er Bowl XLV is coming up, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers getting set to battle for the NFL championship. For someone who has been watching NFL and college football games since August, there will be a sudden void in my life after the Super Bowl has concluded. It’s similar to the feeling that many people experience after Christmas is over. “Now what?”

For fans like me who will be curled up in the fetal position at the thought of waiting several months for more football, consider taking a peek at the Arena Football League (AFL).

How I Got Hooked

I’m not a fan of basketball, NASCAR does nothing for me, the NHL is barely on my radar, and Major League Baseball is still at least a couple months away from starting their season. For me, this had normally been a dead spot in the sporting year.

Several years ago, though, I decided to try the AFL. The famous story of Kurt Warner’s rise from grocery store stocker and quarterback of the Iowa Barnstormers to Super Bowl MVP first brought the AFL into my stream of consciousness. Then in 2001, the Albany Firebirds moved to Indianapolis–right in my back yard–and became the Indiana Firebirds .

I went to a few Firebirds games and had a blast. The arena game is fast-paced and high-octane. Final scores in the 60’s–for each team–are common.

The Firebirds had a pretty good quarterback named Raymond Philyaw back then, but sadly, in 2004, the Firebirds ceased all operations. Philyaw wound up with the Chicago Rush , and the Rush became my team to follow, both because of Philyaw and because of proximity.

Similar, But Different

I like arena football because it’s similar enough to the NFL that it’s not hard to follow, but it’s unique in many areas in a way that makes the sport interesting without being crazy (such as the now-defunct XFL requiring players to run full speed at a football from opposite directions to determine which team has first possession of the ball).

Eight players take the field at any given time for an AFL team. Many play both offense and defense. One receiver is allowed to get a running start forward before a snap, as long as he doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped.

The field is only 50 yards long. Padded waist-high walls run right up to the sidelines, and players getting slammed into and over the walls is just part of the game.

The clock continues to run, even when passes are incomplete or players run out of bounds, until the last minute of each half. As a result, the game moves right along.

Arena football is almost all passing. The 2010 Offensive Player of the Year was Milwaukee’s Chris Greisen, who finished with 5146 pass yards (on a 50-yard-long field, remember!) and 107 passing touchdowns. By contrast, the AFL’s leading rusher in 2010 was Tulsa’s Odie Armstrong with 349 yards for the season, averaging 21.8 yards per game. Most running backs in the league average somewhere south of 10 yards per game.

The goal posts in the AFL are half the width of the NFL’s goalposts, and the crossbar stands five feet taller. Kicking extra points and field goals in the AFL is not easy. And with a net hanging in the back of the end zone, any missed kick that comes off the net is a live ball.

There is no punting.

In a nutshell, the Arena Football League game is a faster-paced, higher-scoring, more compact NFL game.

The 2011 Season

I was surprised to learn that the AFL has been in business since 1987 . In 2009, though, the AFL had some financial problems and had to cancel the season. They returned in 2010, with the Spokane Shock winning the league championship, and they’ll open the 2011 season with 18 teams in the league , from all parts of the nation. Finding a relatively local team to cheer for shouldn’t be too difficult for anyone.

The 2011 season begins March 11. Games will be broadcast on the NFL Network , and most games are played on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons and evenings.

For those interested in seeing a game live, ticket prices are quite reasonable. For example, to see the Philadelphia Soul play at home, you can purchase a ticket ranging from a $13 nose-bleed spot to a $50 seat right up close. For $200 a piece, you can get right behind the team’s bench. Try getting into a Philadelphia Eagles game for those prices.

The AFL plays a 20-week regular season schedule, with the championship game, Arena Bowl XXIV, scheduled for August 12.

Perfect timing for the avid football fan. The AFL starts up about a month after the Super Bowl, and the NFL preseason will be in full swing by mid-August, right as the Arena Football League championship is crowned.

Go ahead. Give arena football a try.

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