Small-Time Football, Big-Time Buzz

Now the NFL may buy into the Arena Football League

In 1959, Texas oilman K.S. "Bud" Adams Jr. forked over $25,000 for the Houston Oilers, one of eight teams in the just-formed American Football League. Eleven years later, the AFL merged with the NFL, and in 1997, Adams moved his club to Tennessee and changed its name to the Titans. Today, with his franchise valued at over $500 million, Adams, 78, has the buy-a-team bug again. This time, though, he's betting on a very different AFL.

The Titans' boss is among eight National Football League team owners who have bought into or plan to start up franchises in the Arena Football League. For most of its 15 years, the AFL has toiled well below the radar screen--not to mention the TV screen. But that looks to be changing. Attendance has more than doubled, to 2.6 million, in five years; plans are under way to have the AFL and af2 (its minor league) play in 100 cities by 2005--more than double the number of teams now; and Ford's truck division signed on last year as the first major corporate sponsor.

UNTAPPED TOWNS. More important, the NFL may take a piece of the action. At a meeting set for Oct. 30 in Pittsburgh, NFL owners will consider exercising an option for a 49.9% stake in Arena Football. NFL officials won't say what the stake would cost, but insiders figure the AFL is worth about $60 million. "All the sports leagues are discovering that our second-line cities are untapped," says Mayor John H. Logie of Grand Rapids, Mich., home to an AFL team and minor-league hockey, baseball, and basketball.

In arena football, players use a regulation-size football, but the field is 50 yards long. Six of the eight players (11 in the NFL) must play both offense and defense. There's also more passing and scoring. In last year's ArenaBowl in Grand Rapids--at the end of the April-to-August season--the hometown Rampage beat the Nashville Kats, 64-42. Fans sit right up next to the field. "You really get to hear the crack of the pads," says AFL Commissioner C. David Baker, a 6-foot, 8-inch, 385-pound lawyer. An average ticket costs $17 for an AFL game vs. $54 for an NFL contest. Players make $40,000 to $150,000 a year.

Still, the AFL can be a stepping stone to the big time. Arena Football's poster boy is quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, who played for the Iowa Barnstormers (now the New York Dragons) before joining the St. Louis Rams.

The NFL, however, tends to see the AFL opportunity less as a chance to establish a minor league and more as a brand-builder. Says Neil Glat, NFL vice-president for strategic planning: "We look at this as a potential in our off-season to market and stay involved with football fans." It doesn't hurt that AFL studies show a third of its fans are under 24, a red-hot demographic.

Even if the NFL takes a pass, the AFL has other plays in its book. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is launching an AFL team in Dallas, is pushing arena football as an Olympic event. "This is the best chance we have to make football an international sport," says Jones, who holds the rights to launch a team in Monterrey, Mexico.

As Baker sees it, while the NFL concentrates on major markets, Arena Football will expand into both big and small cities. "The NFL is an inch wide and a mile deep," says Baker. "We are an inch deep and a mile wide." Two years ago, the AFL formed the af2 to establish teams in smaller markets, such as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa. An af2 franchise part-owned by Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas is set to kick off there next April. "You won't see spoiled guys out there," says Unitas, who once played for the Bloomfield (Pa.) Rams. "These players will be a bunch of local guys trying to get things done."

Underdogs sell, but "Let's face it, it's a miracle this league is still around," says Casey Wasserman, 27, owner of the L.A. Avengers and grandson of legendary Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman. "The only reason we're here is because the product works."

Some 42 years ago, Bud Adams probably wasn't thinking about "the product" when he founded the Oilers. He just wanted a football team. Adams had worries, though. Critics kept questioning whether NFL fans loved football enough to follow a league called the AFL.

By Tom Lowry in New York

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