I'm now back in central Indiana after my trip to New Orleans for the Arena Football League's ArenaBowl XXV. For those who may have missed it, the Arizona Rattlers prevailed over the Philadelphia Soul by a score of 72-54.
The debate among fans about a neutral site ArenaBowl versus one played at the home of the highest-remaining seed has raged on for quite some time. Now that I've attended my first ArenaBowl, I have an opinion on the matter.
I love the neutral site, and here's why.
Last season, the game was played in Phoenix--home of the Rattlers--since Arizona was the highest seed of the two teams. We had to wait until the National Conference championship game was decided, though, to know that the game would be in Phoenix. That conference championship game was played on Aug. 6, 2011. ArenaBowl XXIV was played on Aug. 12, 2011--just six days later.
Had the Chicago Rush beaten the Rattlers in that game--and they nearly did--we would have had to wait until after the American Conference championship game--played on Aug. 8, 2011--to find out if the ArenaBowl would be in Chicago or in Jacksonville, Fla.
Try making travel plans six days in advance of an event. It's outrageously expensive. It was going to cost me over $3,000 for a flight, a hotel, and a ticket to ArenaBowl XXIV on such short notice. I'm sure it would have been worse trying to get to Jacksonville on four days' notice.
I simply couldn't afford to drop that kind of money in the blink of an eye.
This year, the AFL went back to the neutral site format, announcing months and months ago that the Silver Anniversary title game would be played at New Orleans Arena. The nanosecond that I knew where the game was going to be held, I made my travel arrangements. Flight, hotel, and ticket: $700.
(In case you're wondering, Yahoo! did not reimburse me for any expenses from this trip. The Arena Football League did not provide me with any special travel package, outside of a media credential that allowed me to get into the game itself for free--although I also purchased a ticket. The Chicago Rush had nothing to do with my trip. I don't work for either the league or the Rush. This trip was on my own dime.)
Had the Rush beaten the Rattlers in the National Conference and the Georgia Force beaten the Jacksonville Sharks in the American Conference last year, not only would fans have been dealing with only 4 days' notice to get to Chicago for ArenaBowl XXIV, but there was another problem, too: the WNBA's Chicago Sky, who play in the same arena, had a home game on the same night that the arena game was scheduled.
This year, there was no such issue. The Arena Football League had the New Orleans Arena to themselves for ArenaBowl XXV, and it allowed for much more planning and preparation time. I spoke to one AFL employee who had been in New Orleans for two weeks prior to the big game, getting things all set up.
That, of course, would have been impossible with just four or six days to plan. Neutral site locations have got to be much easier for the league, and more prep time equals a smoother event.
I like seeing and experiencing new things. I love Chicago, but I've been there a bajillion times. I know Allstate Arena like the back of my hand.
I had never been to New Orleans before, though, so that was a fun experience. I got to experience the Graveyard for the first time. I saw Bones and Mojo and PopeClown Dean--mainstays of the New Orleans VooDoo that I wouldn't have seen if not for the neutral site.
I've never been to Philadelphia, either, which is where ArenaBowl XXV would have been under the old format, but referring back to the cost section of this monologue, I wouldn't have been able to afford to go to the game without advance planning, so I wouldn't have experienced Philly and their traditions in that scenario.
I also enjoyed the variety of fans that I saw. I saw people decked out in the gear of the Rush, the VooDoo, the Tampa Bay Storm, the Orlando Predators, the San Jose SaberCats, the San Antonio Talons, the Kansas City Command, and the Iowa Barnstormers, in addition to lots of Soul and Rattlers fans. That's 10 of the 17 teams in the league just off the top of my head, and I'm sure I didn't see every fan there.
Coach Ron James of the Utah Blaze was there. So was coach Les Moss of the Sharks. And coach Mike Hohensee of the Barnstormers. And coach Lee Johnson of the Talons.
Would all of those people have been in Philadelphia on a week's notice? I have no idea. But I tend to doubt it, given the exorbitant cost required to get there. The neutral site, then, likely allowed for a wider variety of fans to enjoy the game and the festivities.
Hands down, the most common question I've been asked is why I went to New Orleans when my team--the Rush--wasn't playing in the game. My answer is very simple: I'm one of many, many fans who root for a team or two but who also have an overarching love of the sport and the league.
The ArenaBowl is the championship game of the sport I dearly love. The two best teams in the Arena Football League going head-to-head. Why wouldn't I go?
I got to see friends that I don't get to see very much. I got to tailgate with the commissioner. I got to meet AFL Hall of Famers. I got to meet freakin' Barry Wagner--the greatest player in the history of the league! I got to meet the founders of the sport! I got to talk to players and coaches from teams I wouldn't normally be able to speak with. In a total stroke of luck, I was on the same flight home as the Soul--and seated right in the middle of the team--which was another great experience.
I also got to experience New Orleans and its culture and food and people and atmosphere. And every single thing I got to do was available to any arena football fan with an AFL Field Pass. I met Hall of Famers, including Wagner, in public. I tailgated with Jerry Kurz and met Jim Foster and William Niro as a result of having the AFL Field Pass. Sitting with the Soul on the plane was obviously in public. Seeing my friends and talking with coaches and players was simply a result of being there.
Why go? Because the ArenaBowl is far more than just three hours on a Friday night. It's an entire experience. It's really quite difficult to adequately describe unless you've experienced it yourself. You get totally immersed in arena football for several days, and if you love the sport, you can't possibly have a bad time.
With a neutral site, a trip to New Orleans or wherever next year's title game will be held is something I can afford--something for which I can start socking a little bit of money away each month so that I can attend ArenaBowl XXVI. It's something I can plan for and save up for and look forward to. I can't do that when I have no idea where I'm going until, at best, a week before the game.
After my very positive experience at ArenaBowl XXV, I hope the Arena Football League sticks with the neutral site format.
The author is a Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and holds media credentials with the Chicago Rush and the Arena Football League. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedZoneWriting and on Facebook.