The Rise and Fall of The Arena Football League (AFL)

San Jose Sabercats in AFL Game (photo via wikipedia commons)

Arena Football used to be one of America’s most popular sports with the Arena Football League (AFL) appearing on TV and thousands of fans coming to games to watch their teams compete for the Arena Bowl every year. However since the end of the Arena Football League in 2019 the sport has been forgotten by many and is in a rough shape as leagues and teams close down after just one season of play due to little to no funding. Here’s how it all happened. 

The Start of Arena Football

Arena Football has been around since 1986 when Jim Foster came up with the idea of having the same sport of football but just in a smaller field making the game much more intense and entertaining. Jim saw the success of Indoor Soccer and thought about bringing the sport of American football to the indoor level so he decided to take the idea to the NFL. The sport needed to be tested so the team with Jim’s help decided to make their first test game in Rockford Illinois and it became a success. Following the first game they decided to play one more test game in which ESPN came out to take video to use for the sports center giving the sport national attention. 

The Early Years

The Arena Football League became a hit after there four teams drew in large crowd numbers, 12,117 for the first game, of football fans eager to know about the sport. ESPN quickly picked up on the sport and televised some of their games which made the AFL go onto a national level. However it wasn’t until the end of the 1908s  when the sport started to really pick up a high demand. Head coach Joe Haering, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Gladiators, made history after he punched the commissioner Jim Foster in the face. The story received national attention however for Joe, he was fired without pay. The league became a craze after the Arena Bowl in 1998 which was played by the Orlando Predators and the Tampa Bay Storm, after it was aired on ABC. 

Photo via Wikipedia

The New Century

The start of a century started the rise of Arena football. Arena Football was at an all time high, with the AFL (arena football league) adding another subdivision, AF2 the company was looking really good. The league once again gained national attention after soon to be superbowl quarterback Kurt Warner was seen playing with the Iowa Barnstormers. Fans packed the stadiums each week cheering on their team, the Arena Football League even had its own video game like Madden football that was available on PS2. Furthermore the league got all of their games on TV and expanded adding 14 new franchises. 

AFL Declines

But after 2009, the downfall of Arena football started to hit. Teams started to leave and TV providers started to drop the company from their weekly TV programs. Fan attendance was still high but the league wasn’t making lots of money like it used to be making The league’s average game attendance after returning in 2010 was approximately 9,500. In 2015 this all changed. The New Orleans VooDoo and Las Vegas Outlaws had ceased operations and the Spokane Shock officially left the AFL and joined the IFL. In November the 2014 AFL Champions, The San Jose Sabercats went bankrupt. This left the AFL with only six teams to have played in the 2016 season. Sadly it gets worse in the new year. 

Florida Teams Depart AFL For New League

Both the Orlando Predators and Jacksonville Sharks announced their departure from the league. Both joined the NAL in the 2017 season. At the end of the 2016 season, the Los Angeles Kiss and Portland Steel had folded after both teams failed to return calls or respond to inquiries into 2017 season ticket purchases. The next day, The Arizona Rattlers planned to leave the AFL to go to the IFL. This brought the team down to 4 teams.

Photo via Wikipedia

2016 Season

But, in  December of 2016, the AFL brought in the Baltimore Brigade into the league making them have five teams. The league played on through this five team season with the first place Philadelphia Storm making a huge comeback in the Arena Bowl to beat the second place (10-4) Tampa Bay Storm. 

2017 Season

The AFL didnt get out of these bad years because in 2017 it got worse. The AFL expanded to Albany NY, adding a sixth team to the league. However in October of 2017 the Cleveland Gladiators suspended their season due to stadium renovations and their longest lasting AFL team, the Tampa Bay Storm, suspended their operations as well. That left the AFL with only 4 teams for the 2018 season. 

The Arena Football League Shuts Down

In 2018 the AFL went over a series of different changes and added two more teams for the 2019 season, the Atlantic City Black Jacks and The Columbus Destroyers. However in 2019 Commissioner Randall Boe announced that the six AFL teams would be leaving the AFL or closing down after the 2019 season. Approximately a month after the announcement of the closure of teams, on November 27, 2019, Randall Boe announced  that the league would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and fully cease operations, marking the end of the AFL.  Now that the AFL was gone, other leagues like the NAL and AAL got the remainder of the former AFL teams that were still operating. 

Attempts to Bring The AFL Back

Following the covid-19 pandemic multiple teams have shut down in the new arena football leagues with most operating with 4-7 teams in their league. Former arena football players tried to get together to bring the Arena Football League back along with the Baltimore Brigade, Columbus Wild Dogs (who were on the schedule to have games and were selling tickets) and the Philadelphia Soul, but all fell through the roof. There isn’t much hope for the sport of indoor football as now the XFL and USFL are the two leagues people watch in the spring. So a league once beloved by tons now has become a sport loved by little to none. 

Learn More

To learn about the other arena football leagues in the USA please follow these links down below



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