Guest Post: Exploring the CIFL: Minor Minor-League Football

6 04 2009

Yes, the AFL is twisting in the wind, and despite rumors the league will return in some form for 2010, what is the wacky-indoor-football fan to do in the interim? One of our regular readers, known to you as Mr. jcompton, caught a CIFL game and filed the following report.

 

Football with seven men? This is madness!

Football with seven men? This is madness!

 

What’s an AFL fan to do this year? Why, avail himself of the hometown, expansion, second-tier indoor football team playing down the road, of course! Up in Madison, Wisconsin, we’re fortunate enough to have a new indoor team, the Wisconsin Wolfpack of the CIFL. The CIFL is better known as “The league with the Chicago team currently fielding a bunch of ex-Rush guys slaughtering the other seven teams.” I was part of an intimate gathering watching the Wolfpack beat the Rock River Raptors, 50-23.

I don’t know precisely how or why the Wolfpack got started, but I do know that their playing field used to belong to the Pensacola Barracudas, a defunct AF2 team. The AF2 logo is still at midfield and the Barracudas logo is still in the end zone. They’re a bit smudged, like somebody spent a few minutes scrubbing at it with turpentine, then said “This is second-tier minor league indoor football—why am I breaking my back?” and gave up.

At a generous guess, I’d say there were maybe 1300 people in the stands, in a stadium with capacity for 10,000+. It’s hard to say whether this being Final Four night hurt ticket sales, as the stands looked pretty empty in the photos from the Wolfpack’s only other home game to date. The fans in the stands were certainly thinking basketball, though—when the PA announcer broke the news of Michigan State’s win, he got arguably the biggest roar of the night. (Big Ten solidarity?) In any case, I got fine seats just walking up to the box office window 20 minutes before kickoff.

The CIFL plays like the AFL, except for two important details. It’s seven-man football instead of eight-man (more on this in a minute), and there are no end zone nets. When off-brand indoor leagues started popping up in the late 90s, they played without nets because Jim Foster patented the nets and the AFL (and later AF2) was the sole authorized user of the patent. The patent has since expired, but leagues like the CIFL continue to play without nets. This presumably is because it costs actual money to build and store a big freaking iron net apparatus. On the other hand, Menards probably charges about $25 for the parts you need to assemble the open-air, U-shaped hanging goal posts used by the Wolfpack, so Menards gets their $25 and the CIFL gets no nets.

The nets are what make AFL kickoffs exciting. The ball might bounce shallow, it might clang off the iron and skitter out to the 10. Craziness ensues. A lot of times guys run 40 yards side-to-side in their end zones before going down and taking a touchback. Good stuff. But the CIFL, like the AFL, penalizes a kick drilled out of the back of the end zone on the fly—the receiving team gets it at the 25. And the Coliseum has a huge basketball scoreboard exactly in the way of a typical rainbow kickoff you might drop into the opposing end zone—hitting it is also a procedure penalty, ball goes to the receiving team at the 25. So both kickers were reduced to pooching knucklers which were returned near or past midfield almost every time. The seven-man squad seemed to favor the receiving team—either that, or special teams play was atrocious. Kickoffs should be exciting opportunities for infrequent big plays, not just a formality to get 20 yards from the other guy’s end zone.

Kickoff struggles aside, it was a fine evening of off-off-brand football. With little need for advertiser timeouts, the whole game was wrapped up in just over two hours. The fans were less engaged with the team’s overall performance as with a few local standouts (lots of the players are from the UW family of football colleges, natch) but that’s not too surprising for a new team in a small league with little at stake. There was a decent scattering of impressive runs, hard hits, and one-handed grabs. Schlocky fan participation games were played on the field during breaks, with the usual goony props (“wear this hamburger suit”, “get drunk guys dizzy and have them try to kick a field goal”, etc.) T-shirts were thrown into the stands. The eight-girl dance squad looked like your average crop-topped troupe and danced their hearts out a couple of times. (The dancers also prowled the stands at one point selling 50/50 raffle tickets, which seemed tacky.)

With the AFL down and possibly out, it’s either the netless, low-frills, seven-man CIFL, or a 90-minute shot down I-94 to Milwaukee to watch their new AF2 team. The Iron seems to want real money for tickets. So I think it’s gonna be me and the Wolfpack for a little while longer.

