By Ryan Yousefi
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By Michael E. Miller
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Early in the first quarter of the Miami Hooters' franchise-opening Arena Football League game against the Charlotte Rage, rather than ducking his head and safely absorbing a sack in the quarterbacking equivalent of the fetal position, Hooters quarterback John Fourcade uncoiled in the face of several onrushing Rage defensive linemen and lofted a pass deep into the eighth row of the seats of the Miami Arena.
The man literally put his body on the line to get a potential keepsake to a fan. The crowd gave Fourcade, a former New Orleans Saints QB, a hero's sendoff as the trainers helped him limp to the bench.
Yes, there's a new game in town, and it's called arena football. A hybrid of American football and hockey, arenaball blurs the distinctions between players and spectators, and not just because the former aren't as skilled as their National Football League counterparts.
Unlike the parsimonious NFL, which takes great pains to prevent its precious leather globes from leaving the field of play, AFL policy holds that any ball that goes into the stands for any reason (and with the first row of seats literally inches from the field, there are bound to be a lot of them) is a keeper for the lucky person who can outwrestle fellow fans for it. The Hooters, the ten-team AFL's newest franchise, lost 22 footballs, a league record, in their opener against Charlotte. The AFL's per-game average is ten lost balls, and the league sent Hooters management a memo reprimanding them for the inordinately high number of pigskins sacrificed. The team's second home outing, against the Tampa Bay Storm, yielded no improvement: they coughed up 31.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the keepsake factor when it comes to gauging the possibilities for arenaball's success. What better way to get the crowd into the game than to give them a legitimate shot at going home with their very own game ball? There are no sidelines on an arenaball field, and sometimes overzealous spectators tumble over the four-foot-high fiberglass retaining wall that is the only barrier between players and spectators, so galvanized are they at the prospect of retrieving a souvenir. "To those in the front row trying to lean over and pick up balls," warns the public address announcer, "should you fall into the field during play, you may become part of that play." The warning (or a variation of it) is a common one. It is also one that is commonly ignored.
But going through footballs like one of their restaurant patrons goes through chicken wings is a minor concern for the fledgling Hooters. More troubling is the uproar surrounding the team's name, its allegedly sexist image, and the viability of the sport in a market that recently has been deluged by pro franchises.
You don't open a restaurant called Hooters unless you're prepared to weather criticism regarding the obvious double entendre. You can plant tongue firmly in cheek and claim the moniker refers to owls, but when you hire only leggy young waitresses and trick them out in orange running shorts and low-cut tops that bear the slogan, "MORE THAN A MOUTHFUL," nobody's going to believe that owls are the birds of prey you're catering to.
But what if your restaurants become so popular that even people who regularly tune in to Married With Children associate the word "Hooters" more with chicken wings and pitchers of beer than with large bosoms? What if you launch an honest-to-goodness football franchise with your hard-earned dough and name the squad after the eateries? Do you deserve to be vilified for making the team an advertisement for the restaurant chain?
Critics of the team have not been satisfied with lambasting the Hooters for their name and its implications. Personnel decisions have been called into question (including the hiring of Bob Hewko, a former UF quarterback and AFL color analyst, and head coach Don Strock). Affable mascot Hootie the owl has been likened to some sort of inflatable Bigfoot. Worst of all, naysayers have implied that arena football should not be taken seriously as either sport or entertainment (assuming there's a distinction between the two), that the game's competitive integrity is as open to attack as that of, say, roller derby or professional wrestling.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Miami Hooters are not merely South Florida's newest professional sports franchise, they are also our most freethinking and innovative. Unlike the NFL, which, in its pursuit of megabucks and Nielsen ratings, has become as corporate as a three-piece suit and as mercenary as a greedy trial lawyer, arena football is still about fun.
"We don't really take ourselves too seriously," Hooters owner Dave ("call me 'Lags'") Lageschulte explains. "Our number-one concern is, 'Will it be fun for the fans?' Not for the owners. Not for the players. For the fans."
Vince Lombardi would have hated it. P.T. Barnum would have loved it.
Arenaball is the perfect sport for this multicultural melting pot A you don't have to understand it to enjoy it. Can't tell a tight end from a backfield in motion? No sweat. Kick back and groove on the MTV-like soundtrack blasting continuously over the PA system. Check out the awesome indoor fireworks. Laugh at Hootie along with your kids. Enjoy the baby races at halftime.