This great-looking program comes from the final regular season game of the 1988 Arena Football League season. The cover illustration depicts a blitzing defender from the New England Steamrollers closing in on a Pittsburgh Gladiators quarterback. The fact that those were the two teams actually playing in this game was just a coincidence, since this was one of six illustrated cover designs for the ARENABALL game magazine that were used around league throughout the AFL’s 36-game season.
The Gladiators (6-5) beat up on the lowly Steamrollers (2-9) during two earlier 1988 meetings, including the league’s most lopsided blowout of the year, an 82-26 ass whipping back on May 7th at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. This night New England got a surprising measure of revenge, upsetting the Gladiators 44-34. The catalyst was ex-Gladiator and reigning AFL Most Valuable Player Russell Hairston, who had been traded to New England two weeks earlier. Hairston torched his former team for four touchdowns. Since Arena Football players played both ways back in those days, Hairston also led New England in tackles on the evening.
This turned out to be the last hurrah for the obscure Steamrollers club, who folded quietly in the offseason after just one season of existence. Former Boston Patriots quarterback Babe Parilli was New England’s Head Coach.
The game was broadcast nationally on ESPN and someone has posted a nice quality three minute clip on YouTube:
This rare program from the 1996 Florida Bobcats of the Arena Football League showed up at the P.O. box this afternoon. The Bobcats were considered one of the league’s more troublesome embarrassments, thanks to their ownership squabbles, a puny 4,700-seat arena controlled by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and miserable crowds. Nevertheless, the ‘Cats managed to hang in there for six seasons from 1996 to 2001, which was a long life span by the standards of the Arena League.
Before the franchise arrived in West Palm Beach under new ownership in the spring of 1996, the team played in Miami and was known as the Miami Hooters (1993-1995). The Hooters were something of a convalescent home for ex-Miami Dolphins wide receivers. Jim “Crash” Jensen, a 12-year Dolphins vet and special teams ace, started at quarterback (his college position at Boston University) for the Hooters in 1993 and 1994. Former All-Pro Mark Duper showed up to play a couple of games in 1994, hauling in passes from his old Fins teammate.
Jensen retired from playing in 1995 and Duper wandered away to defend himself against a drug trafficking charge the same year. But when new franchise owner Bruce Frey moved the team to West Palm Beach in 1996, he brought back Crash Jensen as the Bobcats’ first Head Coach. That’s Jensen on the cover of this Week 4 game program (above right).
The gig wasn’t a stable one, however. Frey went through five Head Coaches during his five tumultuous seasons as owner. (Oddly, Jensen would end up back with the Bobcats in 1999 as an assistant coach to another ex-Dolphin, former tight end Bruce Hardy.)
The Bobcats lost this May 1996 game to the San Jose Sabercats by a score of 43-26. The Sabercats, improbably, still survive today after 18 seasons of indoor football.
Fred McNair, older brother of the late NFL star Steve McNair, took most of the snaps at quarterback for the Bobcats this season.
The New Orleans Night was a short-lived franchise during the early years of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008). The Night formed as an owner-less expansion team in March 1991 and were operated during their first season by the building management of the Louisiana Superdome. In July 1991, Orlando-area businessman and former NFL defensive end put together a group to buy the Night for $500,000. McBath already was a part owner of the league’s very popular Orlando Predators franchise, but he was unable to replicate that success in the Big Easy and the Night folded after a winless 1992 campaign.
The Night were 4-6 in the first season in 1991 under former Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Eddie Khayat. The team’s most notable player was former Mississippi Valley State quarterback Willie Totten. Totten was Jerry Rice’s college quarterback and shattered numerous Division 1-AA passing records in tandem with the legendary receiver. Totten split time at quarterback with former LSU signal caller Mickey Guidry in 1991.
After Mike McBath bought the team, former Tulane Head Coach Vince Gibson replaced Eddie Khayat for the 1992 season. The Night went 0-10 under Gibson, with Mickey Guidry taking most of the snaps at quarterback. The Night’s final appearance was a 62-8 humiliation on the road against McBath’s other team, the Orlando Predators, on July 31, 1992. McBath and his partners handed the keys to the franchise back to the league office in October 1992 and the Night was quietly euthanized when no other buys came forward.
Even among Arena Football diehards, the New Orleans Night are on obscure and forgotten franchise. To the extent they are remembered at all, it is usually for sporting garish Zubaz stripes on their uniforms as part of a 1991 promotional campaign with the flash-in-the-pan apparel manufacturer.
