Arena Football Is in the Red Zone

The indoor gridiron, in memoriam.

Today, ESPN reported that the Arena Football League is “suspending operations indefinitely” and will soon declare bankruptcy. According to Columbus Destroyers managing partner Jim Renacci, the league’s plethora of owners couldn’t agree on a new financial plan. Not to say we told you so, but back in 2002, Hugo Lindgren agonized over his inability to make money by owning stock in an Arena Football team. The original piece is reprinted below.

Arena football is no way to make money
Arena football is no way to make money

Flipping channels the other day, I came across an Arena Football League playoff game. Most normal people would have kept on flipping. I, however, had what you could call a “chocolate in my peanut butter” moment. Two great forms of non-porn but otherwise male-oriented television entertainment—sports and the stock market—collided and the result was, well, I’m embarrassed to say it, but it was riveting.

The game, you see, involved the Orlando Predators, and for reasons that are hard to explain with a straight face, I own a couple of thousand dollars worth of Predators stock (it trades under the symbol PRED on the Nasdaq). OK, the precise figure, at the moment I came upon the game, was $1,700, or $1.70 a share. Betting that the NFL would exercise an option it held to purchase half the league, I bought in a year ago at $2 a share. But the NFL shucked the option, and the stock took a dive. So I was down 15 percent.

Though I had never before sat down and watched a game, I had always admired arena football as a perfect Reagan-era invention, a textbook “supply-side” concoction. The guy who dreamed it up noticed two phenomena—arenas sitting empty in the summer that could be rented for cheap and thousands of semiskilled football players who would play for cheap—and realized that he could create a new cheap form of entertainment by combining them. This was his chocolate-and-peanut-butter moment. To make things even more hairy, he shortened the field to 50 yards, erected padded walls around it, and put big nets at the end zones that keep passes and kicks in play.Early on, the sport proudly (and aptly) billed itself as “human pinball.”

The game I came across was a first-round playoff between the Predators and the Buffalo Destroyers, and I quickly realized that my financial future was tied up in the outcome—in the sense that if Orlando advanced, it might supercharge my PRED stock. If the team went all the way to the championship, I might even make it all the way back to break even. How glorious!

Fortunately, I had tuned in during the second half, so it didn’t have to kill my entire afternoon. Arena ball is rigged to make scoring easy—it’s not unusual for teams to rack up 60, 70 points apiece. To not score, you have to drop passes and miss wide-open receivers and otherwise demonstrate all the reasons why the NFL is not interested in you. And that’s exactly what I saw unfold. Buffalo fumbled four times and gave up seven sacks. In the fourth quarter, the game ground to a halt. It actually became a defensive struggle, a rare and dispiriting spectacle in arena football. The Predators eked out a win, 32-27.

Most witnesses would have sworn off arena football for life. I, however, was hooked. I waited with great anticipation for the markets to open on Monday to see just how much value my hour of hard rooting would translate into. Nothing, it turned out. My penny stock had plunged 20 cents.

Like a young initiate into a cult, however, I took this failure to be a sign that ever greater and more glorious rewards lay ahead. So naturally, I tuned into the Predators’ next game the following Saturday, the playoff quarterfinals against the New Jersey Gladiators. It took place on a gorgeous afternoon, in front of a crowd at the Continental Airlines Arena that barely outnumbered the players. There may have been even fewer TV viewers. The game felt as if it were being beamed directly into the void, playing only to unseeing eyes in nursing homes and bus terminals.

The game got off to a bouncy start. The Predators surprised the Gladiators with an onside kick. I was elated by the ballsy coaching move. The Gladiators, in turn, surprised the Predators by returning said kick 7 yards for a touchdown. I was disgusted by the dumb-ass coaching move.

I spent the entire game like this, pinballing between elation and disgust—emotions heightened by the realization that these dumb-asses could be costing me money. Orlando quarterback Jay Gruden—who is somehow already a member of the Arena League Hall of Fame—played smartly, piling up yardage with apparent ease. The defense, however, was appalling. Both teams made a habit of tackling high and with their arms—maybe that’s because they’re being sensibly cautious and avoiding injury (nothing could be sadder than crippling yourself for the sake of arena football), but it sure makes for low-quality entertainment. Tapes of this should be shown to young players as anti-instructional videos, a kind of Scared Straight series for the young gridder: Tackle like this, and you, too, will one day be forced to play human pinball for the Grand Rapids Rampage.

Orlando scraped out another victory, aided by a couple critical non-calls by the officials, and I was once again jazzed about what this might mean for my PRED stock. So I’ve been checking it every day, and I’m happy to report that this week it has crept back to $1.699 a share. Two weeks of arena football fandom have set me back one-tenth of a penny. In today’s market, that’s practically a profit.

So I consider myself a full and total convert. In fact, I think every Arena League team should post itself on the Nasdaq. They could be the first sports league to sell itself this way. Geography, when you think about it, is an increasingly flimsy foundation for sports fans. Rooting doesn’t really mean anything until you buy in. This Saturday, the Predators travel to the land of busted stocks, Silicon Valley, to play the San Jose SaberCats. There, I am convinced, something as real and incorruptible as a win, even in arena football, will really be worth something.