Arena Bowl has NFL ties, but with attitude

Posted: Sunday, June 12, 2005

LAS VEGAS — The Arena Football League heads into its 19th championship game Sunday as a younger, hipper protege of the older, more staid NFL.

On the field, it's in-your-face football: 50 yards long, quick as a video game, loud as a rock concert, and intimate enough for front-row ticket-holders to catch an errant pass — or a player falling over the boards.

''We want it to be a drink out of a fire hose,'' commissioner David Baker said as the Colorado Crush and the Georgia Force, the top-seeded teams in their divisions in the 17-team league, arrived for Sunday's ArenaBowl. ''Exciting, heart-stopping, helmet-popping action all the time.''

Up in the luxury boxes, for the first time, will be opposing team owners with bedrock NFL pedigrees: Pat Bowlen, John Elway and Stan Kroenke, partners in the Crush, and Arthur Blank, owner of the Force.

''It will be unique,'' said Blank, who has owned the NFL's Atlanta Falcons since 2001 and bought the Force last year. He called Arena football ''a natural extension for someone who's attracted to professional football in the NFL.''

Bowlen, who has owned the Denver Broncos for 22 years, brought the Crush into the league as an expansion team three years ago. Kroenke owns a minority share in the St. Louis Rams. And Elway, of course, is the Hall of Fame quarterback revered in Denver for leading the Broncos to Super Bowl victories in 1998 and 1999.

''This is a real game,'' Bowlen said of Arena Football, played in a hockey rink-style arena and bearing similarities to a backyard pickup game.

''The Arena Football League is much more a passing game than the NFL. And the fields are different,'' he said. But ''it's not just some kind of hocus-pocus. I find it exciting.''

Indeed, scores come so frequently the scoreboard rings up like a jackpot tote board — fitting for the ArenaBowl's first visit to Las Vegas.

Colorado defeated Chicago 49-43 in overtime last week to reach the championship game. Georgia beat Orlando 60-58 on the strength of a bruising pass rush and two second-half safeties.

''Somehow, it always comes down to who has the ball last,'' Baker said.

Georgia coach Doug Plank, the former Bears safety for whom the 46 defense was named, won AFL Coach of the Year honors in his rookie year in Georgia. He has the league's third-rated passer in Matt Nagy and rookie of the year receiver Troy Bergeron, who never played college football but is attracting NFL interest after scoring 31 touchdowns.

''When it's all said and done, defense is going to win this game,'' Plank said, noting that in a game where the offense gets the ball 10 or 12 times, stopping the other team once or twice can be the difference.

Colorado quarterback John Dutton, the league's No. 2 passer, has 6-foot-4 Andy McCullough and 6-3 Damian Harrell as targets. Both specialize in leaping to get the ball from close-covering defenders.

''Arena League is not a field-position game,'' said Crush coach Mike Dailey, who has been in the league for 16 years.

''In some ways, the arena game is a cross between football and a video game,'' said Blank, co-founder and former owner of the Home Depot empire. ''In this game, it goes up and back so often, scoring is so high, the energy is so intense. I think it attracts a younger fan population. Part of that is because the ticket pricing and these venues are smaller and more intimate. Many of the games are decided by the last score. It's geared toward the fan.''

Fan friendliness is a mantra for Baker. Expanding the business is close behind.

An 18th team joins the league in Salt Lake City in January. Baker said Kansas City and Boston might field franchises next year if owners give the OK at league meetings in August. Baker wants to expand to 24 or more cities in the next few years.

In putting the ArenaBowl in Las Vegas, home to the AFL's Gladiators, the league ensured for the first time its championship venue wouldn't be decided just a week before the game.

It lost a hometown team fan base, but gained time to plan four days of events, including concerts, a celebrity football skills contest, a fan festival and a golf tournament. It also beefed up pregame, halftime and postgame entertainment at the Thomas & Mack Center, which will seat 15,600 if it sells out.

Las Vegas, already known for championship boxing and host to hundreds of thousands of fans for the National Finals Rodeo and NASCAR events, also stands to gain from the ArenaBowl. It comes as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is bidding to get the 2007 NBA All-Star Game.

And Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, tirelessly promoting his town as a potential home for major league baseball, the NBA, NFL and NHL, said he welcomes the attention the city's first professional sports championship brings.

''This is a great event,'' the mayor said. ''It just adds to the way we're perceived by people in important sports ventures.''

At an awards ceremony this week featuring Elway and singer Jon Bon Jovi, an owner of the Philadelphia Soul, the league's Hero Award was renamed in honor of Los Angeles Avengers lineman Al Lucas, who died of a spinal injury that occurred in an April 10 game.

''While it's fan friendly and we want it to be entertaining, this is serious football,'' Baker said. ''As important a business it is to us, it should not be about life and death.''

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