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November 26, 2014

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Minor in a major key

This weekend’s minor-league game proves one thing: If you throw a football, they will come

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Leila Navidi

Spokane Shock fans Akieba Stevens, from left, Jeremy Renken and Kent Odekirk cheer for their team against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers at the 2009 ArenaCup Championship at The Orleans Arena on Saturday. Spokane took the title with a score of 74-27.

It does not get much more bush-league than this.

It was the championship game for a minor league to another minor league that recently went out of business. It featured three minor-league cities: Spokane, Washington, and Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The latter two share a team.

Like every other niche sport that gets its results published in tiny font in the back of the sports section, arena football had a team—actually two—that failed to make it big in Las Vegas.

Here’s how minor-league this was: Something called the Minor League News had a reporter here to document the evening. The starting quarterbacks went to Colgate and the University of Cincinnati. Not exactly USC and Florida.

On Saturday night the Orleans—home of minor-league hockey—hosted the af2’s ArenaCup X, a battle between the Spokane Shock and the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pioneers. The af2 is the second-tier league to the now-defunct Arena Football League. More than 5,800 people attended this event, most of whom had traveled from Spokane or one of the twin cities of central Pennsylvania. An af2 spokeswoman said the league sold nearly 5,000 tickets to out-of-town fans. In a recession. For a sport where guys get about $200 per game and $50 win bonuses.

It may have been the first time in modern American sports that the pot-bellied sportswriters slugging soda in the press box earned more cash than the athletes on the field. It also showed that, in cities without nonstop nightlife and more entertainers than libraries, something like arena football can be homecoming-queen popular.

Spokane fans came in droves, wandering the Orleans in orange jerseys. The team even brought its mascot, Shox the Fox.

The production values equaled those at a mid-major college basketball game, including the player introductions and the too-loud stadium rock. And nothing screams minor-league like an overzealous public-address announcer. “I’ve been to a live arena football game!” he cried out repeatedly. “It’s way too quiet in here!”

Only it wasn’t quiet. At all.

It was louder than most Las Vegas Wranglers games. The fans were more passionate than those at UNLV football games. There were more seats filled than at many college basketball tournaments or boxing matches held in the same arena. Not too bad.

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Raul Vijil of the Spokane Shock celebrates with the 2009 ArenaCup trophy after his team defeated the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers Saturday, 74-27.

Then you heard the announcer again: “The Spokane Shock presented by Women’s Extenze extend their lead.”

The af2 felt a bit like roller derby, a kitschy game full of bright colors and cute nicknames that caters to those with Adderall prescriptions. It’s like a futuristic game invented by a bad screenwriter in the 1980s.

But it also comes with a nostalgia for simpler times when players had day jobs and signed autographs with a smile.

A time when winning mattered. When the Spokane quarterback held the af2 championship trophy with tears in his eyes, and the residents of a small town in northeastern Washington stormed the field, it didn’t matter that it was minor league.

Not to them.

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