The Night cheerleading squad was known as “The Rhythm of the Night”.
At the time the Wolves joined up in 2002, AF2 was a sprawling 34-team league with franchises stretched from upstate New York to southern California. To keep costs down, the Wolves played only against regional opponents in the Northeast corridor and mid-Atlantic states.
The Wolves played at the newly built 7,500-seat arena inside the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. Veteran minor league baseball and hockey investor Dr. Eric Margenau was the owner of the team. Margenau had previous experience with indoor football, as Chairman of the Orlando Predators, one of the most popular clubs in the original Arena Football League.
The Wolves lasted two seasons at the casino, drawing modest crowds along the way. The team averaged 4,162 fans in 2002 as the expansion team finished 3-13. The next season was a big improvement on the carpet, with a 10-6 record and a trip to the playoffs, but a downbeat year at the box office, as attendance dipped to 3,699 per game.
In October 2003, the Wolves were sold to new investors who moved the team to Manchester, New Hampshire. As the Manchester Wolves, the franchise played six more seasons (2004-2009) before going out of business along with the rest of Arena Football 2 in 2009.
A small market mainstay in the Arena Football League for over a decade. The Grand Rapids Rampage lineage dates back to the Detroit Drive (1988-1993), who were a dynasty in the AFL’s early years. The Drive moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1994 and played one season as the Massachusetts Marauders before going bankrupt. Dan DeVos bought the carcass of the Maruaders out of bankruptcy in 1997 and brought the team to Grand Rapids.
Dan DeVos was an heir to the Amway fortune and also owned the Grand Rapids Griffins, the city’s minor league hockey team. (Van Andel Arena, where both the Rampage and the Griffins played, was named for Jay Van Andel, who was the business partner of Dan’s father Rich DeVos in founding Amway0. Dan DeVos gave some insights into the team’s finances in interviews with The Grand Rapids Press in 2008, acknowledging that the team lost money in all of its seasons in Grand Rapids, but that he kept it going because he felt the Rampage was important to the fabric of the community.
Sometimes referred to as “the Green Bay Packers of the Arena Football League”, the Rampage were an anomaly in the league which increasingly focused on major markets from the late 1990′s onward. DeVos would have been justified in moving the Rampage into Arena Football 2, the AFL’s small-market developmental league which launched in 2000 and featured similar mid/small market cities to Grand Rapids. To his credit, he kept the Rampage in the primary league and was rewarded with a championship in Arena Bowl XV in 2001.
Arena Bowl XV was the franchise’s finest hour. The Rampage hosted the Nashville Kats at a sold-out Van Andel Arena with 11,217 in attendance. ABC Sports televised the game nationwide with a first-rate broadcast team of Brent Musburger, Gary Danielson and Lynn Swann. Rampage quarterback Clint Dolezel connected with Offensive Specialist (and game MVP) Terrill Shaw for five touchdowns passes and the Rampage defeated the Kats 64-42. It would be the Rampage’s only championship in their eleven seasons of play.
Following the 2008 season, the Arena Football League fell into a business model crisis, despite rising franchise valuations and increasing attendance. The league’s expenses still far outstripped revenues and with unionized labor, the player salary cap had risen to approximately $2 million per season – a sea change from the late 80′s and early 90′s when players earned just $500/game for a 12-game season. A planned $100 million recapitalization of the league via a sale to private equity firm Platinum Equity fell through in the fall of 2008.
In December 2008, the AFL cancelled its 2009 season. The Rampage entered a state of limbo for all of 2009 as the remaining AFL owners tried and failed to craft a new business model. The league eventually entered bankruptcy in August of 2009. A collection of former AFL and small market Arena Football 2 owner bought the league’s intellectual property out of bankruptcy in late 2009 and formed a new, low-budget version of the league to begin play in the spring of 2010. Rampage ownership decided they did not want to participate in the new league and officially went out of business in March 2010, after 15 months of inactivity.
Grand Rapids Rampage corporate sponsorship video, prepared for the abandoned 2009 season:
Grand Rapids’ local news coverage of the Arena Football League shutdown in December 2008:
The New York Cityhawks enjoyed a brief two-year fling in the Arena Football League. The team performed quite poorly both on the field and at the box office. The Cityhawks were 2-12 in 1997 and 3-11 in 1998. In both seasons, announced attendance hovered near the 6,500 mark, nearly 40% below the league average.
