Indoor football league plans to put expansion team in Portland

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Arena football appears to be headed to downtown Portland, perhaps as soon as next spring.

The National Arena League has announced that Portland will become one of its expansion cities in the 2018 season. The yet-to-be-named team would play at Cross Insurance Arena.

“I think they’re hoping for this April,” said Matt Herpich, general manager of the arena. “If not, it’s almost guaranteed for next April (2019).”

There are, however, some important details to be worked out between Cross arena and a new professional sports league still trying to gain its footing.

Herpich said Wednesday that lease negotiations have yet to be completed. The team would be owned by the league, Herpich said, with the idea of eventually transitioning to local ownership.

“We started talking late summer, early fall and we’re still having conversations,” Herpich said. “They love Portland. They liked the city, liked the vibe. They liked the idea of the fan base and the sports following in the state of Maine.”

The NAL is one of several indoor professional football leagues in North America. Based out of Atlanta, the league held its inaugural season earlier this year. Four of the eight NAL teams that played in 2017 apparently have folded. A fifth team, in Monterrey, Mexico, is not expected to play in 2018.

Portland would host one of four expansion franchises. The others would be in Trenton, New Jersey, Worcester, Massachusetts, and Greensboro, North Carolina. Coming back for a second season will be the league champion Jacksonville Sharks, runner-up Columbus (Georgia) Lions and the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The 2018 season will run from April to August, the league said.

The Sioux City Bandits kick off to the Omaha Beef in a Champions Indoor Football league game in Sioux City, Iowa, in May of 2015. The eight-on-eight indoor game is played on a 50-yard field laid inside a hockey rink. Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena could host a team as soon as next spring. Associated Press/Nati Harnik

NEWS CONFERENCE WITH DETAILS

NAL officials were in Worcester on Wednesday to announce the newly formed Massachusetts Pirates.

“We’re on the verge of some great things,” NAL Commisioner Chris Siegfried said during a news conference streamed on the league’s Facebook page. “We’re not going to announce them tonight, but there’s going to be some close rivalries nearby (to Worcester).

“We’ve got seven teams right now locked and loaded. Not all of them have been announced, but they all have solid ownership and we’re very excited about it.”

Siegfried said the league is in the process of finalizing the 2018 schedule and would release it “in a week or two.” The league posted on its website that news conferences in Portland and Greensboro “will be scheduled later in the month.”

Herpich said there has been no date set for any news conference at Cross arena regarding a football team.

“We’ve got to get a lease signed,” said Herpich, who noted that holding football games in the summer could bring in fans during what is usually a slow season for the arena. “It would be great for our sports and great for our staff to keep active during summer,” he said. “Our concert season is really Labor Day to Memorial Day, because then they go outside.”

Arena football, first played in 1987, takes place in buildings typically designed for basketball or hockey. As opposed to the 100-yard field used outside, arena football typically uses a field 50 yards long. Each sideline has a padded barrier placed over hockey boards separating fans from the field of play. Rebound nets are located on either side of the goalposts to allow missed field goals to bounce back onto the field, where the ball can be played live. Punting is not allowed.

Each team fields eight players on offense and defense, with four offensive players on the line of scrimmage before each snap.

“It’s a fast, exciting game in an intimate atmosphere,” Siegfried said during the Worcester event, noting that kids in the stands could high-five players between plays. “It’s a rock concert. It’s family-friendly. It’s right there in your face.”

Some fans agree.“It’s a lot of fun,” said Steve Krolikowski of Cumberland Center, recalling the arena game he saw years ago in New York at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. “I think people in Portland enjoy football in general, and some tourists might enjoy it in the summer.”

Indoor professional football seems in a constant state of flux, with new leagues forming and others dissolving.

The sport was popularized by the Arena Football League, which began play in 1987 and had a regular-season network television deal with ESPN2 from 1995-99. In its 10th season, in 1996, it had 15 teams and a total attendance of over a million fans, but the AFL is now down to six teams. Five are in major markets such as Cleveland, Philadelphia and Baltimore, where the games are played in facilities designed to host NBA and NHL teams, making it a difficult economic model to maintain.

TALES FROM INAUGURAL SEASON

Newer leagues, like the NAL, appear to be shifting away from large arenas to midsized facilities. Last year the league played regular-season games from late March to mid-June. Some NAL teams played 12 games, while other clubs played fewer. The now-defunct Dayton, Ohio, team played only seven games. The team was actually based out of Atlanta and played all seven games on the road, losing all of them – including by scores of 94-6, 68-6 and 77-0.

“Most of the guys probably couldn’t find Dayton on an Ohio map,” kicker Jim Terry, a veteran of 16 indoor football league seasons and eight different leagues, told the Florida Times-Union in June. “A lot of games are like the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals.”

Terry played one game with Dayton before a rib injury ended his season. The Times-Union reported that Terry said he wasn’t paid for the game he played, so he kept his helmet and uniform.

Cross arena, which can seat about 6,700 fans for hockey, would be the smallest venue used by the NAL’s existing franchises. The arena lost its major tenant in May 2016 when the Portland Pirates hockey team moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. A new professional hockey team – the Maine Mariners of the ECHL – is scheduled to debut at the arena in the fall of 2018.

Arena football is played on a 50-yard field in buildings designed for basketball or hockey. Receivers can end up in the stands while chasing passes, and the best teams average over 50 points a game. Associated Press file/Nati Harnik

“Bringing back hockey was our first priority,” said Herpich, the arena’s general manager. “Now if this works, it would be super cool. We’re excited about the prospects.”

Arena football games tend to be wide-open, high-scoring affairs. In 2017, Lehigh Valley averaged 61 points per game behind the play of league MVP and former University of Maine quarterback Warren Smith Jr. A veteran of several indoor leagues, Smith quarterbacked Maine to the NCAA playoffs in 2011, setting a school passing yardage record as a senior.

Several players have gone from indoor football leagues to the NFL, most notably Kurt Warner, a two-time NFL MVP who quarterbacked both the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017. Warner played in the Arena Football League for the Iowa Barnstormers. The AFL paid its players $900 per game during the 2017 season, according to news reports.

DRAWING INTEREST IN PORTLAND

Alexis Seader and Ian MacRae, both of Portland, said an arena football team makes sense for Portland because it’s a sports town. They agreed it would be worth trying to see a handful of games – as long as tickets are not too expensive.

“We live around the corner and are always looking for fun stuff to do in the neighborhood,” Seader said as the two sat at the bar in Brian Boru. “If it’s affordable and a family-fun atmosphere, if there’s action and (air conditioning) in July, with cold beer? We could be convinced to go.”

The Steelhawks – the NAL’s Allentown, Pennsylvania, franchise – will charge from $11.50 to $41.50 a ticket for a single game and from $56 to $262.50 for a season-ticket package to all seven games in 2018.

MacRae said arena football is fun to watch on television because the action is so fast. He said he isn’t sure the sport would draw enough fans to fill Cross arena.

Across the street from the arena at Binga’s Stadium, Portland resident Nick Simpson, 31, said arena football would be great for the city because it would be something different.

“I think a diversity of activities is good for Portland, just like a diversity of people,” he said.

This post originally appeared on Press Herald Copyright 2017.

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