AFL eyes Pittsburgh for possible expansion

Planned new arena heightens interest

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Post-Gazette photo
The Pittsburgh Gladiators prepare for a game against Chicago at Robinson Township Community Park in June 1987. The Gladiators were one of the inaugural teams in the Arena Football League.
By Tyler Batiste
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A replacement for Mellon Arena is expected to be ready for the start of the 2009-10 NHL season, and that might prompt another new addition for Pittsburgh: an Arena Football League team.

On the heels of the Arena Football League's 20th anniversary, Chris McCloskey, the league's executive vice president of communications, recently confirmed in a statement to the Post-Gazette that there have been preliminary talks about bringing an expansion team to Pittsburgh in the near future.

"We have had discussions with multiple potential ownership groups in recent years and months about Pittsburgh," McCloskey said. "The league remains bullish about the market for obvious reasons."

McCloskey declined to reveal the names of the potential ownership groups but said the candidates are "recognizable."

However, representatives for the Penguins, who will be responsible for booking events at the new arena, and Mellon Arena manager SMG said yesterday they have not had any recent contact with anyone interested in starting a team in Pittsburgh.

SMG has received calls the past couple of years from people interested in an arena football team, but those inquiries never got beyond the initial discussion stage, said Hank Abate, vice president of arenas for SMG. There have been no recent conversations, he said.

Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan said no one has contacted the team about an interest in starting an arena football team. But he added the new arena is "going to create a lot of opportunities for sports and entertainment events in Pittsburgh and we're certainly going to explore those as this process goes along."

McCloskey said the league judges possible cities for expansion on three criteria: Whether it is a good football market, whether there is a suitable arena and whether there is a quality and committed ownership.

The question of a market for football in the Pittsburgh area has never been a difficult one, but the last two criteria will determine if the Steelers will have to share a small part of the spotlight with another squad.

"The stumbling block for the ownership groups has always been the arena situation," McCloskey said. "Since that is in the initial stages of being resolved, we are optimistic that the AFL will return to Pittsburgh in the near future."

McCloskey said the AFL is looking to add a 20th franchise in time for the 2008 season, with the prime contenders for a new team being Washington, D.C., and South Florida.

If the AFL does find its way back to Pittsburgh, it will be a return 16 years in the making. The Pittsburgh Gladiators were one of the league's inaugural teams and existed for four seasons before relocating and changing their name to the Tampa Bay Storm after the 1990 season.

The franchise has since experienced success rivaled by few others in the AFL, winning five Arena Bowl championships and making 15 consecutive playoff appearances from 1991-2005.

Not only do the Gladiators hold the distinction of being one of the league's first teams, but Pittsburgh also has the honor of being the host of the AFL's first game.

The Gladiators played the Washington Commandos in front of 12,117 fans June 19, 1987, at the Civic Arena.

Pittsburgh won that game, 48-46, and finished the season 4-2 before losing to the Denver Dynamite in Arena Bowl I.

The league has expanded over the years in several areas, including the number of teams and popularity of the sport.

That inaugural season had teams based in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Denver and Chicago. Through years of multiple expansions and contractions, the league now boasts 19 franchises that play a 17-week, 16-game regular season. In 2000, the AFL started its own minor-league system, af2, which now has 30 teams based in small-market cities, such as Louisville, Ky., and Boise, Idaho.

The AFL further cemented its status when it entered a television agreement with NBC in 2003. In December 2006, ESPN purchased a minority stake in the league and signed a deal to televise a minimum of 26 games per season.

So far this season, the AFL has an average attendance of around 12,300, and the league's telecasts on ESPN have averaged a 0.3 national rating, which McCloskey said is on par with preseason predictions.

Few could have predicted that the AFL would still be around 20 years after its inception, and Greg Hopkins is one person who has seen firsthand the league's rising status.

An 11-year veteran of the AFL, Hopkins is currently an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Avengers. He said he distinctly remembers the early days when players were barely noticed by hometown fans, much less fans in opposing cities.

"We'd jump on a commercial fight and sit down and someone would ask, 'What sports team are you guys with?' " Hopkins said.

When the response was 'We play arena football,' looks of confusion by passengers were not out of the ordinary, and a brief description of the league's contrasts to the NFL -- the 50-yard field, the 8-yard end zones and no punting, to name a few -- would often follow.

These days, Hopkins said teams and the AFL as a whole are much more recognizable because of exposure and longevity.

"It makes sense, and [fans] see it now," he said. "It's more available to the public."

Hopkins, who is a Waynesburg native and played collegiately at Slippery Rock, got his first taste of the AFL in 1988, when the Gladiators played host to the New England Steamrollers. He said he still has the ticket from the game stored away in an old scrapbook and maybe his first AFL experience triggered an interest that has lasted 19 years.

"Maybe I subconsciously sparked something in the back of my mind," he said.

Growing up 60 miles from Pittsburgh, Hopkins is familiar with the power of football in southwestern Pennsylvania, leading him to believe that another pro football team could thrive in the area.

"We've got all the blue-collar, hard core football fans that would follow a team if it was brought to Pittsburgh," he said. "I think it would do really well."

Mark Belko of the Post-Gazette contributed to this report. Tyler Batiste can be reached at .


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