The Cityhawks marked the Arena Football League’s second failed attempt to establish a franchise in the nation’s biggest media market. An earlier club – the New York Knights – played a single summer at the Garden in 1988 before vanishing.
The Cablevision-owned Madison Square Garden operated the Cityhawks. After the team’s disappointing second season in 1998, MSG moved the franchise to Connecticut into the MSG-controlled Hartford Civic Center. The club was renamed the New England Sea Wolves and played two seasons in Connecticut (1999-2000) before new owners acquired the team and moved it to Toronto where the well-travelled franchise finally died in 2002.
The Jacksonville Tomcats played for three seasons in Arena Football 2, the small-market developmental league of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008). Jacksonville was one of the larger cities in AF2 and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver actually owned the market rights to put a top tier AFL club into Jacksonville, but he never exercised it.
The Tomcats were one of 15 original franchises when AF2 launched in the spring of 2000. By 2002 there were 34 active teams in the sprawling league. The original owners of the Tomcats were David Berkman, Charles Felix and Bruce Burge, who controlled a small empire of AF2 clubs and minor league hockey teams, primarily in the Southeastern United States, during the late 1990′s and early 2000′s, including the Jacksonville Lizard Kings of the East Coast Hockey League.
In August 2001, Berkman sold an 80% interest in the team to Steve and Kathryn Umberger, husband and wife investors who dreamed of owning a piece of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, but ultimately realized that minor league indoor football was more realistic. The Umbergers had previously purchased the Birmingham Steeldogs, another Af2 franchise, from David Berkman less than a year earlier.
The Tomcats sold out their inaugural season at the Jacksonville Coliseum, claiming an average of 8,264 fans per game in 2000. The antiquated Coliseum presented a challenge, but in marketing and operations. The small floor of the building required the Tomcats to play with a slightly smaller than regulation field. By 2002 attendance dipped nearly 25% and new owner Steve Umberger lost several hundred thousand dollars on the Tomcats. Umberger asked AF2 officials for a year’s leave of absence from the league in November 2002, hoping to sit on the sidelines until the Coliseum was demolished and Jacksonville’s new $130 million arena opened in 2004. When that request was denied, Umberger folded the Tomcats in November 2002.
Three Tomcats players ended up playing briefly in the National Football League. 2001 receiving leader Anthony Bright played a single game for the Carolina Panthers in 2002. Jim Tarle, who kicked for the team in 2000, played two years for the Jacksonville Jaguars as a kickoff specialist in 2001 and 2002. Receiver Micah Ross played for the Jags, Panthers and San Diego Chargers during a four-year stretch in the NFL from 2001 to 2004.
Arena Football returned to Jacksonville in 2010 with the formation of the Jacksonville Sharks of the new Arena Football League (2010-present).
The franchise was owned by NFL defensive standouts Kenny Easley and Bruce Smith, who were both Virginia natives. Easley was long retired, but Smith was still an active player at the time the Nighthawks were active. The pair had a dispute over management of the team during the Nighthawks final season of 2003, which ultimately contributed to the dissolution of the team in December 2003.
According to the encyclopedic ArenaFan.com website, the Nighthawks averaged 4,676 fans per game at the Norfolk Scope during their four seasons of play.
The club was a winner in its debut season, going 11-7 and advancing to the semi-final round of the AF2 playoffs. The next three seasons the Nighthawks finished 8-8 and missed the postseason.
The Los Angeles Cobras were an expansion franchise that entered the Arena Football League for the start-up’s second year of operations in the summer of 1988. This was also the first season that Arena Football experimented with a restrictive form of franchise ownership, or “limited partnerships” as league founder Jim Foster preferred to call it. The 1987 season had essentially been a demonstration year, with four league-owned franchises playing six-game schedule with TV broadcasts on ESPN. The entire 1987 season consisted of just thirteen games, including Arena Bowl I.
For 1988, the AFL expanded to six franchises, five of whom had new local investors. Real estate developer Byron Lasky owned the Cobras, along with minority partner Irving Zeiger. The 1988 season also saw a dramatically expanded schedule, with each club playing 12 games, compared to six in 1987.
The Cobras hired former Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders assistant Ray Willseyas Head Coach. The Cobras’ big name was former Raiders All-Pro wide receiver Cliff Branch, coaxed out of a three-year retirement from pro football. At 39 years old, Branch was the oldest player in the league. He caught 25 passes for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns during his lone season in the indoor game. Like all wide receivers in the Arena league at the time, Branch played both ways, playing at defensive back when the Cobras were on defense. He earned $1,000 per game plus incentives, which was the standard pay in the league for all players in 1988.
