There are numerous indoor football leagues in the United States and Canada. And every so many years these leagues will merge with each other as teams fold and the amount of clubs dwindle and fade into football lore.
The Arena Football League began all this. The league was invented by Jim Foster on an envelope while in attendance of an indoor soccer match. That rendition was played on a hockey rink. The beauty of this idea was that football could be enjoyed indoors and anywhere there was a hockey rink or a basketball arena.
So, the Arena League began with four teams in 1987 as a test. Throughout the history of the league, the larger metropolitan areas all had Arena League teams, and even medium markets such as San Jose, Orlando, Salt Lake City, Shreveport, Tulsa and Portland each had an indoor club at some point.
Arena League games were known for extremely high-scoring with little to no running game. All players played both ways except the kicker, quarterback and a return specialist. Total touchdowns scored per game was similar to how many three-point shots are successful in an NBA contest.
The field measured 66 yards long by 28 yards wide which is about one-fourths the area needed for an NFL game. Kickoffs were taken from a team’s own goal line. Nets were suspended from the ceiling to which the ball was live once the ball caromed off the net and considered “in play.” There was an opening in the nets for field goal and extra points. This net system was patented and could only be used by the Arena League.
Thick 1” plywood sideboards were installed adorned with thick padding. And fans were right on top of the action at all times. It was nothing for 15 footballs to be lost to the crowd each game.
Among the larger markets was the placement of a team in Cleveland called the Gladiators which operated from 2008-2019.
Cleveland via Las Vegas via New Jersey
When you research NFL teams, the information to most clubs is they originated somewhere else first. The Chicago Bears came from Decatur, Illinois. The Detroit Lions were first in Portsmouth, Ohio. The Kansas City Chiefs once found Dallas their home and almost moved to Atlanta or New Orleans.
This is the story of the Gladiators. Well, actually, the Red Dogs.
In the beginnings of the NFL, there wasn’t officially “expansion teams” that began anew one season. Owners paid to be included into the league. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, commissioner Joe Carr wanted to weed out the small to medium market clubs and so he set entry into the league at $2,500, or $500 if you placed your team in a huge city.
Basically, pay your money and you were now an NFL city.
Which is exactly how the Arena League operated. Team owners would lose money or not draw well and then be sold off or simply folded. Or relocated to a new city that may pay its own way.
In 1996, four teams moved to new cities in this 12-team league. The New Jersey Red Dogs came into the league in 1997 which was now a 10-club entity. The Red Dogs placed second in their division with a 9-5-0 record and then lost in the first round of the playoffs with average attendance at 11,043 per game. Player salaries hovered around $22,000 a season.
New Jersey was owned by an ownership group of several former New York Football Giants players such as Joe Morris, Carl Banks and Harry Carson, along with radio executive E. Burke Ross. They played their games at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, home of the New Jersey Nets of the NBA. The club got its name from Red Dog beer.
The following seasons the Red Dogs went 8-6-0, 6-8-0, and 4-10-0 with no division titles, one playoff appearance with one playoff win. Each season the attendance steadily dwindled to where in 2000 the average gate per game was just 4,413.
In 2001, the club was sold to Miami attorney Jim Ferraro for $8 million who changed the name to the New Jersey Gladiators, then finished 2-12-0 with the second lowest per game attendance. The coach was fired and the following season they finished 9-5-0 and a division title along with a post-season bid but was defeated 49-46 by the seventh seed.
Despite success on the field, the attendance was not great with the club sitting dead last in the 16-team league.
A change was needed so Ferraro relocated his Gladiators to Las Vegas to play in the elegant Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV which would hold over 16,000 for indoor football. There the club finished their first three years with identical 8-8-0 records followed by 5-11-0 and finally 2-14-0.
The local fan club was called the Gladiaddicts. Their first four years the average attendance hovered around 10,000 fans per game, but in the disastrous 2007 season that dropped to just 5,383 - again dead last in the league. In all, the Gladiators had lost 50 of 81 games while in Vegas despite a very strong local television market and exposure. But losing doesn’t interest many. Even up to 2,000 corporate season tickets would routinely go unused for a team that never had a winning season.
The player salaries at this time was structured at $125,000 a season for quarterbacks and an average of $80,000 for the remainder of the rosters.
Ferraro was also a portion of the issue as he was an absentee owner living in Miami. Despite owning a private jet, the daily operations and decisions for the club were never his responsibility and were usually dealt with via the telephone.
