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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Joseph Palmer at the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas

Men in the arena: can indoor football be revived in the US?

Bay Area Panthers quarterback Dalton Sneed runs with the ball against the Arizona Rattlers in their IFL game in March.
Bay Area Panthers quarterback Dalton Sneed runs with the ball against the Arizona Rattlers in their IFL game in March. Photograph: Zuma Press/Alamy

Despite being one of the game’s most well-known features, indoor football’s condensed dimensions are still shocking to fans accustomed to gridiron’s traditional, significantly more popular outdoor form. At 50 yards long and 28⅓ yards wide, an indoor football field offers players roughly one-quarter the area of an NFL field.

To accommodate for this, indoor football permits fewer on-field players than its outdoor equivalent (eight and 11, respectively). You’ll notice, however, that the number of players isn’t reduced by nearly the same extent as the playing area. As a result, indoor football fields are crowded and, with so many players crammed into so small an area, the games are action-packed – and that’s even before accounting for the padded walls.

“The wall is definitely the newest thing for me,” says Derrick Jones, a cornerback for the Frisco Fighters of the Indoor Football League (IFL). There are no sidelines in IFL games. Rather, as in ice hockey, the field’s boundary is marked by a wall which is also part of the field of play. “It’s crazy,” Jones says of the additional considerations introduced by the wall’s presence. “But, when you get to smack somebody against that wall, it definitely feels good … The wall is undefeated.”

Adding to the game’s chaos is the fact that players tackled over the wall often end up in fans’ laps. Again, as in hockey, the first row of fans are just inches from the action. Unlike hockey, however, the waist-high wall is not topped by plexiglass, so IFL players often flip over the barrier when diving for catches or getting tackled.

“If you go to a college game or an NFL game, you’re so far away from the action,” says Andre Coles, the Fighters’ head coach. “I can’t tell you how many college or pro games that I’ve been to and, I’m there live, but I’m watching the game on the [video] board.” Not so with indoor football. “You’re right there. You’re hearing every tackle.”

Coles is a knowledgable ambassador for the sport – he’s been around indoor football, as a player and a coach, since 2008.

“I played the indoor game for 11 seasons – one season in the AFL, then I played in bunch of other leagues … They were ‘arena-style,’ so it was a different game than this.”

Coles’ mention of arena-style football demands a quick aside on terminology.

“Indoor football” and “arena football” are often used interchangeably. Technically, however, indoor football and arena football are two related, but distinct codes and, between the two, arena football reigned supreme.

From 1987- 2019, the Arena Football League (AFL) was the predominant power in arena/indoor football and the AFL loomed larger in the sporting public’s consciousness than any of its successor leagues. Around the turn of the millennium, millions of viewers would tune in to watch the AFL’s championship game on ABC and NBC. Before emerging as a two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner spent three years quarterbacking for the AFL’s Iowa Barnstormers, establishing the league as a genuine pipeline for NFL talent. In 2006, EA Sports even developed a well-received arena football video game. By most measures, the AFL of the mid-2000s was a success.

“Back in those days, you had dynasty teams that were around,” says Coles. “They did the marketing, they were out in the community. In those small markets they became the thing. In your town, they were like the LA Lakers of that town.”

The AFL’s fortunes began to tank in 2008, when disagreement among the teams’ owners led to back-office indecision and, eventually, bankruptcy. Although the league would relaunch in 2010 (before eventually filing for bankruptcy a second time in 2019), the AFL would never return to its previous levels of popularity.

“When you lose the TV deal, when you lose the video games – naturally, it’s going to lose its popularity,” Coles says. (At present, a third iteration of the AFL is aiming to relaunch next year).

The sideline wall often comes into play during IFL games
The sideline wall often comes into play during IFL games. Photograph: Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy

Multiple upstart leagues have since tried to fill the vacuum. Most, however, collapsed within just a few seasons. Their legacy is not helped by their almost satirically similar names – there have been at least six different leagues which used some variation of the “____ Indoor Football League” naming formula (Can-Am, Champions Professional, Continental, Professional, Southern, and Ultimate).

“It hit a period where the leagues were just unstable,” recalls Coles. “A lot of leagues that pop up just want to put a team in a market and they weren’t really vetting these ownership groups. People would start teams and then, halfway through, [the teams] would fold or they would disappear.”

Currently near the end of its 14th consecutive season (not including the Covid-cancelled 2020 season), the IFL is the longest continuously operating indoor football league and, after years of relative broadcasting obscurity, this weekend’s championship game between the Sioux Falls Storm and Bay Area Panthers will air on CBS Sports Network. The IFL’s durability, along with its new television deal, make it the strongest candidate to rival the AFL’s popularity. And, it must be said, the IFL fan experience is very similar to that of the AFL 20 years ago.

Since the early days of the AFL, indoor football has inhabited a niche in American sporting culture, existing somewhere between the folksy Americana of minor-league baseball and the high-energy, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday” brashness of a monster truck rally. The IFL hits both notes. Like minor-league baseball, teams often play in small markets, tickets are affordable, and player-fan interactions are abundant and encouraged. Similar to a monster truck rally, however, there’s heavy metal music, player introductions featuring an uber-echoey microphone effect, and leather-clad motorcyclists riding on to the field for the pre-game ceremony.

To focus on the pageantry, however, is to miss the point – the in-person experience is genuinely thrilling and, although the already small arena is less than half-filled, the fans who are in attendance are loud, football savvy, and passionate. There was a genuine roar when Fighters defensive back Kordell Jackson intercepted a potential touchdown during the Fighters’ 45-44 loss to the Storm in the conference finals this past Saturday. And the crowd’s deflation was palpable when Storm wide receiver Donnie Corley Jr converted a two-point conversion in the final minute to steal the win (and a trip to the championship) from the Fighters.

Despite the competitive action, players and coaches acknowledge that, for many participants, the IFL is part of a path that hopefully ends in the NFL. Fighters quarterback TJ Edwards (who, in the IFL’s own words, “dominated the Indoor Football League in 2023”) says matter-of-factly, “There’s the NFL, the CFL, the XFL, USFL, and then there’s our league.” The IFL itself seems to recognize its place within this hierarchy – last year, the league announced a program in which its players can “showcase their talents in front of XFL coaches.”

Jones, the cornerback who noted that indoor football’s “wall is undefeated,” has a well-rounded perspective on the IFL’s place within professional football. He spent two years playing for the New York Jets and was signed to play for the Houston Texans before a severe knee injury ended his NFL career. Since then, in addition to playing for the Fighters, he’s played outdoor football in the USFL and the XFL.

“The NFL, they shoot for younger guys, and I know that I’d have to go the USFL or XFL and have a great season to get back in [the NFL] because I’m 28,” he says, before adding that he’s “definitely fine playing in [football’s minor leagues] for the next three or four years.”

For most players, the IFL doesn’t pay well enough to support themselves in the off-season (Jones works as a truck driver for several months each year – he keeps in shape by skipping rope at truck stops), but free housing and a chance to advance to football’s upper echelons seem to provide sufficient motivation.

“I just love to play football,” Jones says. “No rent and $500 a week isn’t so bad when you’re doing something you love.”

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