The Cobras debuted on April 30, 1988 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. An announced crowd of 10,157 watch the Cobras lose to the New York Knights 60-52. Los Angeles finished the season with a 5-6-1 record, which was just good enough to slip into the playoffs, where they lost to the Chicago Bruisers in the semi-final round on July 23, 1988. This would prove to be the franchise’s final game.
Attendance dipped after the 1novelty of the first game and the Cobras finished out at 7,507 for six home dates. Irving Zeiger, who was a co-owner of the Cobras, recounted his experiences as an investor in the early days of Arena Football in his self-published memoir How To Succeed In Business By Busting Your Ass, which came out shortly before his death in 2007:
“It was a not-to-be-repeated experience where a band of hard-nosed businessmen disregarded all their business experience and savvy because they were so enamored with their desire to own a football team. I recall one meeting in a luxurious New York office suite where these highly successful owners spent time tossing a football around with former All-Pro Chicago <Bears> linebacker Doug Buffone, oblivious to the terrible investment in which we were blindly participating.”
Following the season, Arena Football founder Jim Foster and the limited partners who bought into the league in 1988 got into a power struggle over owners’ rights and direction of the league. This resulted in three of the six active franchises folding during the winter of 1988-89, including the Cobras.
The league was barely able to survive, staging another short demonstration schedule in 1989 before re-working its franchise model and starting to attract new investors again in 1990. Arena Football returned to Los Angeles in 2000 with the formation of the Los Angeles Avengers who played for nine seasons (2000-2008) until the Arena Football League’s bankruptcy in 2009.
The Los Angeles Cobras were featured in an extended scene in the 1989 Charles Bronson actioner Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. The footage was shot during an actual game against the Chicago Bruisers at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena in 1988 is one of the first depictions of Arena Football in the broader popular culture. The Cobras were defunct by the time the movie was released.
The Fort Worth Cavalry were a failed Arena Football League franchise now residing in our One-Year Wonders file. After one star-crossed season in Fort Worth, the team crossed the border into Mexico just in time for that country’s late 1994 financial meltdown and vanished without a trace.
The Cavalry started out in December 1993 as an AFL expansion franchise owned by minor league baseball investor Woody Kern. The Cavalry replaced the AFL’s recently folded Dallas Texans (1990-1993) in the Dallas/Ft. Worth market. Sales were sluggish from the outset, thanks in part to a very unfavorable home schedule at the Tarrant County Convention Center that saw five of the team’s six home dates relegated to Monday nights. The Cavalry’s home debut on May 23, 1994 against the Milwaukee Mustangs drew a bleak announced crowd of 2,852 spectators.
The team attracted some negative press in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when a group of fans at the home opener complained about the Cavalry’s prominent sponsorship and signage promoting Club Legends, a “totally nude” gentleman’s club.
The Cavalry featured a couple of ex-NFL journeymen, including Kyle Mackey, who was the Miami Dolphins’ starting quarterback during the 1987 NFL players’ strike, and former Texas Christian All-American Kelley Blackwell, who play a full season for the Chicago Bears in 1992. The team backed into the playoffs with a 5-7 record, but were quickly eliminated by the Orlando Predators in the first round. That road playoff loss on August 19, 1994 turned out to be the franchise’s final game.
In September 1994, Woody Kern purchased the Arena Football League’s flagship franchise, the Tampa Bay Storm, and off-loaded the lowly Cavalry to Doug Logan and Mexico/Illinois event promotion company OCESA. Logan had some history with the Arena League. He was the former manager of the Rockford MetroCentre in Illinois, where he helped to promote the Arena Football League’s first “test game” in 1986, a year before the league formally debuted.
Logan and OCESA planned to move the Cavalry to Mexico City’s 17,800-seat Palacio de los Deportes for the 1995 season as part of a minor league entertainment package that would also include a Continental Basketball Association franchise. The CBA club, known as the Mexico City Aztecas, actually got off the ground and managed to play a single season. But the Mexican peso crashed in December 1994, plunging the country into financial crisis. The Arena Football franchise vanished without further mention and OCESA pulled out of its Mexican boondoggle by the middle of 1995.
Arena Football returned to the Dallas/Ft. Worth region in 2002 with the formation of the Dallas Desperados (2002-2008), owned by Cowboys ownerJerry Jones.