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Championing the "Common" Athlete


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Theres a good mention of the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League in this article.


Championing the "Common" Athlete

By Brian P. Dunleavy

June 23, 2004

Last month, Sports Illustrated published a feature entitled “They’re in the Money.” The article chronicled the incomes of the world’s wealthiest athletes and showcased some of the spoils their riches brought them. Predictably, the article garnered a mixture of outrage and revolt from readers.

Some fans believe the price of a ticket entitles them to boo an athlete’s on-field performance-- call it the “Hey-I’m-paying-[insert name of slumping star]’s-salary-dammit” principle. And that may be true. But if it is, then those very same fans should also acknowledge that by paying increasingly outrageous ticket prices, they forfeit the right to opine endlessly about those salaries. After all, they’re paying them.

See what I mean?

For the progressive sports fan, this presents a conundrum: Does he/she ignore the excesses of today’s pro athletes and follow professional sports? Or, does he/she give up on pro sports altogether?

Neither, I say. My friend Dave, who is an avid reader (and not much of sports fan), refuses to shop at “corporate” booksellers such as Barnes & Noble, or even Amazon.com. Instead, he limits his book buying to the ever-decreasing number of mom- and-pop shops in his native Southern California.

Sports fans are much more fortunate than socially conscious readers, however, and they don’t have to drive for miles, as my friend Dave does, searching for a suitable place to spend their dollars.

There is a new class of sports leagues emerging on the American athletic landscape that provide top-quality competition at fan-friendly prices. Not only that, the athletes earn reasonable salaries. They may even be, of all things, underpaid.

This Sunday, for instance, the Arena Football League (AFL), a high-scoring, indoor version of the NFL game played on a field the size of a hockey rink, decides its championship, pitting two teams from major sports markets--San Jose (the SaberCats) and Phoenix (the Arizona Rattlers) in Arena Bowl XVIII. The name of the game--and the roman numerals--may remind fans of the outdoor NFL game, but that’s where the similarities end. While NFL players earn average salaries of $1.1 million per season, AFL stars earn a maximum of $80,000 a year; most players take home as little as $900 per game. Yet the Rattlers’ star wide receiver/linebacker (that’s right, the AFL is like old-time football, with players playing both offense and defense) Hunkie Cooper actually turned down an NFL offer in the late 1990s because he was reportedly “more comfortable” playing in a league where players sign autographs on the field after the game--and that’s every game, win or lose.

For those fans who still prefer football played outdoors, there is another option, though this one is north of the border. The Canadian Football League (CFL) has been playing its own brand of outdoor football--with a longer and wider field and unique scoring system--since 1958. CFL players make an average of $55,000 (Canadian) per year, yet play their hearts out for the league’s Grey Cup championship trophy, the oldest championship in North American sports. Last year’s Grey Cup was played before a sellout crowd (in frigid temperatures, no less) and featured some Super Bowl-esque halftime entertainment from Canada’s own Shania Twain.

Soccer fanatics sick of the excesses of England’s Premiership have several options stateside. Dozens of US (and foreign-born) stars are re- pioneering the game here (after the failure of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s) in Major League Soccer, most for less than $300,000 a year. And, better yet, the Major Indoor Soccer League, which like the AFL, is a higher-scoring version of its outdoor counterpart (again, played on a hockey-rink sized field) is fielding 10 teams of players making $30,000 to $40,000 per season, at most, in major markets across North America.

Finally, for fans of more “mainstream” American sports, there are even alternatives to the NBA and NHL. The American Basketball Association (ABA), which rivaled the NBA in the 1970s, has made a return, with a plan to field 24 teams in major markets (from New York to Pittsburgh to Southern California) in the fall. But, while NBA stars make an average of $2 million per year (and are generally among the highest-paid athletes in the US) ABA teams will start with a salary cap of $120,000—which must cover the salaries of 10 players.

Hockey fans can go back to the future this fall, too. While their favorite NHL players and teams gripe over average annual salaries of $1.5 million-plus and appear headed for a long- anticipated work stoppage, investors are planning to resurrect the World Hockey Association (WHA), which rivaled the NHL in the 1970s. WHA teams will have a salary cap of $10 million--or about what fading star Jaromir Jagr made playing for the NHL’s biggest embarrassment of riches--the New York Rangers—last season.

I’ve always been a fan of upstart, underdog sports leagues--from the ABA, WHA and World Football League in the 1970s to the United States Football League in the 1980s. These leagues may not pay players major-league salaries, but they offer fans sports at a high level, without the risk of seeing their favorite player’s house featured in Sports Illustrated. And to me, there’s something inherently American about rooting for athletes endeavoring to pioneer a new sports frontier--or at least a new sport or sports league--while playing for little more than love of the game.

Now, if we could just find my friend Dave a nice, old-fashioned bookstore.


About the author: When he's not scouring the Internet seeking real-time webcasts of indoor soccer and football games, Brian P. Dunleavy is a New York-based freelance sportswriter. Email: bpdunleavy@yahoo.com

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