AFL Legend JJ Raterink

06/25/2017

By Jay Luster

“I’d call home and say what did you do today and they’d say they did their 9-5 and they’d ask well what did you do? And I’d say well I can’t talk long because I just got done doing a photoshoot where I was telling Gene Simmons where to stand so he didn’t block my light and now I’ve got to go to his house now for dinner.”

Former LA Kiss QB JJ Raterink

AFL long time QB JJ Raterink

One of the biggest problems for arena football at all levels is the difficulty teams have in holding talent together for very long.  All time greats  like Aaron Garcia and Clint Dolezal played for a combined 32 years and a total of 19 teams.  Player contracts are almost always for one year and with the institutional uncertainty inherent to virtually all leagues, there is no guarantee the team you play for this year will even exist next year.  While this unpredictability has harmed the national appeal of the sport and stunted its growth as a major league attraction, there still is no shortage of players, teams, and leagues.  The leagues and teams exist for the same reason that all businesses exist, to make money, but the players are almost always working towards their NFL goal.

After JJ Raterink’s college career at Wyoming came to a close and the NFL didn’t come calling he realized, if he intended to continue playing football it would have to be indoors.  Between 2006 and 2011 he played for 5 different teams. Then, in 2012 he joined the Iowa Barnstormers.  That season he set franchise records for both yardage and touchdowns.  Those records were set and held by NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, and Arena Football League great Aaron Garcia.  In 2014 Raterink joined the LA Kiss where he became nationally known through the AMC reality tv show 4th and Loud.  The show followed the Kiss throughout their tumultuous and futile first season.  While JJ wasn’t the main attraction of the show, that dubious honor would go to Managing Partner Brett Bouchy, being the QB of a team with their own weekly show did shove him into a spotlight brighter than he’d ever experienced before.  Like all great leaders, when the inaugural season turned into an unmitigated disaster JJ was quick to point out that he could have played better Perhaps that’s true, but anyone familiar with the LA story would be hard pressed to point the finger at him.

As an Iowa Barnstormer Raterink brone many of NFL SB MVP and HOF QB Kurt Warner

His career has spanned 19 seasons and he has been affiliated with 13 different teams.  In 2014 alone he was an active member of both the Kiss and the Barnstormers but his contractual rights also, somehow, passed through the hands of the Jacksonville Sharks and the Philadelphia Soul.  With that kind of experience it only made sense that he would have great insight into the business end of indoor football.  He generously shared his time and knowledge with me and I hope you will enjoy reading about it as much as much as I enjoyed the interview.

Jay Luster (JL)

Hi JJ, thanks for agreeing to speak with me today.  I would like to focus on the business side of the the indoor arena game if that’s ok?  Why is it so tough for teams and leagues to hang on for long?

JJ Raterink (JJR)

I’m not sure what the magic business model is for indoor/arena football to survive.  I will tell you there is a big education gap that needs to be filled in before people will jump on board as sponsors and fans. When people hear about arena football they assume, well did you play in high school?  They don’t realize the level of athletes that are playing in it so it’s tough for them to justify paying the dollars into it that are needed to attend games or sponsor it.

JL

Once people see the sport they do tend to become fans?

JJR

JJ with LV Outlaws Head Coach and former AFL QB Aaron Garcia

Whenever someone who’s never been before goes to a game they’re hooked, that’s the word you always hear.  Whether they’re professional investors or fans or whatever the case may be it’s just getting folks to do that, to experience it for themselves so they will come back and keep telling people to come back.  

JL

Advertising would help that.  What do teams do to get the word out?

JJR

To operate and run a team there is a huge initial cost and then depending upon where you are, getting that cost back is going to take a long time.  Advertising helps educate people that the team is there, but it is tough, there’s a lot that goes into it.  The teams do different things like billboards and commercials as well as community involvement with charities or visiting schools.  

Another thing the indoor leagues fight is the time of year.  When you’re talking summer that’s vacation, that’s when kids are playing baseball on the weekend and aren’t able to come to as many games.

JL

Still, like you said, once they get to a game they’re hooked.

JJR

When you see it on tv it’s good, it’s entertaining.  But when you go in person, everyone I’ve ever spoken to has said they have a complete knew appreciation for the game and for the players that are in it.   

JL

Well it is an intimate setting, especially for the people in the first row.

JJR

(LOL)  You have to be ready to either catch a ball or a player.  One you give back the other you keep.  You are so close and such a part of it, you can hear the pads and see it just a few feet from you and if you’re in the first few rows you may even get to feel it, face it, and touch it.  All of your senses are engaged in a way that an NFL or even a college game can never do.   It’s just getting that initial part done, getting fans to come through the doors.

JL

With such a high failure rate of teams and leagues it’s amazing that anyone would want to invest in a team.

JJR

As a player you appreciate it because these local people are trying to help players play as long as we can to live out the dream and maybe even get a chance to move up to the higher leagues.  But as a player we understand that the local investors are sticking their financial necks out for us and for a lot of people there’s not an endless amount of money especially when you go to the smaller markets.

JL

Why do you think small market local owners take the risk?

JJR

I think a lot of people get excited at the idea of owning a team. They get into it and then find out there are a lot of expenses that they maybe weren’t prepared for.  It’s easy to say they need to spend more on advertising or players, while that might be true they still need to have an office, they need to sell tickets, they need to open the doors to an arena they need to have medical treatment for the players and there’s all kinds of expenses.  

