*Do Pittsburghers care that they have another football team? Will they embrace an under-the-radar sport that hasn’t been here in over two decades when already distracted by high-quality NHL hockey and NCAA basketball? My questions were quickly answered when I saw fans lining up in droves outside the Trib Total Media Gate (main entrance) at Consol Energy Center on Friday, March 11. As it turns out, 13,904 of them came to see the first Arena Football League game in Pittsburgh since 1990…not a bad turnout at all for this particular sport. The CEC seats a little less than its 18,000-and-change capacity for football; some seats need to be collapsed to make room for the goal posts and artificial playing surface. So if the Power can continue to draw generally close to that number on a weekly basis, the AFL will long outlive its previous run in this town.
*One of the major differences between Consol Energy Center and the Civic Arena is that the new building is a little less cavernous. You’re closer to the action, and as a result, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house for hockey, nor for arena football. General admission seating, where most appeared to settle, is in the 200 level, and, at $15 per game, it’s the least expensive ticket offered. It actually offers a terrific view of the action, and the restrictions on general admission seating appear negligible (Sections 202, 203, 219, and 220, located above midfield, are reserved seating). Even if you’re at one end of the arena, and the action is taking place at the other, the shorter 50-yard AFL field is easy on the eyes.
*If you were there and you didn’t recognize the voice greeting you when you took your seat…well, let’s put it this way…if you’ve ever listened to sister station Star 100.7, you should. Star Morning Show co-host Bubba Snider is pulling double duty as the P.A. announcer for Power home games. Furthermore, Bubba’s job on game night went beyond the routine task of announcing down-and-distance. On multiple occasions he explained the finer points of the AFL rule book, such as the concept of a ball hitting off the boards still being considered live, to those fans who aren’t already in the know.
*Bubba wasn’t the only familiar face in the house either. Jeff Jimerson, known for frequently singing the National Anthem at Penguins games, did the same at the Power’s season opener. And considering this was a game between two Pennsylvania-based teams, it seems fitting new Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett was on hand for the coin toss. (Full disclosure: he was booed by a noticeable portion of the crowd, but in the interest of not meshing sports and politics, I’ll leave it at that.)
*Another difference between the NFL and Arena Football League is that every AFL team has cheerleaders, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Once upon a time, the Steelers did have cheerleaders, believe it or not, but obviously haven’t had them for many years. The Pittsburgh Power, however, have a 14-member dance team called The Sparks, and they were on the field, cheering along with the rest of the Consol Energy Center as the first lineup in team history was introduced.
*From my vantage point I was able to see Philadelphia Soul owner–and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback–Ron Jaworski mulling around near midfield directly in front of a small group of loudly dressed Soul fans who had traveled down the Turnpike to cheer their team (some fans lightheartedly taunted Jaws’ well-known business partner, Jon Bon Jovi, though the artist was not in attendance). As you know, the Pittsburgh Power, similarly, have an ex-Steeler as a part-owner, Hall-of-Fame receiver Lynn Swann. At halftime Swann, standing at midfield, addressed the crowd, thanking fans for their support.
*What would a professional sporting event be without swag? Game programs are given away free at the turnstiles, just as they are for Penguins games, while season ticket holders were invited to a Trib Total Media kiosk on the first level where they were rewarded with two free Pittsburgh Power t-shirts apiece…heck, even the game balls themselves were free. Much to the surprise of a couple lucky fans who got their hands on one, the AFL openly encourages fans to keep any errant ball that lands in the stands for any reason. Swann got a game ball too, when wide receiver Jason Willis gave him the ball he used to catch the first TD pass in team history.
*I’m no economist, but my marginal business education tells me that, with any new venture, you want to try to attract young adults, because typically they’re the ones who spend the most money. Indeed, many of the fans I saw in attendance looked like high school or college students, and there were plenty of families in the crowd as well…not unlike a Penguins home game, which can only be considered a good thing, I think. (Author’s note: I’m definitely in the Joe Starkey camp of people who are driven nuts by other people who leave sporting events inexplicably early. But I’m happy to report many who were on their way out came running back when the Power mounted a dramatic comeback to force OT.) Folks were on their feet throughout the latter stages of the game, getting just as into it as they were at the opening kickoff.
*Perhaps the best part of the fan experience comes after the game, following a shared prayer at midfield by both teams, when attendees are welcomed to join the home team–and dance team–for an autograph session, a longtime post-game tradition of the Arena League. Even Swann, who was constantly mobbed by many of the fans who freely roamed the field, stuck around a while to sign lithographs bearing his likeness that were given away at the gate. For many of these players, the AFL may be their last hurrah, so they definitely seem to appreciate the exposure.
*The fun wasn’t over yet either. Fans were invited to bring their game tickets to Mullen’s on Carson Street for free admission to a post-game party. In attendance, in addition to Pittsburgh fans, were a number of traveling Philadelphia fans, as well as Pittsburgh Power players and staff. I had the chance to meet Pittsburgh Power head coach Chris Siegfried, who made candid and similarly positive observations about his first game and the game night atmosphere at Consol Energy Center.
*The Arena Football League may never be as recognized as traditional forms of the game. However, first impressions being what they are, Pittsburghers have begun embracing this “new” sport, and their new team. The Power’s maiden voyage did not have the storybook ending the Pittsburgh faithful wanted, but I can honestly say my first AFL experience was a pleasant and exciting one, and one I hope to enjoy again in the foreseeable future.
By Matt Popchock