President of the Mid-Atlantic Football League
Recently, I attended the MAIFL Championship game near Richmond, Virginia. The MAIFL is a developmental league, and the on-field play is what you would expect from a minor-league game. Sometimes the young men perform brilliantly making spectacular plays all over the field and sometimes not so much. The one thing you do see is passion and progress and that, after all, is the point of developmental ball. The day of the game, I conducted an interview with Coach Reggie Mcavoy Shipp of the Capitol City Reapers (see the story on the NEWS page) and when I asked him why he wanted to coach on this level he said, “I want to give them (the players) the opportunity to develop their skills, so they can be successful on the next level.” The Reapers were playing the Maryland Eagles, who are coached by former AFL Defensive Tackle, Matt Steeple. Steeple started his career with the Iowa Barnstormers playing with Kurt Warner, so he got to see the game at its highest levels being played by some of its best players. His reason for working at the developmental level was identical to Coach Shipp’s.
Before the game, I also caught up with Ric Guy the league Owner and President. He began his arena/indoor football affiliation as a season-ticket holder for the Baltimore Mariners. He wanted to be their official photographer, but the team folded before that came to pass. He decided he wanted to be involved in the sport, so he started the MAIFL with a handful of teams and a handful of money, creating a league that is learning on the fly. When asked why, he said, “I listened to players and coaches and there were a lot of thing’s people were concerned about. How their leagues were doing things, how the players were being treated, so I came up with the concept.” He continued, “For the last two years, Matt Steeple, and I worked together and came up with this developmental league.” They realized, for a wide variety of reasons, a lot of talented high school players don’t get invited to college. This means they never get to chase the dream of playing professional ball. Guy said, “The kids don’t get paid, but they get game film and taught how the league is done, so they can go ahead and start moving up in the ranks. So far, this year we’ve had seven kids move up from our league to the next level. The dream of what we were trying to do is coming true, it’s working.”
Football on every level is an expensive sport, but in the minor leagues, it may be even tougher because the owners are generally not wealthy. Almost all of them are former coaches who love to teach and just want to run their own team. Along with teaching the players, the owners are learning how to be operators, so they too can also move up to the next level. This means that, aside from coaching, they are learning how to get the team involved in the community, learn how to develop sponsors, engage with the media, and sell tickets and merchandise. Guy said, “We’re having the end of the year owner’s meeting, and we’ll go over everything and listen to people. See what the coaches like or what they want to change. Also, we have some of the new teams who are looking forward to coming into the league, so their owners and coaches will be here as well. We’re working toward getting everything tweaked out a little bit and find some balance.” He continued, “ Being the inaugural season it was a lot of up’s and down’s and problems, but we made it through the year and all the way to the championship game.”
Many people scoff at the idea of developmental indoor/arena football and would never consider going to the games. However, it is a fact that kids aren’t playing arena style football in their backyards, and they don’t picture themselves as Kurt Warner completing passes to Curtis Jacox in an important AFL match. The game is generally not played on the high school or college level which means young players are not well prepared to either try out or play arena/indoor football. When played at the highest levels, the game is quicker than any college or NFL game. It is just as brutal, with rules and strategies, which are completely different from all they’ve ever learned. The pay scale in most leagues is very low, which means it’s really about their affinity for football and the hope of moving up to pro arena leagues, the CFL or NFL. Nobody loves the game more than the kids who are doing it for free in developmental leagues where the arenas are generally poor, and their audience is pretty much just their friends and families supporting their dreams. Guy said, “We’ve had a couple of scouts come out and look at our games. One was from the Washington Valor and another the Ottawa Roughriders.” Considering the number of players who found their way onto the roster of the NAL’s High Country Grizzlies, and other teams, the MAIFL and other semi-pro and developmental leagues fill a vital role within an industry in desperate need of competent owners and skilled players