Anyone who finds Super Bowl week hoopla a little much just might want to give the Arena Football league a try.
It's been ArenaBowl '87 week in Pittsburgh, the week preceding the fledgling league's first championship game tonight. Sure, there was plenty on the agenda, but it wasn't enough to overload your pocket calendar.
On Wednesday, league founder and president Jim Foster gave his "state of the league" address, saying how pleased he is that the league averaged about 3,000 more fans per game than the 8,000 he originally hoped for. Thursday, there were meetings with prospective owners, and last night there was a party for them. Although several prospective Washington Commandos owners were scheduled to appear, George Starke, who has begun to look for a group of owners with fellow ex-Redskin Mark Moseley, couldn't make it.
But tonight, it's the main event: the Pittsburgh Gladiators host the Denver Dynamite for the league championship, in front of ESPN cameras and a possible Civic Arena sellout crowd of 15,039.
They will be playing for the "Hardee's Cup" because the hamburger chain is one of the league's main sponsors. "We are the first American-based sport, I believe, to play for a cup," Foster says proudly. "I always liked the idea of playing for a cup."
But to Pittsburgh receiver Jim Rafferty, the cup's name is somewhat strange. "I haven't even heard it called that," he said. "But there's nobody like Lombardi yet in Arena Football, so I guess you have to name it after something."
The championship atmosphere is alive for the players, says Rafferty, who lives in Woodbridge, Va. Of course, he might have had a little more fun if his brand new Trans Am -- complete with RAFF 28 Virginia license plates -- wasn't stolen from the hotel parking lot.
"I wanted to build up some of this, but I had to keep in mind our budget and what would make people happy," said Foster, a former NFL marketing executive. "I helped put together four Super Bowls, so I thought I could do something. But the Super Bowl week is kind of a megamonster. It almost gets bigger than the game itself."
The league also had a unique way of picking the site of its title game. Pittsburgh and Denver both finished 4-2, and though Pittsburgh is generally considered a better team, that didn't matter. Pittsburgh was awarded the game because it had better attendance this season.
The attendance race came down to the final night of the season, last Friday, when the Dynamite had to draw 15,745 fans to host the event. Of course, Denver also had to beat Chicago or lose by less than nine points just to get in the game.
Next door at Mile High Stadium, Billy Graham was in the final night of a five-night crusade, so McNichols Arena officials -- optimistic about bringing ArenaBowl '87 to Denver -- weren't expecting a large Graham crowd that could create traffic problems. AT&T even bought 1,000 tickets to help the Dynamite's cause and the Rocky Mountain News offered to buy up to 700 tickets at the last minute if that would push the total over.
Then 52,000 people came to see Graham. Traffic backed up three miles in each directon. And only 13,800 attended the game.
"I guess the good Lord wanted us to play in Pittsburgh," Foster said. "It was absolutely horrendous. You couldn't even get off the freeway."
There are many quirky stories about the league's initial season. It held training camp -- the whole league on one field -- at a small private college outside Chicago. There, some discussion arose over the term "Arenaball," the league's informal name that Foster initially thought was too vague. But Denver Coach Tim Marcum, an easygoing Texan who often refers to his players as "kiddos," had an aversion to saying "Arena Football."
"I wanted a more descriptive term," Foster said. "But then Tim would always be saying, 'Well, we're gonna go play that Arenabawl,' with his southern drawl, and it was picked up from there."
Towards the end of camp, nets were set up to resemble the goalside ones the players would soon face. An intrigued Lee Larsen, who now kicks for the Gladiators, hopped into a raised cart on one of the telephone trucks that were being used to set the nets up. But when the setup took a while, the workers in the carts stayed in the air -- and so did Larsen, missing a portion of practice.
Later, when the nets were in place, coaches asked some players to salute what Foster called "the higher power." Soaked in sweat, they managed to bow respectfully.
Sure enough, the nets were a factor. Washington Coach Bob Harrison told a charging kickoff return team to slow down during a recent practice. "We want to make sure we get the ball before we start blocking," Harrison shouted. "Any questions or problems with that?" Silence.
The next night in a game against Pittsburgh, the Commandos still lost a kickoff after it hit the net, but they beat the Gladiators anyway, 52-31.
There were other intriguing incidents. Earlier in the season, in Denver, the "Hardee's Blimp," a remote-controlled flying plastic object, went berserk. It hit and stuck to the roof of McNichols Arena, because its operator "didn't have a grip on what was going on," Foster said. No problem. Someone broke out a dart game and several employees began throwing them at the blimp. After a few tosses, the blimp was shot down.
The Arena Football League hopes it can avoid a similar fate. Next year, eight to 10 teams should appear in a May-to-Labor Day season. That may or may not include the Washington Commandos, depending on whether ownership can be found. It may or may not include Harrison.
Says Harrison, "Only time is going to answer those things."