At short notice, the following year Ferraro moved the Gladiators to Cleveland to play at Quicken Loans Arena, now Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
Cleveland’s new toy
Ferraro chose Cleveland for two reasons: the hometown Browns drew very well, plus he had an office located there as a high-profile asbestos litigator.
He brought in former Browns’ quarterback Bernie Kosar in as a minority owner and named him Chief Executive Officer. The thought process was Kosar would basically be at the reins of the new team. The team continued their colors of red, black and white while the fan base was nicknamed the “Red Nation.”
The Gladiators’ move to Cleveland for 2008 proved to be the right decision. Mike Wilpolt was named head coach who had coached the 1999 Albany Firebirds to the league championship.
The team drew 17,391 fans for its inaugural game, a 61-49 victory over the New York Dragons. The next two games were also wins. The Gladiators finished 9-7-0 with their highest home attendance the season opener while the lowest was 11,717. Cleveland won two playoff games including a stunning 73-70 win over the second seed Atlanta before losing to the Philadelphia Soul in the conference championship.
At season’s end, Wilpolt was named the league’s Coach of the Year.
During the off-season something very odd happened with Ferraro. 75 folks were invited to his $100,000 wedding to Patrica Delinois at the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fisher Island. When the time came around in the ceremony for the “I do” portion, when asked, Ferraro stated he needed more time to think about it. The rich and famous in attendance let out a collective gasp as Ferraro, now dubbed the “walk away groom”, left his bride-to-be at the altar.
Come to find out the preacher had asked this question to Ferraro as his cue to say “I do”: “Do you vow to put Patricia over all other persons in your life - your parents, your children?”
Meanwhile, the Gladiators were a hit in Cleveland. The franchise drew well from the various communities within reach of the area.
However, the Arena League was in dire straits.
Labor issues and mounting debt
Since the league’s inception, they struggled financially to which revenue did not keep up with costs. Now a 17-team entity, the owners of each club voted to suspend operations indefinitely. John Elway was one of these owners with Cleveland and Columbus two of the surviving clubs.
The hopes was that the league could form a new operating model that might save the league that had become financially strapped. One possibility was that the Arena League would declare bankruptcy. Instead, the vote was simply to halt operations with the door left open to resume at a later date.
There was also issues with the players wanting to form a union and institute some sort of collective bargaining agreement that would help them with salary issues.
Jim Renacci, the majority owner of the Columbus Destroyers, was quoted in the Denver Post:
“The board has worked diligently for the last 6-9 months, coming up with numerous plans to bring in front of the owners. The board has not been able to get a supermajority to approve. At this point, we’re suspending indefinitely until we come up with the next plan.”
In March of 2009, the Arena League and its players reached an agreement on a collective bargaining agreement that cleared the way for the league to resume play as early as 2010. The labor arrangement was just one more step toward getting back to the business of playing football.
The league also had plans to restructure into a single entity ownership model and work out a deal with ESPN which had an investment in the league and currently owned the internet and broadcast rights.
Player salaries were set at $830 a game for veterans and $775 for rookies plus a housing plan and three meals provided per day.
Everything fell into place and the Arena League resumed play in 2010 with new leadership. A new group of owners spent $6.1 million for the assets of the defunct Arena Football League which included the name, records and history.
The new model was to have all players and coaches employed by the league instead of individual teams which would allow the league to collectively seek our such needs as equipment deals and workers’ compensation coverage. This also enabled the league to pay all of its players the same amount which essentially would control labor costs.
Most of the former clubs resumed play in 2010 including the Gladiators. Columbus did not.
More Gladiators football
The basic idea with the Arena League was to continue on the fact that Americans love American Football. And that affection could be satisfied with an indoor game during the NFL’s off-season with a fast-paced and unique brand of the game.
After their inaugural season in Cleveland had produced a winner that had gone within one game of the championship game called the ArenaBowl, the hype of a new season was all abuzz in the city. However, 2010 produced a 7-9-0 season without any post-season action.
2011 was a different story. The Gladiators went 10-8-0 and won their division but lost in the first round of the playoffs 50-41 to Atlanta.
Rumors began to circulate that the owner of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, may be interested in purchasing the Gladiators.
Gladiators players and fans interviewed the past few years have said arena football can work in Cleveland provided sufficient marketing, promotion and game presentation take place. Gilbert and his staff specialized in those areas.
