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Indoor football

From Academic Kids

This article discusses indoor variations of American football; for indoor versions of association football (soccer), see futsal and indoor soccer.

Indoor football in the sense contemplated here is a variation of American football with rules modified to make it suitable for play within basketball gymnasiums and, particularly, ice hockey arenas.

The first major indoor football game was the 1932 NFL championship playoff game, which was played indoors in the Chicago Stadium due to a severe blizzard that prevented playing the game outside. A dirt floor was brought in, and to compensate for the 80-yard length of the field, teams were penalized twenty yards upon crossing midfield.

In the 1960s the "Boardwalk Bowl", a post-season game involving college teams, was contested at the Atlantic City Convention Center, probably known better as the home of the Miss America Pageant, in another attempt to make Atlantic City more of a year-round resort in the pre-gaming era as opposed to a single-season one (the Miss America pageant likewise began as an attempt to extend the season beyond Labor Day). This, however, was not technically "indoor football" as contemplated here, as the size of the playing surface and hence the rules were essentially the same as in the standard outdoor game, with only the necessity of contengencies for what were to happen should, say, a punt strike the ceiling. Some would say that the relative success of this game, which was staged for several years, helped lead to the domed stadium era which began with the opening of the Houston Astrodome in 1965. The Astrodome in turn led to the development of the artificial turf playing surface required to make the indoor game truly practicable. (The Houston Oilers did not move their games inside the Astrodome as soon it was completed; they continued to play outdoors until 1968.) Football played in domed stadiums such as the Astrodome, however, is not truly "indoor football", as the game as played in domed stadiums is essentially identical to that played outdoors.

While several attempts to make up a true indoor football game have been made since shortly after American football was developed, the first, and to this point at least only, version to meet with anything resembling true success and acceptance is Arena football, devised by Jim Foster, a former National Football League marketing executive. He devised his game on the back of a manila envelope while watching indoor soccer, another game derived from a sport traditionally played in a large outdoor venue. He worked on the game in the early 1980s, but put any plans for full development of it on hold while the United States Football League, an attempt to play traditional American football in a non-traditional (spring-summer) season, was in operation in 1983-1985. When the USFL ceased operations following an unsuccessful anti-trust suit against the NFL (the USFL technically won the case, but was awarded only $3 in damages), Foster saw his opportunity. He staged a "test game" in Rockford, Illinois in 1986 and put together a four-team league for a "demonstration season" in the spring of 1987, with games televised on ESPN. The relative success of this league (which is still in operation, although none of the four original teams exist, at least not in their original cities), led to the inevitable attempts at imitation.

To adapt to the smaller indoor playing surface, which was half the length of the traditional 100 yard field and about half the width as well, with eight yard rather than ten yard end zones, Foster reduced the number of players in the game at one time from eleven to eight per team, and mandated that at least six of them go "both ways", playing on both offensive and defensive downs. This additionally had the desirable effect, especially for a startup sport, of keeping roster sizes and hence payrolls to a minimum.

There were numerous other rules designed to help the offense and ensure high-scoring games. Two are most noteworthy, namely the banning of punting, meaning that if a team felt it was not likely to get a first down after three plays its only kicking option was to attempt a field goal, even if it were of the very unlikely distance of 60 yards or more, and secondly, the placing of rebound nets around the ends of the playing surface. Kicked and passed balls bouncing off of these nets were still in play, in the case of a pass only until they touched the ground as typical of a forward pass, but in the case of an unsuccessful field goal or a kickoff into them the ball remained in play unless it went out of bounds or until the player recovering it was downed by contact or scored. This meant that on every kicking play excepting the extra point the ball had the potential for being advanced by either team much as a blocked kick could be in the traditional outdoor game. Only kicked or passed balls touching the slack nets behind the goalposts (which were only about half of the traditional width) were automatically dead at that point. In 1990 Foster patented the rules of Arena football, meaning that only persons authorized by him could use his rules and his name for the sport. The patent specifically covered the rebound net feature, meaning that competitors and imitators hence attempted to replicate the game generally but without the feature of the ball remaining in play once touching the nets, which could be retained for reasons of convenience and fan safety, although not part of the actual play of the game.

Several other indoor leagues have been announced without ever actually commencing play, or operating only briefly with a handful of teams. (At least most of these leagues are compiled in the list below, including all which attempted to operate on anything resembling a nationwide level.) Like the Arena Football League, all of these operations contemplated their playing season as being entirely or primarily outside the traditional fall/early winter season of the older sport so as not to be competing with it directly for fan support. Some were apparently attempts to form a second "major" league of indoor football while others were strictly efforts to form a new "minor" league. The common factor all seemed to share was serious undercapitalization, and with the sole exception noted below, all disappeared quickly. The most remarkable development of recent years, other than Arena's signing of a major network television broadcasting contract with NBC, is perhaps the development of the official Arena minor league, af2, beginning in 2000. This effort has served two purposes, one as a developmental league for Arena and as a place where former collegiate players could develop while at the same time learning and becoming accustomed to the unique Arena rules, and secondly as a pre-emptive way of shutting out potential new indoor football competitors. At times over forty teams have participated in this league, almost uniformly in cities which also have minor league ice hockey teams and hence suitable arenas.

Play in all forms of indoor football has tended to emphasize the forward passing game at the expense of rushing the football. Whereas in a typical National Fooball League game perhaps half of the total offensive plays are rushing plays and thirty-five or forty per cent of all of the yardage gained comes from rushing plays, in Arena and other indoor football it is far more common for rushing plays to constitute only ten per cent of the offense, or even less in some instances.

Probably the most notable player to come out of indoor football into the National Football League is Kurt Warner, former MVP quarterback of the Super Bowl XXXIV champion (2000 game, 1999 season) St. Louis Rams, who had previously quarterbacked the former Iowa Barnstormers of the AFL. The National Football League has removed a ban that had been in place on any of its owners owning teams in any other sort of football operation with respect to Arena football only, and several of them have bought or started Arena teams, but the NFL allowed to lapse an option it had negotiated allowing it to purchase up to 49% of Arena football, and seems to have backed away from any plan it may have had to use Arena football as a developmental league in any sort of "official" sense, perhaps in the interest of not undermining its existing "official" developmental league, NFL Europe.

The only professional indoor football leagues outside the Arena organization that are currently in operation are the National Indoor Football League, which has over 20 teams in smaller markets and seems to attract very little national media attention, and the United Indoor Football League, which was formed in 2005 from some of the more successful af2 & NIFL teams. As previously noted, the rules in these leagues necessarily differ somewhat from the Arena rules, with the most obvious one being the lack of endzone rebound nets, because of the patent by the Arena League.

As of this writing, the chances of an indoor football league outside of the Arena organization rising to any level of prominence in the near future seems fairly unlikely, as does the development of an official link between the NFL and Arena. But with 17 teams in its major division, most located in major markets, a strong minor league system which it controls itself, and a network television broadcasting contract in hand, the future of Arena Football itself seems fairly bright, and "indoor football" seems to have been more than just the passing fad that it was generally dismissed as only a few years ago.

List of Current Arena & Indoor Football Leagues

List of Defunct Indoor & Arena Football Leagues

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