JL

Which brings us back to the leagues themselves.

JJR

When you begin digging into it there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that has to be financially taken care of.  The league’s all approach it differently.  Sometimes there’s profit sharing, other times, if a team fails, the other owners need to step in to help.  There’s different ways to do it. If not every team is making money it’ll be hard to keep the league sustainable.  

JL

Why don’t leagues merge to form local alliances?

JJR

I don’t know.  Leagues get spread out and that’s not a travel planners best dream and maybe their worst nightmare.  That comes down to the business model of the league itself which includes everything and not just what they pay their players, that’s certainly some of it, but if an ownership group proves they can’t do it, who has to pick up the tab for the rest of the season?  I think between the leagues and the owners there’s a lot of disagreement how to handle it and nobody has found that perfect model yet where everybody wins.  

JL

Where a team is playing and the level of competition must play a huge role?

JJR

I don’t think many people years ago would have thought Spokane Washington could support a team, whereas in LA there’s so many millions of people that people would just rip through the turnstiles into the building and fall into a seat and that’s just not the case.  Different markets react differently to it and  I think that’s one of the things owners do when they look across which league to try and join.  

JL

Why does the NFL not support arena/indoor football?

JJR

(LOL) that’s a great question and it’s one I wish I had an answer to. I think it’s the perception the NFL has of the sport.  I’ll give you an example from a coach who was in the AFL for a long while I asked him do you ever want to go back outdoors? He said “I’m afraid I’m pigeonholed in the arena game.”   I’ve often wondered why an NFL team will have a guy in camp and then cut him but then not follow him to see how he progresses in the same way as a major league baseball team does? Why they don’t do it is frustrating and shocks me.  Why wouldn’t they see it as another source for talent? I don’t think they necessarily see it as lesser talent, I just think nobody has gotten on that bandwagon and maybe if one does then we’ll have more Kurt Warner stories.  

JL

Because arena football takes place in such a confined area I would think the NFL would be interested in guys with skills that

LV Outlaws Owner Vince Neil and JJ posing for pictures

could translate to the outdoor game? I’m thinking about slot receivers, in the box safeties, and developmental QB’s.

JJR

How about a center that takes on a 350lb nose guard on every single play, nose up.  Centers in the outdoor game are helping on a 1 or 3 technique most of the time, so how often do they take of the nose guard one on one?  Arena football is 90% passing, so it’s understandable if NFL teams don’t know if the center can get out in front of run plays, but considering how pass happy the NFL is, a center who has to set for pass block against a nose guard with 50 pounds on him on every play should be someone they’d have interest in.  If a guy can play he can play.  There are some guys that are built more for the arena game, but most guys can play both indoors and outdoors.

JL

The games being so different from each other, do you think being an arena quarterback can translate to the NFL

JJR

While the game is different  from a pure football standpoint I think it is a good place to develop guys.  I would like to see every young QB that wants to be in the NFL to play a year indoors and then go back outdoors.  I think they’d  be shocked at the improvement in their  timing, decision making and their touch on throws.  Kurt Warner isn’t a once in a lifetime thing in the arena league, but it’s just that he got the opportunity.  There are guys, present company not included, that if they had a shot at going back outdoors they’d be awfully effective.  Maybe not two time MVP/Superbowl MVP/Hall of Fame effective, but they’d legitimately be in the mix for a roster spot.

JL

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your time with the LA Kiss

JJR

(LOL) I will never have another experience like that and I’m grateful for every moment of it.  I said to myself this has got to be the most unbelievable and surreal thing so I just tried to enjoy it. I’d call home and say what did you do today and they’d say they did their 9-5 and they’d ask well what did you do? And I’d say well I can’t talk long because I just got done doing a photoshoot where I was telling Gene Simmons where to stand so he didn’t block my light and now I’ve got to go to his house now for dinner.

When you have owners with the notoriety with the band Kiss, the people don’t care at first so much about the players and the game.   As a player you want that draw to be the quality of the athlete you are and have them come and see you.  For us in LA we sold out the first game, but clearly, no matter how many thousands of people were there, how many were there to see football? Probably not even half to be honest with you.  When it came to selling tickets, having Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley as owners was almost like cheating because they are so well known.

JL

While JJ Raterink was much to classy to comment about why things went south so quickly in LA, he did say something earlier in our cobversation that probably applies to the failure of the Kiss.

JJR

“When you start losing money you can only say with pride I own a professional team for so long before that punch in the pocketbook really starts to hurt.” JJ Raterink

The allure and novelty of owning a team is always fun but it will wear off really quickly if you’re losing money. A lot of people are successful to begin with which is why they have the funds to start.  But when you start losing money you can only say with pride I own a professional team for so long before that punch in the pocketbook really starts to hurt.

After his one season immersed in the chaos called The Kiss, JJ left with QB and team mate Aaron Garcia to go to Las Vegas to play for the Outlaws.  Vince Neil from the band Motley Crue decided to follow Simmons and Stanley’s example and head indoors by starting a football team.  They selected Garcia to be their first head coach and Garcia chose JJ to be his quarterback.  Unfortunately the team never really got going and Raterink ended up sitting out the entire season.  Now he is in China playing for the Guangzhou Power for the AFL affiliated CAFL. At 36, it’s unlikely that his NFL dream will come true, but even without that JJ’s had a brilliant and unique career that might one day land him in the AFL Hall of Fame.