In football-crazy Washington DC, many cheered Ted Leonsis’ Monument Sports and Entertainment’s 2016 purchase of a new Arena League Football franchise for the city. With the Daniel Snyder-owned-and-generally-mismanaged Washington Redskins the only professional option, and that only between September and December (not including unlikely playoff appearances and the preseason), the Valor seemed like a perfect prescription for the summer doldrums between the end of the Wizards and Capitals seasons and the beginning of the Redskins. Sure, the baseball Washington Nationals are in full glory during those months, but that is small consolation for a town that hasn’t had major league baseball for most of the last hundred years.
It seemed like a perfect prescription for Monument Sports and Entertainment too; a way of putting butts in seats in its wholly-owned Verizon Center during a time of the year when political wonks were vacationing in Cabo, locals were heading to the beaches, and Congress was often in recess. It was also another way of sticking it in the eye of Snyder, who originally owned the AFL franchise rights for Washington and sat on them to ensure that the Redskins were the only football team in town.
As one of those NFL fans who has refused to buy a ticket to FedEx Field for the last eighteen years and was excited to experience an alternative, I purchased tickets for the whole family for a July home game versus the Cleveland Gladiators. I regret to say that the experience was incredibly disappointing. Observing that the product on and off the field is incredibly substandard is a vast understatement.
It did not help that Metrorail between our area of metro Washington DC and Verizon Center (which is downtown) had its service suspended. Of course we did not find this out until we were sitting on the train at the station and heard the announcement over the train P.A. system.
For all practical purposes, there are only two ways to get to the Verizon Center–either by Metrorail or by automobile. One generally does not want to drive into downtown DC. This is because a) the government of the District of Columbia has sprinkled hundreds of speed cameras all over the entry points into the district; b) the parking, when even available, is outrageously priced; and c) the Metrorail station exits right next to the stadium, while parking does not.
While the suspension of services by Metrorail was not the fault of the Washington Valor, that they failed to so note on their website was. In fact there were not any transportation options at all, nor was their even directions to the stadium. Granted in the age of the Internet and console navigation systems in cars this has become less imperative, but I would think that any well thought out brick-and-mortar attraction would pay some attention to this issue.
With some considerable annoyance we exited the Metro station and piled back into the car and set off. After working our way through a jammed Beltway to get to one of the few major thoroughfares into DC, we gingerly threaded our way down the 19th century-era street layout to get to the nearest parking facility to the stadium. After surfacing from parking, we filed our way into the nearest stadium entrance.
That gets us to the next gripe, which were the tickets. The tickets were only available as a mobile option, meaning you needed an app to display a QR code to the door agent, who then scanned the code to spit out the tickets. If you didn’t have a smartphone or the app, you were out of luck.
Once in the stadium, which is laid out to be as inconvenient as possible in getting from one level to the next, it became obvious that there were no game programs. This was particularly disappointing to the kids, who wanted to know what was going on during the game (players, stats, etc.), and wanted a souvenir to boot. There was a limited quantity towel giveaway to attendees, which were gone by the time we arrived as we had lost precious time in changing our mode of transportation.
After finding our seats and getting sodas or water for everyone ($5 each; $20 total), we settled down to watch the game. Game time only ended up being around 2 and a half hours, including quarterly breaks and halftime. This included frequent interruptions by the cheerleader squad (dancers, really, since they can’t be on the field during play), a roving emcee with a camera operator to conduct stupid in-seat contests, and a completely moronic on-field race with kid’s horse-sticks. The interruptions were poorly coordinated, with the referees occasionally forced to start play during dialogue by the emcee and even in one case, angrily chasing the cheerleaders off of the field.
The announcer was really disconnected from the game-play, particularly late in the game when the Valor were getting blown out by Cleveland. “Its Cleveland, fifty-twooooo, and your Washington Valor twenty-onnnnnnneeee!!!!!!” Yay! Music pumped over the loudspeakers, often during the game-play, much to the annoyance of everyone…fans, players, referees; I mean everyone.
Which gets us to the play of the team. Gawd-awful. Questionable play calling, poor position play, and lousy time management. The starting quarterback frequently sailed his passes. Cornerbacks were easily beaten on go routes. The kicker even flubbed one of the kickoffs, giving the ball to Cleveland on the Valor 3 yard line. The Gladiators punched it in for a touchdown in only one play. By that time the game had become a laugher.
Valor players often walked, not ran, onto the field to take up their positions. Players did not know when to be on or when to be off the field, particularly on kickoffs. The kickoff returner had no idea how to field a rebounding arena-league kickoff–something that has been a feature of the AFL for decades. The Valor never gained possession, with one exception, past their 5 yard line. Passes for zero gain were common, as were sacks for lost yardage. The game features a receiver legally in motion and the Valor quarterback was taking sacks with only three linemen/rushers! Are you kidding? On defense the Valor played zone, which meant pitch and catch by Cleveland, rather than route denial by the Valor backs. Only occasionally poor play by the Gladiators kept their score under a hundred. Final score: 68-21.
One of the kids went to get popcorn, which was $9 for a bag. Nine dollars! Wow! My kid said don’t worry, the popcorn was bottomless–you could return for unlimited refills. Except the stadium ran out of popcorn in the third quarter. The stadium had also run out of souvenir cups on the first quarter. Tickets themselves were expensive–$29 for the nosebleeds, $35 for “upper club”, $45 for “lower club” and $75-$150 for the lower level seats. Paid attendance was higher than actual attendance, and neither was impressive unless one considered that the Valor’s record was 2-10 before the game. It was clear that some finance hack in the Leonsis organization had put some thought behind the concession and ticket prices to see if they couldn’t make a go of it with limited attendance. Prices were high enough to try to turn a profit, but sufficiently lower than FedEx Field prices to not seem too greedy.
After the game not one of the Washington, Baltimore, or Richmond news outlets bothered to post a game summary online. I had to go to the Cleveland Plain Dealer to get the game summary, such that it was. In fact other than noting the inaugural game and season of the new AFL franchise, there has not been any articles on the Valor at all, games or otherwise. The Baltimore Brigade has had more coverage, but that isn’t saying much. In fact the entire Arena League hasn’t had much coverage during its 2017 season.
Okay, so the AFL only has five teams, two of which are owned by Leonsis (the other is in Baltimore), both of which began operations in 2017. Several former AFL teams left the league in the last two years for the Indoor Football League, which feature locations mostly in the middle of the US. The AFL’s teams are located in the East. Although the Arena League has the name recognition (an Indoor Football League player recently signed by the NFL Baltimore Ravens has been broadly announced in the news as being an Arena League player), it may not be enough to attract new entrants and ensure league survival. Then again, Leonsis could always buy a couple more franchises. Or maybe the whole league. What the heck, does it even matter?
We’ll watch to see if there is a 2018 AFL season, and if the Valor (or the Baltimore Brigade) return for play. You can bet we won’t be seeing a Redskins game at FedEx Field in the interim, which perhaps is the best reason, in spite of the lousy product, that we’ll still probably pony up the dough to see the Valor play next summer. Go AFL! Go Leonsis! Go Valor!