We’ve shaken off the effects of a pandemic-induced eleven-month hibernation, flipped the sign in the window, and opened the door once again to a new and much-needed spring football season. Let’s open with a view from the top of the arena and indoor landscape. Hey, thanks for hanging in there with us!
The arena offseason is much like those pinsetter machines at your typical bowling alley: it lifts the teams still standing in order to sweep away the deadwood, then sets everything back in place. This particular offseason has gone on for nearly a year, so it’s surprising to see how little deadwood has been felled. Sure, there’s the National Gridiron League, which bills itself as “one of the six major professional sports leagues in North America” despite never having played a game, and is allegedly moving outdoors – and mercifully off our radar. The China Arena Football League doesn’t really count; it moved outdoors back in 2019 and is arena in name only. The Indoor Football Association recently announced it will defer until 2022, while the Mid-Atlantic Indoor Football League crammed a 2020 season into the fall and will sit out this year before folding into the National Football Association in 2022. Beyond that, everyone else is still upright. In fact, there’s even a new addition.
Spring football can’t call it a true offseason unless it returns with the next super-league. In 2019, it was the AAF; in 2020, the XFL. Now, the Fan Controlled Football League is 2021’s big splash, a lively experiment that debuted on February 13 with some outside-the-box plug-ins to spice things up in a sport that’s already a bit off-Broadway.
Founders Sohrob Farudi, Ray Austin, Grant Cohen, and Patrick Dees are the avant-garde that first introduced crowdsourcing to the arena world when they bought the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles in 2015 and turned decisions over to the fans, who promptly voted down a contract to former Panthers and Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy. They claim they’ve learned from that experiment, but admit on their website that they don’t have all the answers. This pilot has been tagged as “Season V1.0,” a techie implication that bigger and better is still to come.
With weekly drafts, fifth downs, one-hour games, and fans calling plays, the FCFL has threatened the status quo. They’ve eliminated a player on either side of the ball and have gone one-on-one for conversion attempts. Pre-snap forward motion has been outlawed, and all forms of kicking have been dispensed with. That’s a full plate for any traditional arena fan to assimilate.
The abbreviated four-game regular season that concluded on March 6 also showed us that the V1.0 model is self-correcting. Mid-season rules changes, such as allowing fans to vote on penalties after some Week 2 officiating screw-ups, gave the league a head start on working out its kinks, and gave the fans evidence that better has in part already arrived. It’s rare for a league to acknowledge its shortcomings, much less fix them on the fly.
Notwithstanding the in-game innovations, a good story depends on strong characters and the FCFL has their share, both on the field and in the front office. Deeply involved ownership groups that include active and former players such as Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch take to the broadcast booth and lend instant street cred, while players with marquee names like Johnny Manziel mix with well-kept secrets like Trav Daddy Toivonen to keep the play competitive. The average margin of victory over eight games to date has been 4.8 points. All eight were decided by eight points or less, four by two points. Six games were decided on the final play, two by last-second Hail Marys.
The level of play and exciting finishes has fans engaged, and the numbers are revealing. Over 1.3 million unique viewers checked out some or all of the Week 4 double-header last Saturday. In fact, the least-watched of the first three doubleheaders drew 189,000 viewers (as of this post), which is triple the draw of the 2019 Arena Bowl, United Bowl, and NAL Championship Game combined. Granted, this only accounts for live and streamed views and not attendance, but that’s a fair comparison considering the FCFL could not benefit from live fans at its Infinite Energy Arena bubble in Georgia. Nevertheless, the consensus seems clear: fan-controlled football is a hit.
Okay, I will admit my preference for actual kicking in any sport named in part for the human foot. What’s more, 7-on-7 football is getting closer to the NHL’s gimmicky 3-on-3 overtime format, and these “1v1” man-up conversions are not for me. If one-on-one play is something you like in a team concept, you’ve got the NBA. At least use a real center; bar stools are theatrical props better used after the game. And please don’t relate it to a kicking tee because we all know it’s not the same.
So, as we head into the FCFL postseason this Saturday the status quo may still be playing hard to get, but the rest of us who initially gravitated to this game for its sheer fun and creative uniqueness should embrace the FCFL as the top-tier arena league that it is.