there have been no discussions of any kind with the NGL.
Deals may very well be in the works with all these arenas or with alternate venues. The larger point is that McClendon had the forum to allay concerns accumulating on social media platforms, but instead he chose the path of idle banter. In a program that relies heavily upon and often pleads for callers, McClendon took no questions from anyone other than Ray, who at one point asked how many teams were in the league.
So the early returns are in. October’s draft failed to close on the player talent it expected. Regional combines and individual tryouts have left camp rosters undermanned. Schedules were published far later than any other newbie league, and many venues supposedly hosting games still don’t know it yet. Worst of all, the league’s front office looks clumsy, out of touch, and unaccountable, and that’s a failing grade on anyone’s rubric.
The next test of National Gridiron League legitimacy comes on March 7 and, yes President McClendon, you need to ace it because the real arbiters of your success will be the fans eventually coming through your turn-styles, assuming of course they will have found a way to buy tickets.
As for me, I’ve managed to talk myself out of thinking the NGL is Never Getting Launched. However, it looks doubtful that twelve teams will kick things off. A concentrated subset of six to eight teams seems more likely, but even that is Not Gonna Last.