Friday, June 19, 2020

Life in the indoor game after the bankruptcy of the Arena Football League

By Zachary Baru

After thirty-two seasons, the Arena Football League may be no more, but life for the indoor game still remains very active in arenas throughout the United States.

The AFL filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November 2019, which as it turns out may very well be a blessing in disguise for a sports world suffering a very questionable year ahead during a pandemic.  But whatever the future may hold for the AFL, which has come back from bankruptcy before, the fact remains that the indoor game remains very strong.

A New Era for Indoor Football

While the AFL was once a very nationwide league, it has become very clear that indoor football now sees two leagues that have risen to the top.  Officially, of course, neither is considered the major league, that all comes down to the opinion of fans.  In terms of media coverage, however, it is clear that the two major leagues are the Indoor Football League and the National Arena League.  The IFL has mostly western teams, and the NAL has mostly eastern teams.    

These two leagues are not affiliated with one another, and at one point the NAL was widely considered a development league to the AFL, but these two independent organizations carry the privilege of being the top two indoor football leagues in the country. 

The rules of arena football were immediately patented back when the AFL began in 1987.  With the patent and trademark of the name, the AFL was able to be the only "arena football" league in the country for decades.  The AFL had original ideas such as nets behind the end zones, bordered by yellow bars, allowing a kicked ball to bounce off and be returned during play.  It was not only extremely interesting for fans to watch, but it created a very fast pace for the game, and attracted a growing audience of younger fans who demanded a quicker pace of game play.  

A Focus on Streaming

While the current leagues, the IFL and NAL, do not use the same end zone nets that the AFL became known for, the two current leagues are still going strong.  One of the best things both the IFL and NAL have done has been a focus on streaming games, an area of sports which has seen a large amount of growth in over the last five years.  Some leagues have done it better than others, but the IFL and NAL have not allowed one thing to keep them behind: greed.  

While many leagues, both major and minor, make fans pay to watch streamed games in terms of a package, subscription, or for many minor leagues, a pay-per-view approach, the IFL and NAL has taken the Joe Rogan approach - put everything on YouTube.  All games are live streamed, no sign-in required.  By using the massive reach of YouTube across all devices, computers, phones and smart TVs, fans anywhere can watch any game live from the comfort of their own couch.
While the IFL and NAL may not get the financial benefits of a subscription service or a TV deal, what these leagues are doing is guaranteeing access to fans worldwide, however they may be accessing YouTube.  And in 2020, with so much of the world on YouTube every day, this type of access is priceless.  The leagues don't have to worry about network time slots, and they can guarantee their fans can watch from any device, anytime they choose, either live or on demand.  

There is no question TV deals are where the money is, but for emerging leagues like the IFL and the NAL, access to fans may very well prove to be more important to support long-term growth.  The IFL and NAL's focus on streaming has proven to work for both leagues, as thousands of fans watch every streamed game on YouTube, and the IFL's championship last year has been streamed a combined 36,000 times between the separate streams of each teams' broadcasters.  Highlights of this game also have been streamed an additional 7,000 times on the IFL's YouTube Channel.

The Two Leagues on Top

Officially neither league is ranked higher than the other, and now that the AFL is not playing, both are widely considered to be the "major leagues" of indoor football.  But in terms of league age, number of teams, and streams, the IFL would win all categories.  Does this mean the IFL is above the NAL, not exactly.

The IFL has been around longer than the NAL, as the IFL was founded in 2008.  The IFL also has more teams, with 13 during the now cancelled 2020 season, most of which are western.  The IFL also gets more streams on YouTube than the NAL, as four games last season in the IFL were streamed at least 10,000 times.  Other games are frequently over 5,000 streams, showing a growing audience for not only the IFL but indoor football in general.

The IFL's digital media presence also arguably is supreme, as they not only have an excellent YouTube Channel, but a very modern website that has a lot to offer fans.  

The NAL of course should be recognized as the other "major league" of indoor football.  The NAL was founded in 2016, has 7 teams, most of which being eastern.  The NAL also live streams all games on YouTube, something that should only grow the league more in the future.

Legacy and Future  

With two top-tier leagues, and what ends up being a very strategic regional approach, the sport of indoor football remains in good hands.  The AFL will always be remembered as being the top indoor league in the country, and at one point had a national TV contract that rivaled other major leagues, when NBC broadcast multiple national games every Sunday afternoon in the mid-2000's.  

The AFL was also featured on ABC/ESPN throughout its three decades, and later on CBS.  It will always have a place in football history, and while the league remains dark now, there is no telling what the future may hold.

Source: USA Today, Arena Football League, Indoor Football League, National Arena League

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and