March 31, 2008

Behold -- the Wolves' Season is Practically Here

OH, PRAISE GOD -- I have picked up my season tickets for the Manchester Wolves' 2008 season, and I am glad.

Of course, spring football has been underway for a month now, and that's been a lifesaver up here in cold New Hampshire. I've been able to watch several of the Arena Football League's games broadcast on ESPN, and those have been fun to watch. Still, I can't wait for the Wolves' season -- particularly since my tickets are seven rows from the field, and practically at midfield. I couldn't ask for a better seat in the house, because there isn't one.

A lot of my excitement, of course, has to do with team loyalties. Although the AFL games are fun to watch on television, the trouble for me is that I don't live near an AFL team. The closest AFL team is in New York. That means there's no regional coverage of the league up here in New England. Consequently, I have to rely on ESPN's broadcasts to get my football fix. Since the national broadcast schedule doesn't feature my two AFL teams -- the Grand Rapids Rampage and the Cleveland Gladiators, respectively -- it's not as cool as getting to watch either Grand Rapids or Cleveland take the field of battle.

As a result, for me the ESPN AFL broadcasts are somewhat like watching NFL games between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, or between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers. I like watching them, of course, but I'd much rather watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns, or one of several other teams instead. (Oddly, Pittsburgh does not have an AFL team; if it does get one, it's clearly going into first place on the loyalty chart).

The good news on that front, though, is that I'll get to watch both Cleveland and Grand Rapids in person this year -- and not against each other -- thanks to some clever planning. The Grand Rapids game should be a good one, because they're playing the Kansas City Brigade, which is an even worse team than Grand Rapids. Cleveland, on the other hand, is a good team -- and they're playing the Dallas Desperadoes, which is probably the second-best team in the league. That game should be spectacular.

But I'm understandably psyched about watching the Wolves play. The Wolves are my "third team" -- behind the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers and the hallowed Michigan Wolverines. I love watching them play for all the reasons why minor-league sports represent everything wonderful about America -- the players all striving for something better, the friendly atmosphere, the underlying good-naturedness of it all. But for me, watching the Wolves offers the perfect emotional balance: I'm thrilled when they win, but not crushed when they lose.

Why the difference? Well, I think it comes down to a few things. For one, the stakes are a lot smaller: when you have guys giving their all for just $250 a game, it's hard to get too upset with them. Instead, you feel bad for them, because you know they're feeling that loss a lot worse than you. For another, I don't have the long-term emotional investment the way I do with the Steelers and Wolverines. I've been rooting for those teams for a long, long time. Also -- and I think this is the key -- I don't have my hopes and expectations dashed.

For let's face it -- a lot of the fun associated with the NFL and college football is the long, slow buildup to the fall, when one's teams finally take the field again after seven or eight long months away. During that time, you have optimism and you have hope: hope this will be the year your team emerges victorious with a Super Bowl ring or national championship. You have hope your team will throw down your hated rivals; you have hope your team will make you proud of your roots.

What happens most years? That hope gets ground into the turf -- mercilessly and brutally. It is a painful and often-traumatic experience. The agony of having one's dreams destroyed again; the shame of losing to one's hated rivals; it all involves a tremendous sense of loss. But with the Wolves, I don't go into the season with raised expectations and dreams of beating rivals. Don't get me wrong: I want them to win, and I want them to win a championship. I want them to beat our opponents. But if they lose, I don't have to bear it -- or hear about it -- the way I do when Pittsburgh falls to a divisional rival, or Michigan loses to Ohio State. In that regard, there is a purity to watching the team that is special.

Now, on to the Wolves.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to pick up my season tickets and was quite impressed with the shindig the team threw. The team was introduced to all the fans in attendance and we all cheered; the coach was emotional and exuberant and made clear he wanted to bring home a championship for Manchester. We have a new coach this year, Danton Barto, and I like the guy. I like his enthusiasm and the way he carries himself.

I was also impressed with the team, although I'll admit I was a bit concerned beforehand. From what I could tell, most of the players on the team are rookies -- and that had me wondering. It takes a while to pick up arenaball; it's not the same as traditional football, and the players have to learn the ropes quickly. But I'm hopeful our squad will do well this year. We're ranked 11th out of 29, according to a pre-season power poll. And the Wolves, which play in the af2 development league, have sent a lot of players to the Arena Football League. This group certainly looked as if they had the potential to head upstairs.

Plus, I got a lot of cool swag. I got a nice T-shirt -- and although Loyal Rant Readers know I don't wear T-shirts, the T-shirt is well-made and subdued, the type of thing good for me to wear around the house. I also got a bumper sticker and a couple of license plate holders: after the party, I spent some time installing those. Oh, I also inquired about getting a Wolves necktie. The team doesn't have those, and I admitted I didn't know what the market might be for them. But as someone who likes a good football tie, I was certainly interested in getting one.

Also today, I also learned about a couple of other exciting developments regarding the league. The first was that the ArenaCup, the af2's championship game, will again be played at a home stadium, instead of at a neutral site. I applaud the league for doing this. Since the ArenaCup is played in August, it would make it practically impossible for me to get the time off to go see the game if the Wolves made it in; now, should the team have a great season and go all the way, I'll have a good shot at seeing them play here.

The second development was that the af2 has devised a scheme to televise away games over the Internet. I tried out the broadcast system today, and was pretty impressed. The bandwidth will be an issue for me, I think -- and I don't think I'll be able to get enough to make it work like an actual TV broadcast. But what I really liked about it was that the audio was crystal-clear, and the video was good enough so that I can at least get the gist of what's going on and what things are like at the away site.

Even better, I can get feeds for ANY af2 team playing -- and THAT is very cool. Today, I got to listen to the Green Bay-Spokane game -- and both teams' announcers! That's something I never could have done last year. Later in the season, when I want to listen in on games with playoff implications, I'll be able to do so. If the league's service provider can somehow figure out a way to boost the bandwidth accordingly, I should be sound as a pound.

We'll see how things turn out on April 5, when Manchester travels to give the Mahoning Valley Thunder a Youngstown tuneup. As for the Wolves, their first home game is on April 18 against the evil detestable generally hapless Albany Conquest. I -- can't -- wait.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 31, 2008 12:40 AM | TrackBack
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