The good:

  • It was $31 for two tickets and parking. Maybe not the world’s best value in a night’s entertainment, but not bad for a football game.

  • The Wolfpack front office published a handy 12-page PDF full of player stats and notes before the game, which made for a free print-at-home game program. It was a nice bit of professional polish, marred ever so slightly by typos, odd grammar, and at least one missing key player, a starting defensive lineman wearing #19. There’s got to be a good story behind that, either “I used to be a QB and then I got huge”, or “The team’s only spare, clean jersey was #19.”

  • I really didn’t know what to expect out of the officiating—the officials were not introduced pregame, which I didn’t take as a great sign. But they didn’t seem to be a problem. The flags were disproportionately thrown against the Raptors, but I didn’t see any egregious non-calls in favor of the home team.

  • Two guys got shaken up, but neither suffered a crippling injury. You never want to see a player hurt in any sport at any level, blah blah blah, but getting a life-altering injury for a $200ish game check would be the worst of the worst.

The bad:

  • There’s no getting around the fact that arenaball defense is hard, but it’s beginning to look like Rock River’s defensive players may not be very good even for arenaball. The Raptors just signed a new defensive coordinator, who accurately sniffed out most of WI’s running plays (shouting “RUN! RUN!” at his players before the snap), but it seemed that the Wolfpack still managed to pick up at least 5 yards anyway.

  • The Wolfpack’s early lead and the Raptors’ failure to mount any sort of comeback sucked a lot of the energy out of the crowd. The size and the lack of a lot of passionate emotions over arenaball rivalries didn’t help the tension, either. It’s fun to watch your home team win, but it was so lopsided that it came off dull.

  • SI’s Dr. Z has long railed against petty timeouts in a foregone conclusion. This game was lousy with them. Needing four scores, the Raptors were taking timeouts on defense with less than a minute to play. Big comebacks are possible in arenaball, but as the Raptors hadn’t attempted an onside kick all game long, they didn’t seem to be terribly serious about a comeback bid. So they burned their timeouts and the Wolfpack got a first down anyway. Game over, right? No, the Wolfpack said “back atcha!” and called a timeout of their own. After one more end zone attempt, the team decided against further stupidity and just let the clock expire.

  • No nets and lame kickoff play. See above.

Unanswered questions:

  • Why in the world is the CIFL’s web forum set to members-only? Are they trying to keep out some undesirable element of rowdy second-tier indoor football fans? They should be so lucky!

  • I realize this is not the multibillion-dollar stakes of the NFL, MLB, or NCAA here, but how does any league think it’s a good idea for the same man to own two teams in the same division? Bob Lowe owns both the Wolfpack and the Raptors. Yikes.

  • Can the CIFL finish the season without drama? League champions have a habit of desertion, and one of the teams this year is a hastily-resurrected, “mostly-traveling” team that already couldn’t pull off one of its measly three scheduled home contests this season.

  • The AF2 Barracudas haven’t played since 2002. Has that field surface been in storage for the past six years, or has it bounced from upstart minor indoor team to upstart minor indoor team like a bad penny? Either way—in all that time, nobody’s managed to get the logos off the turf? Seriously?

  • Is the Wolfpack a tremendously Zen football outfit, or do they not have much time for proofreading? The organization also runs a semi-pro outdoor team, whose player application form judges a player’s quicks by his “40-year time.”

 

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4 responses

6 04 2009
Josh

Is this the same league as the Chicago Slaughter? Because I was just going to email you guys and ask about them.

6 04 2009
JM

It is one and the same, although I suspect they don’t play their games inside a giant refrigerator with meat hooks lining the walls as I would prefer.

23 10 2009
Gangster17

Sometimes, old men in white vans DO actually follow the school buses around, string at the little boys, and driving off when any adult approaches. ,

6 03 2011
Kankakee Plowmen

I would like to say as a minor league football team, that putting forth a polish professional organization is the first priority! There are many teams out there that try, but fall very short! Many times this is becuase the owner was only a player and never a professional business person with the knowledge to network and find front office people to get the team running at peak performance.

The CIFL currently is, and always will struggle for its own identity in indoor football. Good luck!

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