Indoor and Arena Football History

Arena Football League (1987-2008) (AFL I)
Arena Football League (1987-2008) (AFL I)
Active: 1987-2008

While attending an indoor soccer game at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1981, NFL marketing executive Jim Foster sketched out the plans for an indoor variety of football on the back of a manilla envelope. In Foster's drawing, eight-man teams would play on a 50-yard field surrounded by padded dasher boards. Huge rebound nets would keep the ball in play on either side of the field goal posts. The idea attracted the attention of NBC which offered Foster a contract to stage a game on the network. The announced birth of the United States Football League in 1982 kept Foster from pursuing his plan, but when the USFL played its final game in 1985, he began work in earnest on the concept he called Arena Football.

Knowing he had something unique on his hands, Foster applied for a U.S. patent for the Arena Football game system. Now it was time to see if the game actually worked on the field. Foster staged a test game on April 26, 1986, in Rockford, Il., that caught the eye of The Sporting News columnist Howard Balzer. Another test game followed on February 26, 1987, and it drew more than 8,000 fans in Chicago, including executives from ESPN. Buoyed by positive reviews from the players and fans, as well as a contract from ESPN, Foster founded the Arena Football League.

The AFL kicked off in 1987 with four teams playing what was termed a "preview season." All teams were owned by the league, a move Foster hoped would curtail high-priced bidding for players. The television coverage provided by ESPN proved critical to the league's effort to attract sponsors. Games that year drew an average of over 11,000 fans.

The success paved the way for additional franchises in New York, Los Angeles, Providence and Detroit the following season, and Foster reluctantly agreed to give up some ownership to the new team operators. It was a decision he would regret when a group of them challenged him for control of the league, with one even issuing Foster a death threat at one point. With the Detroit Drive's Mike Ilitch, owner of Little Caesars Pizza and the NHL's Red Wings, behind him, Foster stood firm and won the battle, albeit at the cost of several franchises.

Facing challenges within, the hastily-assembled World Indoor Football League presented the AFL with its first direct competitor in 1988. The St. Louis Lightning, Baltimore War Eagles, Indiana (Indianapolis) Cougars, Las Vegas Aces, San Antonio Texans and San Diego Thunder made up the WIFL. Even celebrity ownership such as former St. Louis Cardinals star Stump Mitchell and rocker John "Cougar" Mellencamp could not keep the league from going under on June 9, just three months after its formation and 11 days before the scheduled opener. The WIFL was but the first of many indoor challengers.

Foster and the AFL persevered. Shouldering many of the league's expenses on credit cards, Foster and other league executives saw the four-team league through an abbreviated 1989 campaign, which included regular season games, and even one playoff game, at neutral sites. The league grew back to six teams and an eight-week schedule the following season. Foster would credit Ilitch's support and sponsorship for helping the AFL through this critical period.

Throughout the remainder of the 1990s, the league lineup continued to change with teams being added and subtracted every year. Foster gave up the commissioner position of the AFL to concentrate on his own team, the Iowa Barnstormers. C. David Baker, and AFL team owner, eventually took over the position, leading the league into the 21st century.

League games continued to appear on ESPN and ESPN2 in a variety of timeslots in the 1990s, until the National Network (TNN) took over the AFL television contract and gave the league premium, prime-time broadcasts again from 2000-2002. In 2003, NBC began airing games, more than two decades after their first annulled agreement with Foster. The network contract gave the AFL unprecedented exposure, helping it gain even more sponsors and fans.

With growth, the AFL also saw its share of big-league challenges. A labor dispute in 2000 resulted in the cancellation of the season, but a quick settlement resulted in the league playing all but a few preseason games that year. Indoor leagues continued to spring up across the country, and as long as they didn't use rebound nets or claim affiliation with the AFL, they were free to play.

On the other hand, AFL franchise values skyrocketed, in part thanks to the involvement of NFL team owners. In a rare exception, the NFL waived its rule prohibiting its owners from investing in other sports teams, specifically to allow them to own AFL franchises. Building on it name recognition, the league established arenafootball2, its own minor league which played largely in medium-sized markets too small for the AFL.

The AFL grew to a national league with a network television contract and millions of fans. Outside of the National Football League, it was the longest running professional football league in the nation until debt forced it into bankruptcy.

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