Arena Football League (1988)
Born: February 1988 – AFL expansion franchise
Folded: February 1989
Arena: Providence Civic Center (10,200)
Team Colors: Orange, Black & White
Arena Bowl Championships: None
As New York had its baseball and football Giants and Brooklyn had its multi-sport Dodgers, so the citizens of Providence, Rhode Island cheered on their Steam Rollers in various incarnations for the better part of a century. Providence Journal sportswriters Charles Coppen and Pearce Johnson organized the original Steam Roller as an independent football team in 1916. In their heyday, the Steam Roller played in the National Football League from 1925 to 1931, winning the NFL championship in 1928. The original Steam Roller fell victim to the Great Depression in the early 1930’s, but the name was resuscitated for various minor league and semi-pro football clubs from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. In addition, Providence’s early entry in the National Basketball Association adopted the Steamrollers nickname during its three-year run from 1946 to 1949.
The last (or perhaps most recent) team to take up the Steamrollers identity was the New England Steamrollers of the Arena Football League. The Steamrollers entered the Arena League in early 1988 during the first round of expansion for the pioneering indoor football start-up. The AFL debuted in 1987, playing a 12-game demonstration season with four league-owned clubs in Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington. The league claimed average attendance of 11,279 and drew cable television interest from ESPN, which broadast five games, including Arena Bowl I, which drew over 13,000 fans to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. Heading into 1988, league founder Jim Foster was ready to sell “limited partnerships” in the business he created, a definition which (for Foster, at least) stopped short of the traditional latitude offered to buyers of expansion franchises. As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman in 1988:
“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys. We tell ‘em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’ That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”
Foster’s view on what degree of control investors should expect for their money would nearly sink the league less than a year later.
The Arena Football League announced Providence as an expansion city in February 1988. Concert and fight promoter Frank J. Russo and jeweler Robert Andreoli purchased the limited partnership and operating rights to the club. They announced the New England Steamrollers name in a nod to Providence’s 1928 NFL championship team.
New England Steamrollers Programs & Memorabilia
The Steamrollers roster was a mostly anonymous mix of refugees and training camp casualties from the United States Football League and the Canadian Football League. Like many players in the Arena League in 1988, a number of Steamrollers saw action as replacement players in the NFL during the 1987 player strike. The most experienced player was actually a German – placekicker Bernie Ruoff who enjoyed a fourteen-year career in the Canadian League from 1975 to 1988. The biggest “name” on the Steamrollers was Head Coach Vito “Babe” Parilli, a former Boston Patriots quarterback from the AFL days and later the back-up to Joe Namath when the New York Jets won Super Bowl III.
The Steamrollers debuted at the Providence Civic Center on April 29th, 1988, suffering a 60-35 loss at the hands of the Chicago Bruisers before an announced crowd of 8,374. The rest of the season was little better, as the ‘Rollers finished 3-9 and won just one of their six homes games. Announced attendance for the six-game slate at the Providence Civic Cener was 5,707. Andreoli bought out Russo at the end of the 1988 season and pegged his personal loss on the three-month Arena Football season at around $200,000.
“My experience with the Steamrollers in the Arena Football League was that when they gave away tickets, they filled the arena,” recalled Steamrollers PR Director Rob Ekno in 2012. “When they didn’t give away tickets, there was nobody there.”
The team’s struggle to sell tickets was not the only problem faced by PR man Rob Ekno, who was battling addiction in the summer of 1988 and would wind up homeless a few years later.
“The night before our first ever game on ESPN, I stayed up all night partying at Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island. We had a 9:00 AM production meeting with ESPN at the Civic Center. I drove up Route 95 and I was blasted out of my mind on vodka and cocaine, which were my drugs of choice.
“Chet Forte, who was the first director of Monday Night Football, was the producer for ESPN. I pulled into the Providence Civic Center parking lot at 8:45 in the morning for the meeting with Chet and all the ESPN guys, and the PR guys from our opponents, the Los Angeles Cobras. I couldn’t stay awake, so I did one last line in the parking lot before I went inside. I sat next to Babe Parilli, who was our Head Coach, and I never took my hat or dark sunglasses off. When you’re doing coke, your mouth is going a mile a minute even when you’re not talking. My whole body was twitching. I don’t know how nobody ever said anything to me that day. I got through the meeting, went home and passed out, and then did the game that night.”
Following the 1988 season, the league’s limited partners became embroiled in a dispute with league founder and Commissioner Jim Foster. The partners offered Foster a reported $300,000 buyout, but he refused to go. The ensuing power struggle made it impossible for the league to sell any expansion franchises for 1989, which would have helped offset the losses of the limited partners. Foster ultimately retained control. A proposal to start the season later and shift the schedule deeper into the summer further demoralized Steamrollers owner Bob Andreoli, who told Providence Journal that he did not feel Rhode Islanders would buy tickets for indoor events in July and August. Andreoli withdrew from the league in February 1989, ending the Steamrollers adventure after a single season.
Although the Arena Football League nearly folded during the ownership dispute in the winter of 1988-89, the league ultimately held on for twenty more years. At its peak in the early 21st century, the league attracted NFL ownership and won a broadcast television contract with NBC. The league folded in 2009 due to over-leverage, but a revived version launched in 2010, returning to the modest ideals of the league’s early years.
Over the years, the Arena League has spawned many low budget imitators, including its own Arena Football 2 developmental league designed for mid-sized markets like Providence. Despite this glut of indoor football, the sport never returned to the Ocean State after the one-year engagement of the Steamrollers in the spring and summer of 1988. The closest attempt came in the spring of 2009 when the Lingerie Football League announced that a club called the New England Euphoria would play two games at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center (the re-named Providence Civic Center) that fall. The Euphoria got as far as hosting some local tryouts and conducting a racy photo shoot before scrapping their plans in May 2009.
New England Steamrollers final game. July 16, 1988 at Pittsburgh Gladiators. ESPN telecast.