In January of 2012, Ferraro sold the team to Gilbert whose portfolio now included the Cavaliers (NBA), Gladiators (Arena), Canton Charge (NBA G-League), Lake Erie Monsters (AHL), Quicken Loans Arena, Veritix plus Horseshoe Casino Cleveland and Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati.
Kosar was signed on and continued his role with the club as a special advisor.
The 2012 season began with an impressive 6-3-0 record. Then a five-game skid ensued and they finished 8-10-0 for the year. The following year was a 4-14-0 record.
As the Browns finished their 2013 season 4-12-0, the Gladiators found huge success.
The year 2014 everything fell into place for head coach Steve Thonn. The Gladiators opened with road wins over the Pittsburgh Power and the New Orleans VooDoo. Then a 54-47 home win against the Iowa Barnstormers. With two more road wins over Los Angeles and Spokane and a homecoming win over the Power, at the bye Cleveland had a 6-0-0 record.
After three more victories, the Gladiators suffered their first loss on the road against Pittsburgh 48-34 in front of just 5,348 fans. The loss still topped the league with a 9-1-0 record. With eight games remaining, Cleveland ran the table to finish the regular season 17-1-0. Their defense had allowed the third least points.
In the playoffs, they knocked off Philadelphia 39-37 then faced a tough Orlando club in the Eastern Conference Championship. In front of 14,543 at Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland won 56-48. The win sent them to ArenaBowl XXVII, the franchise’s first.
If Cleveland could win this game, that would snap a 50-year championship drought for the city. Their opponent was the Arizona Rattlers who finished 2014 with a 15-3-0 record and had just demolished a 13-5-0 San Jose club 72-56 in the Western Conference final.
A championship game played in Cleveland
The game was played in Cleveland on August 23, 2014 with an announced crowd of 18,410, a new attendance record. The game was shown on ESPN. Arizona was not only the reigning league champs, but had won two titles in a row seeking their third straight.
The same day the Browns played a home preseason game while the Cleveland Indians also had a home game.
Arizona got off to a 14-0 start before Cleveland scored on a nine-yard reception by Collin Thomas. With the kick missed, after one quarter it was a 14-6 deficit for the Gladiators.
In the second quarter, the sky fell out for Cleveland. The Rattlers scored 30 points including a safety to just seven for the Gladiators. At the half, it was now 44-13.
The third stanza did not solve anything as Arizona went right to work and scored first to run the score to 51-13. In the end, the Rattlers had captured their third consecutive title with a 72-32 victory.
Meanwhile the Browns lost 33-14 to the St. Louis Rams in a game that saw rookie Johnny Manziel score his first touchdown while Rams rookie DE Michael Sam got two sacks. St. Louis racked up 472 yards of offense. It was their third preseason loss in as many games. The Indians defeated the Houston Astros 3-2 in front of 20,785.
For the year, Gladiators who made the All-Arena team included QB Shane Austin, C Shannon Breen, WR Dominick Goodman, CB Marrio Norman and DT Willie McGinnis. Coach Thonn was named Coach of the Year. Goodman was the league's receiving leader.
The Glads could not match their success again as they had records of 8-10-0, 7-9-0 under QB Tanner Marsh and then finally 5-9-0.
The end of the journey
After the 2019 season, the Arena Football League folded for good. There was debt, but also a pending lawsuit filed by a worker’s compensation insurance provider.
On the Arena League’s website, commissioner Randall Boe stated:
“Those liabilities, which are all related to prior League operations, severely constrain the League’s ability to expand and operate. The decision to halt operations is a direct consequence of the current financial constraints facing the AFL.”
And with that, the league suspended operations for the upcoming 2019 season and declared bankruptcy.
The main reason was because the National Union Fire Insurance Company sued the Arena League in New York Supreme Court alleging the league failed to pay premiums related to workers’ comp for its players. The insurance group claimed the league owed more than $2.4 million in back payments.
“We are exploring every possible avenue to continue bringing AFL football to our fans, including further evolution to the current business model, and are engaging with prospective investors and supporters who are interested in seeing the League continue to grow,” Boe added.
For this team which concluded in Cleveland, the franchise had 10 playoff appearances, won three division titles, one conference crown and played in the ArenaBowl once.
When the Arena League finally closed its doors, it was the third longest running American Football league to have been in existence in North America behind the Canadian Football League and the National Football League.