Where, you might ask, did Arena Football come from? Jim Foster. Why, you might ask, is Arena Football played? Money. And how, you might ask, is Arena Football possible? Television -- or, more specifically, ESPN.

"I don't believe you can be a major league without a TV contract," said Foster, the Arena Football League's founder.

But to take Foster's thought a step further, it appears evident that Arena Football (and its spiritual cousin, the Major Indoor Soccer League) almost are creations of ESPN. Although not invented by the cable sports network, these sports almost certainly could not find a wide audience unless there was an around-the-clock TV presence out there prowling for programming.

So credit (or blame) ESPN for this latest change in our living room culture: If you've got the ball, we've got the cameras.

"The exposure level really is more critical than the money," Foster said of his ESPN contract.

"I think you could make an argument that the MISL or Arena Football might generate enough gate and money to finance a marginally successful business, but for real growth, you need to expose it to a lot more people than the 10,000 or 15,000 who come to a game," said ESPN President Bill Grimes.

That's where ESPN comes in. ESPN is on the air all the time. Except for a two-hour business show that runs weekdays at 6:30 a.m., ESPN airs sports all day long. Days can be real long, which makes for a lot of sports programming to fill. Sometimes, ESPN goes after the big programming catches, like outdoor football; sometimes, ESPN goes after the little programming catches, like indoor football.

"We recognize we want to be different than the TV networks," Grimes said. "We can't have only broad-appeal sports."

There's quite a difference between ESPN's recently signed NFL agreement and its Arena Football agreement. ESPN doggedly pursued the NFL and ended up paying $153 million in rights fees for three years. ESPN, meanwhile, was pursued by Foster and ended up paying no rights fees in the first year of an unusual deal.

The deal is this: ESPN pays only the production costs this year and the league sells and keeps all advertising revenues. ESPN has the option to renew the deal for five years and would split ad revenues with the league beyond this year.

"The only risk is we're out the money to produce these five games {this year}," Grimes said. "We think that's a pretty prudent risk . . . If the league fails, we haven't lost a lot. If the league succeeds, we're confident we'll make a profit in years 2, 3, 4 and 5."

"I didn't feel we could put a value on what it's worth in a traditional rights deal," Foster said. "It's fair for both of us at this point in time. They'll sell {the ad time} next year."

This year's five-game ESPN schedule, which includes the title game Aug. 1, will expand to at least 29 games next year as the league adds teams. And next year, Foster will have the right to strike local TV deals, with teams like the Washington Commandos probably showing up on regional cable networks like Home Team Sports.

This year, Foster's big challenge has been converting skeptics into sponsors. "It was a battle," he said. "You go out and show people this tape and it takes a certain type of entrepreneurial mind to see this might work. Hardee's rolled the dice on this thing. You've got to be a bit of a corporate maverick.

"Most of the time, I'm dealing with middle-management types, who, understandably, might not want to risk any job security over this thing. I mean, what are they going to do? -- go in to their superiors and say, 'Look what I've got? Arena Football!' They get some funny looks."

If they get funny looks, that's because it's a funny game. But arena football, sort of a cross between football, box lacrosse and pinball, is a natural TV sport -- they're even working on having an indoor blimp in place by the title game, honest -- and its place on the calendar makes it a natural for ESPN to fill its summer inventory. And it just may be an early view -- did we hear anybody say ice baseball? -- of some of ESPN's future stock.

The good news for ESPN has been that its Arena Football League ratings have been decent -- 1.1 million homes tuned in to the first telecast two weeks ago between Denver and Chicago and 770,000 homes saw last week's Denver-Washington game. The bad news for ESPN has been its exceedingly mediocre game productions, led by shillish announcers Bob (Isn't This The Greatest Sport In The World?) Rathbun and Lee (Yes, It's The Greatest Sport In The World) Corso.