|Highest governing body||Indoor Football League|
|Nicknames||Indoor football, football, gridiron football|
|First played||June 19, 1987; Washington Commandos vs. Pittsburgh Gladiators|
|Team members||8 at a time|
|Type||Indoor pro football|
Arena football is a variety of eight-man indoor gridiron football. The game is played indoors on a smaller field than American or Canadian football, designed to fit in the same surface area as a standard North American ice hockey rink, resulting in a faster and higher-scoring game that can be played on the floors of indoor arenas. The sport was invented in 1981, and patented in 1987, by Jim Foster, a former executive of the National Football League and the United States Football League. The name is trademarked by Gridiron Enterprises and had a proprietary format until its patent expired in 2007.
Three leagues have played under arena football rules: the Arena Football League, which played 32 seasons in two separate runs from 1987 to 2008 and 2010 to 2019; arenafootball2, the AFL's erstwhile developmental league, which played 10 seasons from 2000 through 2009; and the China Arena Football League, which began play in 2016 but is not directly affiliated with the AFL. The CAFL, which operates on a heavily abbreviated schedule solely in China, is the only currently active league playing by arena rules.
Through the late 1990s, the Arena Football League was the only league playing any variant of the sport designed for indoor play. A clarification limiting the scope of its patent allowed for competing indoor American football leagues to use the same size field and most other aspects of the game. Arena football is distinguished from the other indoor leagues by its use of large rebound nets attached to the side of each goalpost, which keep any missed field goal or overthrown ball in the field of play and allow the ball to remain live; the rebound nets were the only part of the patent that was upheld until it expired.
While attending the 1981 Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) All-Star Game on February 11 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Jim Foster came up with his version of football and wrote the rules and concepts down on the outside of a manila folder, which resides at the Arena Football Hall of Fame. Over the next five years, he created a more comprehensive and definitive set of playing rules, playing field specifications and equipment, along with a business plan to launch a proposed small, initial league to test market the concept of arena football nationally. As a key part of that plan, while residing in the Chicago area, he tested the game concept through several closed door practice sessions in late 1985 and early 1986 in nearby Rockford. After fine tuning the rules, he then secured additional operating capital to play several test games in the MetroCentre in April 1986, and the Rosemont Horizon Arena in February 1987.
The next critical step for Jim Foster was securing a network television contract with ESPN and an initial group of key national corporate sponsors including United Airlines, Holiday Inn, Wilson Sporting Goods, Budget Rental Car, and Hardee's Restaurants. As the league's founding commissioner he established a league office with a small staff in suburban Chicago, and with addition of some much needed additional investor capital, was ready to launch the Arena Football League. On June 19, 1987, the Pittsburgh Gladiators hosted the Washington Commandos in the first league game after a two-week training camp for all four charter teams in Wheaton, Illinois.
AFL football operations and training was overseen by veteran college and pro head coach, Mouse Davis, the father of the famed "run and shoot" offense, which became the basis for the high scoring arena football offense. The other two 1987 teams were the Chicago Bruisers and the Denver Dynamite, (the ArenaBowl I champions). Jim Foster and two Chicago-based lawyers Bill Niro and Jerry Kurz, operating under the business name Gridiron Enterprises, Inc., secured the patents on the Arena Football game system and re-establish the Arena Football League in early 1990 as a franchised league after successfully removing a small group of limited partners for multiple breaches of the limited partnership agreement that was the basis for operating the AFL during the 1988 season.
As the AFL grew into an established league with close to 20 teams, it defined itself as a major market pro sports product and welcomed commissioner C. David Baker (1996–2008). In the early 2000s, the league appeared to have financially strong team ownership including NFL owners, as well as major names in the entertainment world. It also had a weekly Sunday afternoon broadcast on NBC starting the week after the Super Bowl during the stadium-played game's off season. The growth and establishment of the AFL as a major market league spawned a developmental league that Foster also helped co-found, a minor league called Arena Football 2 (af2), in 2000. The league was set up to operate in medium size markets around the U.S. where it initially enjoyed growth under the guidance of af2 president Jerry Kurz.
Since 1998, many other organizations have started their own indoor football leagues, but could not technically play arena football, due to patents that would not expire until 2007, or use the name "Arena Football" in the specific order, which was a registered trademark of Gridiron Enterprises, Inc. The other indoor football leagues never reached the heights of media exposure that the AFL had garnered and operated on a more limited budget. Since 2017, other indoor leagues have described themselves as "arena" leagues in their name without official endorsement from Gridiron Enterprises, such as the National Arena League and American Arena League, but still do not use many of the previously patented rules.
