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The 22-year-old Arena Football League appears on the brink of declaring bankruptcy and ceasing operations. The League announced that it was shuttering for 2009 to re-organize amidst its troubles after the last Arena Bowl, hoping to return in 2010. Los Angeles and New Orleans were the first to drop, leaving the league with 15 franchises, but others have folded in the months since as the inevitable is turning into reality. The league had been aired on NBC and ESPN, with the latter holding a small, non-operational, stake in the organization.
The league also had New England connections and had expansion plans (how you have expansion plans as the league is crumbling, I cannot answer) with Boston among the leading sites to land a team. However, that would not be the first time the league has called New England home.
In the league’s second season, 1988, the New England Steamrollers, out of Providence, joined as an expansion franchise. They went 3-9 in their only season and finished fifth out of the six teams and proceeded to fold.
The Detroit Drive won four Arena Bowls in six years before moving to become the Massachusetts Marauders in 1994, calling Worcester home, and going 8-4 and even won a playoff game. However, a dispute between ownership and the league led to the filing for bankruptcy, but, the franchise was bought three years later and still exists (or existed until Tuesday) as the Grand Rapids Rampage.
With the Marauders out, New England’s Arena fans focused on Hartford and the expansion Connecticut Coyotes the following season, 1995. The Coyotes had no success on the field, going 1-11 and 2-12 in their only two seasons in the league and finishing last both years. The team folded after the 1996 campaign.
New England was not done with arena football as the New York CityHawks moved to Hartford and became the New England Sea Wolves in 1999. The team was 5-9 in their first season in Hartford, but went 8-6 in 2000 to mark the first season above .500 and first playoff appearance, a loss, for the franchise. The team was sold after two years in New England, moving to Toronto as the Phantoms where they would last two more seasons.
The Arena League started a developmental league in 2000, Arena Football 2, in mid-size cities around the country, and owns a controlling stake in that league. However, it is operated completely independently and will survive. af2, as it is known, is represented locally by the Manchester Wolves, who have made six playoff trips in eight seasons, winning the division once.
The Arena League will probably be remembered by most for its most famous alumnus, the Kurt Warner led Iowa Barnstormers. Warner led the Barnstormers to back to back Arena Bowls in 1996 and 1997, losing both championship games. I will be sad to see the league go. It was a fun brand of football with the 50-yard fields, balls off the nets, no out of bounds, players playing both ways, and the points, of course. I was not a religious fan, but it was entertaining to watch. I thought with 22 years of history behind it, the Arena Football League was going to make it.