Two arena leagues got underway last weekend, with the Music City Fire shocking the West Michigan Ironmen, 47-37, in the AAL opener on Friday night, and the Quad City Steamwheelers routing the Cedar Rapids River Kings, 54-39, in IFL start-up action on Saturday.
These are two very different leagues, bookends on the spectrum of professional arena football. The IFL is widely regarded as the best – or at least one of the two best – and the AAL perhaps the worst. They are as far apart as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Danny DeVito’s characters in Twins. One is Van Halen fronted by David Lee Roth; the other is Van Halen fronted by Gary Cherone. About the only thing they’ll have in common for the remainder of this season is that they opened on the same weekend in early March.
Saturday was a validation of our perception of the former, but Friday may well have been a challenge to our perception of the latter.
The IFL was in top form right out of the gate in their opener. Starters silhouetted in blue spotlight entered the darkened and energized U.S. Cellular Center through a mist of fog. Steamwheeler Keyvan Rudd then countered the hometown energy by returning the season’s opening kickoff 40 yards for a touchdown. It would be the first of four kick-sixes on the IFL weekend, counting one by the River Kings and two by the San Diego Strike Force in their 50-36 win over the Bismarck Bucks Sunday. The viewing experience was solid, with a clear, smooth stream, multiple camera angles, polished broadcasters, and vociferous fans.
From a competitive standpoint, Saturday was a lopsided affair cloaked by two gratuitous River Kings touchdowns in the last 39 seconds. Sunday was the opposite, with the Strike Force erasing a one-point deficit with two scores in the final 1:10. When you consider the four teams in action were the four worst in 2019, combining for a 10-46 record, last weekend may have been the tailwind that carries the IFL to the arena throne the AFL abdicated this past offseason.
To borrow a rant from the late Dennis Green, the IFL is what we thought they were. But maybe the AAL isn’t.
I approached the AAL’s return with indifference at best. The league had, after all, carried on as if they had a foot in the grave throughout their first two seasons. Despite retaining high-caliber teams like the West Virginia Roughriders and Carolina Havoc last year, the 2019 campaign was ill-fated with continuous controversy, infighting, and a heavy dose of cancellations. So after the Havoc folded and the Roughriders joined the NAL this winter, it seemed improbable the AAL would even make it back. Yet here they are. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it seems you just can’t kill them.
Given the Ironmen’s dominance last year – they lost only twice, both to the Roughriders – and the inevitable opening night jitters of the expansion Fire, expectations for a competitive, well-played game could not have been much lower. Fueled by an inherent talent dichotomy, the AAL has grown to become the leading supplier of blowouts throughout the sports world over the last two years. Exacerbating this, their expansion track record is poor, with the likes of the Burgh Defenders and New England Bobcats stirring up acts discreditable to the game on numerous occasions last year.
Then again, Muskegon is one of the few places where you don’t feel like you’re in the AAL. The Mercy Health (f/k/a L. C. Walker) Arena is an upper-tier venue stocked with passionate fans. If that’s not enticing enough to tune in, there was the promise of the Ironmen’s broadcast production, arguably the best in the league last year.
Music City came seemingly out of nowhere, jumping out to a 20-7 lead late in the second quarter behind rookie QB P. J. Settles’ one rushing and two passing touchdowns. He’d go on to throw for two more and run for another two. Stacked with homegrown talent that includes Settles, defensive back Jonathan Schuler, and 13 other Nashville-area players, the Fire are unlike any expansion team this league has seen.
I’ll confess some disappointment that the Ironmen production crew was not in the house on Friday. Music City provided the night’s coverage featuring Steve Olivas on the call and Cody The Intern manning the camera. It’s understandably a step down from the Ironmen broadcast team with the professorial elocution of Trevor “The Dude” Toczydlowski and the cameraman’s skill in avoiding the roof trusses that plagued the Music City crew on Friday. It also didn’t help that Olivas, new to arena football, was unfamiliar with common rules concerning items such as timeouts, missed extra points, and unos. And he used ‘Tennessee’, ‘Mid-Tennessee’, and ‘Nashville’ interchangeably with ‘Music City’ when referring to the visitors. In arena football, presentation is nine-tenths of the law.
Nonetheless, the game was competitive throughout, a quality product for fans in attendance or watching on YouTube that exceeded last year’s thrilling opener I naively called a reminder of why fans are drawn to the AAL. As it turns out, fans really weren’t all that drawn in as attendance was sparse and the season went on to become a hot mess that culminated in disputes over where the championship game was to be held. Caution, it would seem, is in order.
But Friday was a promise for a rejuvenated league to come. I’m not going as far as Olivas, a former comedian, who proclaimed the AAL a “candidate” in the contest to see which league takes over as “top dog” after the departure of the AFL. “They’ve got ten solid teams under their umbrella,” he concluded. Well, as Dennis Miller showed us, comics don’t often translate into football analysts, but he gets an opening night pass. Remember, he’ll be here all week, folks.
And from early indications, the AAL will be here all year.