In the first test of its ability to win fans and influence future investors, the Arena Football League scored high marks, although everyone connected with the new league knows it is far too early to predict long-term success.

Attendance for the opening games in Pittsburgh and Chicago last weekend was higher than league officials expected. They say a large walk-up crowd on the day of the game was a major factor in the 12,117 figure at the 15,052-seat Pittsburgh Civic Arena on Friday night and the 10,103 at the 14,000-seat Horizon in Rosemont, Ill., Saturday.

League President Jim Foster said he had originally anticipated a crowd between 8,000 and 9,000 for what turned out to be the Pittsburgh Gladiators' 48-46 victory over the Washington Commandos.

"The prediction right along was that they would draw a good crowd in Pittsburgh," Commandos assistant coach Jim Williams said as the team began practice yesterday for Saturday's home opener at Capital Centre against the Denver Dynamite. "They had been talking about Pittsburgh for six weeks."

"The bottom line as far as our survival is people coming out to see us," said Commandos Coach Bob Harrison.

A Capital Centre spokesman said yesterday that about 4,600 tickets had been sold for Saturday's game, and that attendance of 12,000 to 14,000 is expected, based on the walk-up sales of 3,000 to 4,000 in both Pittsburgh and Chicago and increased interest in the next few days because of a heavy schedule of local television advertising. In Chicago, a Bruisers spokesman said advance sales for this Friday's game between Chicago and Pittsburgh were at the 5,000-ticket level.

Dwayne Dixon, the Commandos' wide receiver who caught 11 passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns in Washington's loss, said the league's major task is to turn curious fans into permanent followers.

"At first it's a novelty. Once {fans} see the game they'll say 'this is the game we've been waiting for the last 50 or 60 years,' " he said.

Asked how long the game has before its novelty wears off, Denver Coach Tim Marcum said arena football is, and always will be, something different from the NFL.

"You want it to be a football purist game, and it is not," he said. "We're always going to have those nets. {Passes and kicks that bounce off the nets in the end zone are live balls and can be caught and advanced.} I don't know the story of indoor soccer, but it's not soccer, it's indoor soccer. We're not football, we're indoor football."

Fatigue was a major factor for all four teams last weekend, even though players prepared themselves to play both ways.

"Psychologically, they're not as ready for it because they haven't done it in a while," Harrison said, comparing the Commandos' first effort to the first time "a heavyweight goes 15 rounds. The first time, he doesn't think he can make it. The second time, it becomes easier."

"I came in with the idea that it's a quick, fast-paced game," said Denver wide receiver/defensive back Larry Friday, who played four seasons for the Cleveland Browns. "Being tired is just a way of life."

Denver running back/defensive back Chris Brewer said he was told about the quicker pace and prepared for it, but "still, the game was so fast." He said the most tiring aspect of the Dynamite's 52-44 overtime win over the Bruisers was, oddly enough, celebrating after touchdowns.

"After the fourth or fifth touchdown . . . We might have to get like the Lakers and just point at each other {following scores}," he said. "After awhile, it wears you out."

Brewer, who played one season for the Denver Broncos, said that while some players may not be thinking about an NFL career, he is "definitely interested" in making it back. "That's part of the reason for coming out here. But there are only so many spots in the NFL. I'm 25 years old and haven't been operated on yet."

While running, tackling and blocking are the same everywhere, Marcum said, arena football requires a different coaching strategy from the conventional game.

"You have different plays as opposed to a 53-yard-wide field {in the NFL}," he said. "It's like a game of its own . . . We know we have man coverage and we know we have a 26-yard {wide} field."

"I don't think we're going to be looking for the same type of quarterback {as the NFL}," Williams said. "In the future here, the quarterback will be the big running threat. And you don't need a great arm."

The Commandos will try this week to solve defensive problems that led to Pittsburgh quarterback Mike Hohensee throwing for more than 350 yards and four touchdowns. "Obviously, there's some things we need to work on," Harrison said.

One thing they don't have to work on is the passing connection between quarterback Richard Ingold and Dixon. Of the 17 passes Ingold completed in just more than two quarters, 10 were to Dixon.

"I was just waiting for coach to give me the nod," Ingold said. "Mike {Calhoun, Commandos starting quarterback} and I work as a team in practice. I felt comfortable about playing Friday night.

"Most of the defensive backs are from 5-8 to 5-10," said Dixon, who at 6 feet 2 was able to jump over defenders on many of his catches. "On a route like a fade route, if it's up there, I can get it."