The Arena Football League carries the copyrighted tag "The 50-Yard Indoor War." It's back, nets and all, having survived three topsy-turvy campaigns that transformed it from a curious but highly marketable product to a troupe of globetrotters.
The Washington Commandos, one of three original teams still around, open the 1990 season tonight in Albany, N.Y., against the Firebirds, one of two new teams (the other is the Dallas Texans). Washington's home opener is next Saturday night against the Detroit Drive, which features the league's most famous -- and infamous -- player, quarterback Art Schlichter. The Commandos will play their four home games at George Mason University's Patriot Center in Fairfax.
The league signed a television contract with Prime Sports Network, of which Home Team Sports is an affiliate. The network will carry 11 games live on a game-of-the-week basis. The Commandos are on PSN's schedule twice, including their home opener.
Arena Football's leaders -- especially founder-commissioner James F. Foster -- hope this season breaks the league out of a downhill spiral in which attendance has dropped from an average of 11,429 in its inaugural 1987 season to 6,629 last season. Apparently the league's novelty -- a result of innovations such as single platoons, eight-man teams and nets that keep the ball in play even after a missed field goal -- wore off after one year. Now the league is going to try to get it back.
Arena Football franchises are, historically, unstable. Only the Pittsburgh Gladiators have been around every season. The league started with only four franchises -- all owned by Foster: the Chicago Bruisers, the Denver Dynamite, the Gladiators and the Commandos. In 1988, feeling a spirit of adventure because of surprising success at the ticket office and on ESPN, the league attracted individual investors, tripled its schedule, and expanded into New York and Los Angeles.
Neither of those franchises was around the next season, which found five teams taking to the road. The teams, this time backed by the hosting arenas' managements rather than individual investors, played a shortened schedule in 10 cities, trying to regain the public's interest. Whether the strategy worked will be known soon.
This year the Bruisers are gone, but the Firebirds and Texans have infused the league with new blood, perhaps just what it needs.
The history of the Commandos has been equally chaotic. They finished the 1987 season tied with Chicago for last in the four-team league. Because of a lack of investors, the Commandos didn't field a team in 1988, but the franchise came back last year as the Maryland Commandos, chiefly because the team played two games in the state -- one at Capital Centre and one at Baltimore Arena.
This year, back in Washington, they hope to return to better times. "We just have to get this league stable," said Commandos first-year coach Mike Hohensee, who played for the Gladiators in 1987 and '88. "There's a place for this product out there."
With only two players back from last year's 0-4 squad and only a league-imposed two-week practice period to prepare for tonight's opener, the Commandos, like the league, are in for a struggle. But spirits were high this week as the team ironed out wrinkles on the practice field at St. Anselm's High in the District.
"We're looking for a championship," said Hohensee. "We're all so new to each other that it may take some time. Early on, we just want to make as few mistakes as possible. The thing that's going to win games for this team is heart."
The Commandos feature two of the league's "marquee" names in Charlie Brown, the former Washington Redskins Pro Bowl wide receiver, and Russell Hairston, the 1987 Arena MVP. The 20-man roster also includes Alvin Blount and Dan Plocki, both of whom played at the University of Maryland, and Rodney Smith, formerly of Towson State.
Brown, a newcomer to the indoor game, is about to get his first taste of two-way football. League rules stipulate players -- excluding quarterbacks, kickers and one designated defensive specialist -- must play offense and defense. Brown also will be a defensive back.
"From what I've experienced in practice," he said, "it's a lot of fun going both ways. It's exciting and it's a challenge. You really have to be well-conditioned to do something like this."
Plocki, a successful college kicker, gets a shot at the Arena goalposts, which are less than half as wide as the NFL's. To make matters more interesting, any missed kick that hits the surrounding net may be returned.
"No one is expected to make too many field goals," Plocki said.
The tiny dimensions, the single platoons, and, of course, those nets, create a startling version of the traditional game. As Hairston likes to tell the Commandos' rookies, "There's nowhere to hide out here."
ARENA FOOTBALL AT A GLANCE
One of three charter members of the Arena Football League, the Dynamite won the first championship, topping Pittsburgh in ArenaBowl '87. Coach Babe Parilli played 19 seasons in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl with the New York Jets in 1970.
Besides winning the championship in 1988 -- its first year in the league -- and 1989, the Drive boasts the league's highest-profile player, former Ohio State star quarterback Art Schlichter. First-year coach Perry Moss is a football journeyman, having coached in the NFL, World Football League, Canadian Football League and college before joining the Gladiators as an assistant in 1987.
One of three original teams still participating, the Gladiators have made it to two of the league's three championship games, losing in 1987 to Denver and in 1989 to Detroit. Coach Joe Haering has guided the team since its inception, compiling a 13-9 record.
One of two new teams, the Firebirds are led by Rick Buffington, who was named coach on April 19. They will play in the new Knickerbocker Arena.
Pro football Hall-of-Famer Ernie Stautner was named coach of the expansion team May 25 by owner Lanier Richey, an oil producer from nearby Tyler. Stautner played in nine Pro Bowls in his 15 years as a defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was an assistant under Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys for two decades.