Consider me cautiously optimistic.
The Arena Football League is expected to formally announce this week it will be placing a franchise in Atlantic City. The as-yet-unnamed team will be passing, kicking and tackling — punting is not allowed — at Boardwalk Hall starting in April.
Recent history suggests the team will have a tough time making a go of it.
Arena Football will become the fifth professional franchise to make Atlantic City its home in the last 20 years, following the Surf (Atlantic League of Professional Baseball and Can-Am League), Seagulls (United States Basketball League), Boardwalk Bullies (East Coast Hockey League) and CardSharks (National Indoor Football League).
None of those franchises lasted.
They either folded or relocated, mainly due to a lack of local support.
Some of the teams enjoyed early success. The Surf drew large crowds to The Sandcastle to watch Juan “The Large Human” Thomas, Will Pennyfeather and manager Doc Edwards win the Atlantic League’s inaugural championship in 1998. By 2007, when the team switched to the Can-Am League, most of the seats were empty.
The Seagulls tried to court local hoops fans in 1996 with a team that included former Philadelphia 76ers players Greg Grant and Ron Anderson. In 1997, the league decided to allow teams to sign one celebrity player. Enterprising Seagulls owner Ken Gross inked singer R. Kelly as a backup point guard.
In 1997-99, the Seagulls became the first team in USBL history to win three straight titles behind coach Kevin Mackey. By 2001, however, they had become a laughing stock, becoming the first team in the 17-year history of the league to go winless at 0-28. Fewer than 100 fans showed up to their games at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing.
The Boardwalk Bullies had a rabid fan base during its five-year tenure (2001-05), but were always skating on thin ice in terms of attendance. In 2003, the season they won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup, they averaged 3,000 fans per game in the 7,000-seat arena.
The CardSharks were a little more than a curiosity, folding after their only season in 2004.
Twenty years earlier, the Atlantic City Hi-Rollers of the Continental Basketball Association played at Boardwalk Hall for one season (1980-81) before relocating to Wildwood. They played at the old Wildwoods Convention Center and lived at the El Coronado Hotel on Atlantic Avenue in Wildwood Crest.
Speaking of Wildwood, the Aces were one of the seven original franchises of the USBL in 1985. The league did its best to draw fans with interesting rosters. Nancy Lieberman became the first woman to play in a men’s pro league when she suited up for the Springfield Fame in 1985. A year later, the Rhode Island Gulls came to Wildwood with 7-foot-7 Manute Bol and 5-foot-7 Spud Webb.
The long and short of it was that the creativity didn’t work. Wildwood averaged only 400-500 fans in 1986 and relocated to Philadelphia.
Local basketball fans preferred to watch Wildwood High School’s girls team that year. Coach Dave Troiano guided the Warriors to the South Jersey Group I title.
The new Arena League franchise has a chance because of owner and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski’s unbridled enthusiasm for the Arena League and his belief in Atlantic City, plus the support of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, Atlantic City Sports Commission and other entities.
But its biggest asset is the presence of legalized sports betting in town. Fans will not only be able to bet on their home team at one of the seven casino sports books, but may eventually have the ability to place in-game wagers from their seats.
In the coming weeks, the franchise will have a contest in which fans choose the nickname for the team while it selects a coach and builds its roster.
If he’s available, give Oakcrest High School and University of New Haven graduate Mark Clements a call. If anyone deserves a chance to play professionally it’s Clements, who overcame cancer, the murder of his brother, and recent death of his mother to become an All-Conference defensive back for the Chargers.
He’s definitely a guy worth rooting for and maybe even betting on.
David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.