The Verizon Center has a new tenant.
The Arena Football League has returned to the nation’s capital, where it had been dormant since the Commandos folded in 1991. The new franchise is called the Washington Valor, who are owned by Ted Leonsis and his growing sports empire.
I attended my first Valor game, Saturday night. The result – a 49-31 defeat to the defending-champion Philadelphia Soul – seemed less consequential than the novelty of the experience.
I went in cold, completely unaware of both the rules of the game and the players who would be participating. My one piece of trivia knowledge going in was that the Soul are owned by Jon Bon Jovi.
I wanted it that way. In the information world we live in, it’s rare when you can a fresh experience – especially juxtaposed with something you enjoy (football, in this case).
The crowd – a motley-assemblage of jerseys spanning all spectrums of the sports world – seemed less like sports fans than curious onlookers at a circus. That seemed to mesh well with the playing field, however; the giant and bizarre-looking nets on each end zone stretching to the heavens like trapeze artists, gathered in the wings.
The play itself is similarly jarring if you’ve watched regular football. They play eight on eight, and the style of play would make the gun-slinging New Orleans Saints look like a ground and pound team.
The field is 50 yards in length. A row of padded, hockey style walls surround it – and they definitely factor into the game; a ball deflected off the walls is still considered “in play” until it hits the ground, turf, or whatever the heck they are running on.
There are no benches. Instead, the players huddle in the tunnels – the same ones the Wizards use as a shuttle to their locker rooms. Cheerleaders spend the game relegated to platform-constructions straight out of a Go-Go club.
Even the music was a bit off. Songs would cut in and fade out quickly, as if to avoid paying royalties. The referees had to remind the scoreboard operators to reset the play clock between plays.
In short, it’s something you’d expect to flip to on “The Ocho.”
It was about as expected. We’re a long way from Fed Ex Field. Tickets are cheap ($50 gets you right up close) and salaries are laughable (players made less than $1,000 a game, as of 2014).
Unfortunately, the novelty quickly wore off, replaced by the harsh reality that there’s a reason why these guys aren’t stashed away on an NFL practice squad, somewhere.
Tasks that are routine for NFL players (like simply holding onto the damn ball) seemed foreign concepts at times for the arena-leaguers. Three out of the first four plays I witnessed resulted in turnovers. If anything, it made you appreciate the talents of NFL-caliber players even more.
The Valor have averaged roughly 13,000 fans for their first two games. The numbers may have been skewed by opening night, as there appeared to be maybe half of that number from my vantage point.
People came for a first impression, and what they got was underwhelming. In fact, the loudest moment of the night came during a fourth-quarter promotion (fans win a free sandwich from Chik-Fil-A if the opposing kicker misses an extra point).
The AFL as a whole seems to be in similar trouble. Since 2007, it has seen the number of teams shrink from 19 to 5. It hasn’t been the same since 2009, when they canceled the season completely.
The problem – aside from the disconnect from fans having to learn a new set of rules – is that the players themselves simply aren’t that compelling.
The Valor’s quarterback, Erik Meyer, was a Division-II star at East Washington University. He had a brief cup of coffee with the Cincinnati Bengals, but is a far cry from the Kurt Warner’s of the world.
Meyer could be standing in line at a crowded Starbucks and go completely-unnoticed. This isn’t a knock on the guy, it just underscores the P.R. challenges of marketing a new team to a region that already has a quarterback (in this case, Kirk Cousins).
However, I have a unique-solution that would galvanize the public in a way fringe sports in America haven’t seen since David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy. It would require some creative-financing, but work-around’s could be set in place to forge an alliance that could be beneficial to all parties.
Two words: Johnny Manziel.
“Johnny Football” hasn’t donned the pads in an NFL game since 2015. In that span, he’s been released, gone to rehab and taken a few classes at Texas A&M, where his star was born.
He’s clearly a gifted-athlete: you don’t walk into the SEC and put up those numbers without some modicum of skill. However, he’s had a tougher time translating his game to the tougher competition in the NFL.
With enough work, he might someday be able to carve out a backup role somewhere. But, that seems a low bar to place on one of the most electric-personalities ever to emerge from the college ranks.
If Manziel announced he was joining the Valor, the team would need new internet-servers to handle the rush of traffic from eager ticket-seekers.
The high-octane arena game is perfectly tailored to his skill-set. Manziel thrived in college because he was often the best athlete on the field. In the NFL, that will never be the case. In the AFL, it would always be.
The league could perhaps work out some sort of sponsor’s exemptions for guys like Manziel or Robert Griffin III. It would certainly bring exposure to the league, and perhaps a vehicle for much-coveted TV time.
Manziel has expressed an interest in returning to football, but has so far been shut out, with teams expressing little interest in the former, Aggies star. Arena football would be a pressure-less opportunity to get some reps in, sign autographs and raise his profile. He needs good tape for scouts to view, even if it’s against inferior competition.
Besides, a quarterback jumping from arena football to NFL stardom isn’t out of the question. It’s happened before.