For some reason, Fifty Yarder’s semiannual update of The Arena Landscape garners more than its share of controversy. I’m not sure why. League placements into a tiered structure are not the product of any personal agenda of mine. They’re simply a visual articulation of the common understanding that has been shared in this industry for a long while.
Tiering is what we all do. It’s the real estate equivalent of fair market value: a frame of reference within which an exchange of opinions can occur between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts. The arena football community is by-and-large quite knowledgeable, so you’d think there would be nothing contentious. But the problem is that there are a lot of agendas in this space. In other words, too many are under a compulsion to sell, whether it’s their favorite player or their hometown team. When that happens, objectivity gets kicked to the curb. Fans discerning enough to see the bull when shoveled by someone else don’t see the shovel in their own hands when it come to their guy.
And so we have all the sensitivities and the name-calling and the drama that goes along with being a compelled seller.
The butt-hurts invariably fall into three groups. First up are the imperialists. This bunch believes that arena football can take over the world one day so any league with even a toehold in another country is upper echelon. Well, Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door anymore, nor is the China Arena Football League (CAFL). The offended masses can maintain their delusions but as for the rest of us, we’re ready to stick a fork in this experiment. The same goes for the International Arena Football League (IAFL). An underwhelming presence in Mexico does not change its place in life, which is to funnel Texan and Mexican semi-pros up to Champions Indoor Football (CIF), and the abstract wall separating it from Tier 3 leagues will remain wider and taller than any concrete one that could one day run through its international footprint.
Next is the East Coast semipro circuit, a personal favorite. Taking a road trip to an out-of-state game does not elevate you to professional status. If that’s not obvious, the very fact that you had to drive yourselves in separate cars should have clued you in. And your paychecks? That’s called gas money. Most developmental leagues such as the Mid-Atlantic Indoor Football League (MAIFL) and the Elite Indoor Football League (EIFL) know their place. They embrace their roles and help advance the sport. It’s the handful of individual teams that win “ships” and the individual players who take home trophies that need a collective bitch-slap of reality.
As an aside, the American Arena League (AAL) is one developmental league that does not know its place. However, a handful of powerhouse teams down south are the chockablock tide that lifts the rest out of the developmental tier, at least until they stop turning down offers to join elite leagues. That’s a discussion for another year.
And finally, the CIF is a hypersensitive group unto itself. This league suffers from an identity crisis. They see themselves on par with the Indoor Football League (IFL) and they have a point. In terms of player talent, there’s an open border between the two leagues. So, why does the traffic always seem one-directional?
The front offices are still the differentiators in these leagues. Part is a matter of optics, and part of communications – the IFL has a sleek media guide, daily press releases, and just feels like the go-to league. But there’s an intangible at play that is manifest in franchise stability.
Both leagues have loyal cores. Four IFL franchises been in place for seven years or longer, with two others have a long lineage tracing back to the AFL. The CIF has seven teams that have been together since the league’s first season in 2015, but they also had a team fold in mid-season last year. That’s a black eye you don’t see very often unless you’re an AAL fan. In the meantime, the IFL continues to build on a lustrous image; everyone west of the Mississippi aspires to join them. Just ask the four CIF teams who tried with varying degrees of success over the past two seasons.
In contrast to the AAL, the CIF has no rising tide. Instead, they have a spillway that allows the excess to escape, and their lawyers are powerless to do anything more than divert that run-off away from the IFL. The line looking to defect the CIF has at times seemed longer than the one to the women’s room at the local roadhouse on a Saturday night, and that has to change because the run-off is starting to flow like a river.
Maybe change will come in 2019, but it won’t start this weekend when the IFL gets underway, even with 40% of its field new to the league. Assimilation is one thing the IFL has done very well over its 11 years. No, the CIF shouldn’t expect any help from them. This is a river they’ll have to cross on their own.