The Arena Football League ceased operations after the 2008 season and was liquidated in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009, also forcing the closure of af2. Several of the af2 franchise owners, doing business as "Arena Football 1," bought the league's assets and relaunched the AFL in 2010. Over the subsequent decade, most of the other owners either ceased operations or pulled out of the league until there was only one team remaining from the relaunch, the Philadelphia Soul, in 2018. Soul owner Ron Jaworski recruited two new owners — Ted Leonsis and a consortium led by George Randolph Hearst III — who then combined to launch three expansion teams to keep the league operational with a regional footprint in the northeastern United States in the 2018 season. These owners eventually expanded to six teams in 2019 before the league folded all of its team-based local operations prior to the 2020 season in a re-evaluation of its business model and a pending worker's compensation litigation. The league announced a second Chapter 7 bankruptcy on November 27 of the same year, effectively ending the league in its current incarnation.
As its name implies, arena football is played exclusively indoors, in arenas usually designed for either basketball or ice hockey teams. The field is the same width 85 feet (26 m) and length 200 feet (61 m) as a standard NHL hockey rink, making it approximately 30% of the dimensions of a regular American gridiron football field, and 19% of a Canadian gridiron football field (the total playing area, including the end zones of an Arena football field is 17,000 square feet (1,600 m2)). The scrimmage area is 50 yards (46 m) long (unlike the field in NFL which is 100 yards (91 m) long), and each end zone is approximately 8 yards deep, two yards less than the standard 10 yards. Depending on the venue in which a game is being played, the end zones may be rectangular (like a basketball court) or, where necessary because of the building design, rounded (like a hockey rink; this is much like some Canadian football fields where the end zones can be cut off by a track). Each sideline has a heavily padded barrier, with the padding placed over the hockey dasher boards.
The goalpost uprights are 9 feet (2.7 m) wide, and the crossbar is 15 feet (4.6 m) above the playing surface. Taut rebound nets on either side of the posts bounce any missed field goals back into the field of play. The ball is "live" when rebounding off these nets or their support apparatus. The entire goalframe and goalside rebound net system is suspended on cables from the rafters. The bottom of the two goalside rebound nets are 8 feet (2.4 m) off the playing surface. Each netframe is 32 feet (9.8 m) high by 30 feet (9.1 m) wide.
A player is not counted as out of bounds on the sidelines unless he is pushed into or falls over the sideline barrier. This rule was put in place before the 2006 season. Before that time, a sideline with only a small amount of space (typically 6" to 12") existed between the sideline stripe and the barrier which would provide the space for a ball carrier to step out of bounds before hitting the sideline barrier.
Each team fields 8 players at a time from a 21-man active roster. Before 2007, players played both offense and defense except for the Quarterback, Kicker, and Offensive Specialist (Wide Receiver/Running Back combination) and two Defensive Specialists (Defensive Backs).
If a player enters and leaves, from the moment he leaves the player is considered "dead" and cannot return to play until the designated time is served.
Exception: a "dead" player may participate on kickoffs, or as long snapper or holder. In 2006, the AFL changed its substitution rules such that free substitutions were allowed on all kickoffs.
The most significant change was the introduction of free substitution, the so-called "Elway Rule". Previously, AFL coaches were limited to one substitution per position per quarter. From 2007 to 2019, coaches substituted players at will.
The rationale was that free substitution would improve the overall quality of football in the league by giving coaches the freedom to put their best players on the field for every play of the game, and that teams would be able to select from a wider player talent pool when building their rosters. Traditionalists, however, believed the rule changes were the beginning of the removal of the "Ironman" (two-way offense and defense) style of play of arena football that the league had actively promoted for 20 seasons, and that the change took away a key component of what made arena football a distinctive sport.
Four offensive players must be on the line of scrimmage at the snap; one of the linemen must declare himself the tight end. One offensive player may be moving forward at the time of the snap as long as he has not yet crossed the line of scrimmage. Three defensive players must be in a three- or four-point stance at the start of the snap. Two defenders serve as linebackers, called the Mac and the Jack. The Mac may blitz from the side of the line opposite the offensive Tight End. The Jack's role has changed after new rules set in place by the league in 2008. The Jack cannot blitz, but under new, more defense-friendly rules, the Jack Linebacker may roam sideline to sideline within five yards of the line of scrimmage and drop into coverage once the Quarterback pump fakes. (Before this rule, the Jack could not drop back into coverage until the ball is thrown or the quarterback is no longer in the pocket, and the Jack had to stay within the box designated by the outside shoulders of the offensive line, the line of scrimmage, and five yards back from the line of scrimmage.)
The ball is kicked off from the goal line, to start the halves and odd overtimes, or after any score. The team with the ball is given four downs to gain ten yards or score. Punting is illegal because of the size of the playing field, however, a field goal that either misses wide (therefore bouncing off the nets surrounding the goalposts) or falls short, may be returned. Thus an impossibly long field goal is tantamount to a punt in other football variants. A receiver jumping to catch a pass needs to get only one foot down in bounds for the catch to be ruled a completed catch, just as in college football. Practically, this means that one foot must touch the ground before the receiver is pushed into the boards by an opposing player. Passes that bounce off the rebound nets remain "live." Balls that bounce off the padded walls that surround the field are "live"; the end zone walls were not live until the 2006 season.
