Archive for Thursday, March 16, 2006

If it looks like football …

Kansas City Brigade games offer unique atmosphere for many different audiences

March 16, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo.--Andy Kelly was proving his point perhaps better than he even knew.

The sweat finally dried and his nerves at last calmed, the Kansas City Brigade quarterback looked up from the caramel-colored football he held in his hand and explained, clearly not for the first time, what exactly it was that made arena football different.

"It's kind of like car racing," Kelly said. "This game, you have to see it live to really appreciate what's going on. You can't really appreciate car racing if you watch it on TV."

Kelly was talking about the action on the field in Kansas City's newest professional sport, but he might as well have been talking about the entire experience. Many area sports fans are experiencing arena football for the first time with the newly-formed Brigade, and TV doesn't do the sport or the spectacle surrounding it justice.

Arena football combines the basics of America's most popular sport with the player-fan relationships of NASCAR and the atmosphere of professional wrestling.

Thirty minutes since he failed to score a two-point conversion on the final play of the Brigade's game against the Philadelphia Soul -- a play utterly meaningless in the 54-24 rout -- Kelly answered questions while signing everything from the authentic caramel-colored league footballs to full-size football helmets, glossy photographs and crumpled ticket stubs.

Fans are allowed on the field after the game and following a brief cooling off period, the players come back from the locker room to sign autographs.

"Obviously we're disappointed and frustrated after games, but this is part of our game," he said. "This is a part of what we do. We do it and it's obviously more enjoyable when you win, but even when you lose, you still come out and see the smiles on the faces and the kids having a good time and it picks you up a little bit."

The actual game takes place on a 50-yard field. Giant nets block each end of the arena and players and coaches wait to jump on the field from boxes along the wall just like hockey.

Players compete eight-on-eight, one wide receiver gets a huge running head start and there is no punter. Every kick off ricochets off the endzone nets and most field goals -- rarely splitting the nine-foot wide uprights -- do as well. A ball bounced off the net can be caught and advanced, but any ball that goes into the stands stays there, forever a free souvenir.

Surrounding the game is trendy hip-hop music that blares from the speakers, a never-ending stream of contests and prizes and a parade of T-shirt-throwing cheerleaders. When they're not tossing freebies into the stands, the cheerleaders -- who dress as if they all have a suspiciously massive collection of one-dollar bills at home -- cheer actually standing on the field. Some go into the stands and pick contestants for impromptu spotlighted games and contests.

The atmosphere is part rock concert, part bachelor party and when combined with the post-game autograph session, part family fun.

And Kansas City is loving it, for now. The Brigade drew more than 15,000 people for the Monday night showdown against the Soul, nearly filling Kemper Arena. The team has sold more than 8,000 season tickets, a number not terribly different from what the Royals sold.

"The fans all year have been great," Kelly said. "It's a Monday night, and there's 15,000 people here. I had a buddy who played for the Chiefs and he told me it was going to be good, but I didn't realize it was be this great."

But to some -- namely the players and a few rabid fans -- arena football is more than a spectacle.

The roster is mostly comprised of college football players from small conferences. A number of former-area stars dot rosters around the league, but only six of Kansas City's players hail from major college football conferences and just one, Benedictine's Matt Walls, played college ball in Kansas or Missouri.

No matter their football history, all of the Brigade players have felt the sting of the team's first season. Losing Monday dropped the squad to 1-6 on the season. The Brigade has lost three straight and after at least hanging close in its first five losses, everything unraveled against Philadelphia.

The Soul built a 49-12 first-half lead, and only a Kelly off-the-net Hail Mary-touchdown pass in the second quarter's final seconds gave the hometown fans anything football related to cheer about.

Kelly tossed four interceptions in the game and was sacked three times while Brigade kicker missed five field goals.

"We got dominated up front and it was frustrating," lineman B.J. Cohen said. "Our win-loss record speaks for itself. As a professional athlete you come to camp with all the aspirations of going to the championship, then start out 1-6, or 1-5 or 1-4 or 1-3 and it takes something out of you."

But the fans still came, and they'll likely come again when the Brigade are again at home, April 1 against the Georgia Force.

A wide variety of people populated Kemper's stands, from young children celebrating birthdays to a pregnant woman one day from delivery and her husband. And yes, the Brigade has already developed a segment of devoted fans. Chief among them is Darrin Butler, who came clad in tan army fatigues, World War 1-era aviator cap complete with attached stealth fighter and goggles.

Not around when the Royals or the Chiefs came to the city, Butler decided he'd adopt the Brigade as his own. He road tripped to the team's season opener in Dallas and has attended every game so far in Kansas City.

"I saw one game on TV last year," he said of his pre-Brigade familiarity with the sport. "I talk to people that really haven't seen it yet, but they'll love it. I talk to some fans who say it's their first one and they have a blast. I'm just trying to get the word out to get people to come on down. It's a blast."

Arena football perhaps balances itself more perilously on the line between spectacle and sport than any thing has since the failed XFL. Music, contests and scantly-clad cheerleaders could see the team through it's inaugural season, but while the fans whooped it up and had a good time despite the score, one message was clear from Kelly and the other veteran arena leaguers. The fans are great, but hoopla aside, the heart of the sport is the football, and unless the team improves over time, the Brigade may never establish a lasting beachhead in Kansas City

"As a player, we want to start winning some games because the fans," Kelly said. "We're trying like heck as players to give them something to be proud of. It's been hard so far and we haven't really done that, but that's what we're working too."

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