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AFL is football for video freaks

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Before the late, not-so-great XFL began gabbling about wide-open football and fan involvement, there was the Arena Football League. Long before.

Unconscionable passing? Already done. Spectator kicking and passing contests during the breaks? Enough already. Heavy-metal music between plays? They were doing that a decade ago in the AFL. T-shirt tosses? Offbeat scoring schemes? Ho-hum.

About the only things the XFL could honestly take credit for inventing were sleazy-looking cheerleaders and stupid nicknames.

The AFL made its Utah debut Saturday night at the E-Center, delivering as promised. Fans got to see 69 points between the Houston Thunderbears and Arizona Rattlers — in the first half. There were only three possessions the entire night in which someone didn't score.

Think NFL on fast forward.

Meanwhile, a reported 5,150 curiosity-seekers showed up in varying types of sports wear, hoping to catch a glimpse of the future of pro sports in Salt Lake.

For anyone who grew up on video games, who can't abide another 17-14 NFL or college game, who has difficulty sitting through a two-hour movie, the AFL is available. Of the first 11 scores on Saturday, nine came on passes. The others were on field goals of 18 and 52 yards. When the totals were in, Arizona had walked away with a 77-67 victory.

The impetus behind the AFL's visit to Salt Lake was the league's ongoing expansion plans. Nine teams currently make up the league, but the Houston Thunderbears are at the edge of extinction. The league is planning on relocating the team to Atlanta, San Antonio or another market for next season. But where Salt Lake figures in is that the league hopes to eventually have 32 teams.

This, of course, isn't Utah's first venture into the slightly surreal world of indoor professional football. (How else do you describe a game in which passes can be played off a net in the end zone?) In 1998, something called the Professional Indoor Football League appeared. The Utah Catzz hung around long enough to play a few games, go belly-up and fade into history.

Though the Catzz hired ex-BYU tight end Gordon Hudson as their coach, the talent level was suspect. The Catzz used a local thirtysomething high school coach as its quarterback. Strange as it seems, he wasn't bad. The Catzz also had a number of former college players from Utah, hoping to catch the eye of NFL scouts.

As it turned out, they weren't around long enough to do so.

That isn't the case with the AFL. The league has survived 15 seasons, 13 with games being broadcast on ESPN, ESPN-2, TNN and even ABC. While startup leagues such as the XFL have failed spectacularly, the AFL has chugged along, carving out a niche among fans who like their football loose and fast. Three yards and a cloud of dust? Forget that. You'll be lucky to see a dozen running plays in an evening. This is eight-man football, delivered by air.

Next year the NFL will vote on whether to buy 49 percent of the league. The AFL says it isn't, however, a farm league for the NFL. That's because the AFL is made up of virtually all skill position players. Rather, it is a way for the NFL to get a good look at those players without traveling long distances.

Some 85 percent of the league's players have been on NFL rosters or in training camps. The ultimate success story is Kurt Warner, who went from AFL signal-caller to hero of the 2000 Super Bowl. He still holds the record for passes in an AFL game (51).

Aside from having teams in such large markets as Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Detroit and Phoenix — where there are also NFL teams — there is a junior league called AF2, comprised of teams in small mid-sized markets such as Augusta, Lincoln and Roanoke.

And, yes, Arena Football does indeed play in Peoria.

If a franchise were placed in Salt Lake, it is uncertain whether it would be an AF2 or AFL team. On one hand, the size of the market makes it a strong candidate for the upper league. But Joe Vrankin, the league's CFO, says the E Center is too small for an AFL franchise, and the sight lines at the Delta Center could be dicey.

In either case, Salt Lake seems a decent fit for a new sort of football. It's big enough, convenient enough and probably even willing enough.

What's not to like?

Video games have always been big in this town.


E-mail rock@desnews.com