The scoring is the same as in the NFL with the addition of a drop kick field goal worth four points during normal play or two points as a post-touchdown conversion. Blocked extra points and turnovers on two-point conversion attempts may be returned by the defensive team for two points.
Coaches are given 2 (two) challenges per game, as in the NFL; to do so, they must throw the red flag before the next play. If the play stands as called after the play is reviewed they lose a timeout; however, if the play is reversed they keep their timeouts. If a team wins two straight challenges they are granted a third. All challenges are automatic in the final half-minute of regulation and all overtime periods, as they are on all scoring plays and turnovers.
A game has four 15-minute quarters with a 15-minute halftime (ArenaBowl had a 30-minute interval). Teams are allowed three timeouts per half, and two per overtime period if regulation ends tied. Teams must use a timeout if there's an injury inside a half-minute left in regulation or overtime; exception applies to when team has no timeouts, and this occurs, they're granted an extra timeout.
The clock stops for out-of-bounds plays, incomplete passes, or sacks only in the last half-minute of regulation or overtime (there is only a half-minute warning, as opposed to the two-minute warning in the XFL/NFL and the three-minute warning in the CFL) or because of penalties, injuries or timeouts. The clock also stops for any change in possession, until the ball is marked ready for play; for example, aside from the final half-minute of regulation or overtime, time continues to run down after a touchdown, but stops after an extra point or two-point conversion attempt. If a quarter ends as a touchdown is scored, an untimed conversion attempt takes place. The play clock is 30 seconds, starting at the end of the previous play. In all arenas, the final minute of the period is measured in tenths of a second.
Prior to the 2018 season, during the final minute of the fourth quarter, the clock stopped if the offensive team had the lead and did not advance the ball past the line of scrimmage. This prevented the "victory formation" (the offensive team merely kneeling down), or running other plays that are designed solely to exhaust the remaining time rather than to advance the ball downfield. This rule was eliminated in the interest of player safety.
In the first overtime, each team gets one possession to score. Whoever is ahead after one possession wins. If the teams are tied after each has had a possession, true sudden death rules apply thereafter. Each overtime period is 15 minutes, and continues from the ending of the previous overtime period until the tie is broken. All overtimes thereafter are true sudden death; no games can be tied. This includes both games of all semifinal series.
Before the 2007 season, there was one 15-minute overtime period, and if it expired with the teams still tied, the game was recorded as a tie. There were two ties in AFL history before the 2007 rule change (although a cancelled game in 2015 was simply ruled a tie):
Before 2007, the play clock was 25 seconds, and it began on the signal from the referee.
Some AFL players have gone on to have successful careers in the NFL, most notably Kurt Warner. Warner played college football at University of Northern Iowa and then quarterbacked the AFL's Iowa Barnstormers to ArenaBowl X in 1996 and ArenaBowl XI in 1997, before earning two NFL MVP Awards, a Super Bowl MVP Award and quarterbacking the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl, winning Super Bowl XXXIV with the Rams. Warner was later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the only person to play a substantial portion of his professional career (as opposed to a short publicity stunt, as was the case with Joe DeLamielleure's brief tenure in the sport) playing arena football.
Another, probably the second most notable behind Warner, could be Fred Jackson, although he never technically played arena football. Jackson played indoor football with the Sioux City Bandits in 2004 when they played in the NIFL (2004) and the UIF in 2005 before finally moving on to NFL Europa's Rhein Fire in 2006, then to the NFL after Rhein.
Following an initial undistinguished NFL career, being released or unsigned for four seasons out of eight, quarterback Tommy Maddox would revitalize himself with the AFL's New Jersey Red Dogs for one season before going on to quarterback the Los Angeles Xtreme to the XFL championship win and eventually return to the NFL for five seasons, retiring with a Super Bowl ring after the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XL.
Other AFL to NFL graduates include Anthony Armstrong, Oronde Gadsden, Lincoln Coleman, Adrian McPherson, Rashied Davis, Jay Feely, David Patten, Rob Bironas, Antonio Chatman, Mike Vanderjagt, and Paul Justin. Former Arena Football League MVP Jay Gruden (brother of Jon Gruden) went on to coach the Orlando Predators of the AFL, Florida Tuskers of the United Football League, and then the head coach for the Washington Redskins in the NFL. Eddie Brown, voted in 2006 as the greatest player in AFL history, never played in the NFL, but his son Antonio Brown joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010 and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and in every season from 2013 to 2018. Matt Nagy was a quarterback in the AFL from 2002 to 2008 and became the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2018.
Even though arena football is a relatively young sport, it has appeared in various forms of popular culture over the course of its existence. In 2014, AMC aired the reality television series 4th and Loud, following the first season of the LA Kiss and its owners, including Doc McGee and KISS bandmates Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons.