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Air-conditioned football

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DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: The Arkansas Diamonds team, in black, is made up of ex-college players hoping to advance their professional football careers.
  • DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: The Arkansas Diamonds team, in black, is made up of ex-college players hoping to advance their professional football careers.

How long does something have to hang around before it becomes a tradition? A little longer than the Arkansas Diamonds,
perhaps.

Indoor football has been a source of summer entertainment in Little Rock for 10 years, but it still doesn't have an air of permanence about it, nor does it evoke the same sort of warm remembrance that's palpable at games of the Arkansas Travelers, another minor-league team (baseball) that's a just-down-the-street competitor for sports fans' dollars.

The Diamonds do have fans, obviously – somebody is paying pretty good money for those reserved, front-row seats – just not a lot of them, Fewer, in fact, than in the franchise's early years.

Technically, this is the Diamonds' first year, but essentially they're the Arkansas Twisters under a new name. The Twisters brought arena football to Little Rock in 2000, a time when the sport looked promising. Games of the Arena Football League, the sport's major league, were shown on national television. The Twisters were members of Arena Football 2, a “developmental” league, and the fast-moving, high-offense style of play, as well as the sheer novelty of football inside, pleased Central Arkansas for a time. An on-line source says that the Twisters set the AF2 attendance record of 16,058, play-ing in what was then Alltel Arena (and is now Verizon Arena).

But the new began to wear off, nationally and locally. AF1 went out of business, which meant that AF2, an affiliate, did also. A new league was formed, called the International Football League, consisting of 26 teams. The Diamonds are in the Lone Star division; all the teams they play are from Texas. That might appeal to aged Arkansas Razorback fans, who can remember when the Hogs played in an otherwise all-Texas league.

The Diamonds' ownership is the same as the Twisters' ownership last year, local businessmen Jim Smith and Jeff Everetts, who took over before the 2009 season. Troy Thompson, director of operations, says “We wanted to keep professional football in the state. We did it for the community.” Legal technicalities kept them from using the Twisters' name, how-ever, so fans were asked to submit nominations. “Diamonds” was an easy winner. Other things for which Arkansas is known – “Strawberries,” “Tomatoes,” “Clintons” – seemed inappropriate, and “Razorbacks,” of course, was already taken.

The crowd at a March 27 game with the Abilene Ruff Riders was no record-setter – two or three thousand, maybe, and they didn't seem especially enthusiastic, although one couple held up a “D” and a cutout of a fence, just like football fans on TV. Arena football is designed more as an “O”-and-a-cutout-of-a fence game though, and this one was typically high-scoring. For those who've never been to an arena game, the ball is in the air and the end zone a lot. The players are ex-college players you've never heard of but who still have hopes of playing in a higher, better-paying league. Arena football is seven men to a side. The Diamonds have an active roster of 20 and a 4-man “taxi squad” that fills in when players are injured. The players get $200 a game and a bonus if they win. Also, “We provide all the housing and meals during the season,” Thompson says. Some of the players have regular jobs.

“This league is meant for guys on the verge of making it to the NFL,” Thompson says. “We have guys that have been to NFL training camps, the Canadian league, some have played overseas.” Local media devote little time and space to the Diamonds, producing another round of the old chicken-and-egg sort of argument: More people would come to the games if the team got more coverage. The team would get more coverage if more people came to the games.

But, a person doesn't need the media to enjoy a long completed pass, a cold beer, violent collisions, dancing girls in shorts. The game is different from regular football in some respects, true. But to the really intense football fan, any sort of football is better than baseball.

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