Orlando Apollos
Photo: USA Today

It’s a fresh and crisp 60-degree evening. Fans are flocking to the stadium to tailgate. The smell of grills firing up burgers and brats fills the air. The atmosphere of a crowd getting together to support their team is in full effect. It’s football season, the best season there is. Even better, this all sounds like the perfect stage for the start of the NFL or college football season in the West Coast or the Northeast.

However, we are in Orlando, Florida. Sixty degrees in Florida during football season? That means we are talking about a game in December then, right? No, it’s February. Which means more football is here!

The Alliance of American Football kicked off their inaugural season on Saturday night, and I was fortunate enough to be able to take an up-close look at the Orlando Apollo’s host the Atlanta Legends. As a die-hard football fan, it was exciting to be able to witness football continuing into the NFL off-season. As an Orlando resident, it was also encouraging to see other passionate football fans who can’t get enough of the game, showing up to support.

I didn’t have major expectations. even if it just helped past time on the weekends until NFL free agency or the draft, it was better than nothing. As the game started to play out, however, I was astonished and intrigued by just how valuable and successful the AAF could become. What I want to dive into is how the experience as a fan at an AAF game compared to the dozens of NFL games I have attended. I must say, the same as it was on that February night, it was a breath of fresh air.

Officiating

Without a doubt, the most controversial and greatest flaw that has taken over the NFL world has been the officiating. It is also clear to me that the AAF will be helping the NFL with ideas on how to solve specific issues and the officiating is where they are beginning. Throughout the game, it not only seemed like every call was made correctly but even when needing replay it was done in such a timely manner that you barely could realize the play was under review, it was marvelous.

The AAF utilizes a “sky judge” which is an extra official in the press box who can make corrections on calls in live time, without the need of going to replay. This is a genius idea and something I am sure the NFL will be moving towards soon. The extra official would have most notably overturned the infamous non-pass interference call in the NFC championship game.

I can’t remember the last time I was at an NFL game and left thinking “the officiating was spot on.” The way the AAF is transforming roles of officials and allowing others to make live corrections made the fan experience immensely better, as you weren’t waiting 10 minutes for one call to be made or wondering what was going on. The best way to put it, the referees never seemed to be part of the game. They were unnoticeable, and that is precisely what you want from an officiating crew. The game was about the players and coaches, and the better team won, without any help or hindrance from the officials. Major kudos to the AAF in this regard.

Now although it was mostly all positive with the new changes, there is one notable gripe that I had. It was the new penalty (illegal defense) that kept coming up that I wished the officials would have explained the first time it was used on what it meant. I researched the new rules beforehand and learned that they were going to penalize the defense if it rushed more than five players on passing downs or rushed anyone from the secondary.

However, during the game, most of the fans, especially the first time the penalty was called, were wondering what in the world does that mean? It is unheard of in the NFL or even college that are restricted on blitzes, and if the referee just mentioned the first time why the penalty was called, I think that would have helped the majority of the fans out there. I am not blaming the new rule itself, as I understand it takes a great deal of time to prepare for exotic blitzes especially for the offensive lineman who don’t have a long off-season like the NFL. An explanation, however, would have been helpful to those who haven’t read up on all the new rules before the game.

All things considered, though I believe the officiating, especially the first touchdown in AAF history which was an overturned call, was as spot on and precise for a football game I can remember.

Flow of the Game

By far my favorite part of the AAF experience in the stands was the lack of stoppage time. There was football being played at all times. I know from going to NFL games that you watch a play and the next thing you know you are watching the “kiss cam” on the video boards. All I want is to watch football and sometimes actually attending games has been losing that appeal. You hear a lot of “Why do I want to pay to watch a game live when I can have a better experience at home?” Sitting sometimes for 3 1/2 hours in the Florida sun for 60 minutes of actual football being played can be exhausting. The way the AAF handled that was very much appreciated.

I saw fans who would go to the concessions or restroom after a punt and come back and miss two series. I loved the changes with fewer TV commercials and making the game not only quicker but non stop action. I know this will most likely never happen in the NFL with all the revenue they make on commercials, but for a league like the AAF keeping fans engaged at all times is a priority. They accomplished that, and it made the game that much better and exciting. The only times there was significant stoppage was after each quarter.

The AAF also tweaked some rules that the NFL could also look into in shortening game time without having to eliminate any commercials. The AAF eliminated the kickoff and started each drive at the offenses 25-yard line. Also, they shortened the play clock by 5 seconds, giving offenses 35 seconds before the snap. I felt everyone was engaged in the game since there was a play going on almost every time you looked at the field. The total of the game was 2 hours and 32 minutes. Keep in mind the score was 40-6, even with stoppage for all the scoring the game was still only 2 1/2 hours. That is very impressive and matched that goal that the AAF was trying to accomplish with the changes they made.

A few other changes made were eliminating the extra point and making the offense have to go for a 2 point conversion after a touchdown. Also, removing the onside kick and having a 4th and 12 try from the offenses 28-yard line. The onside kick change didn’t debut, but that is something I am looking forward to seeing. The 2 point conversions though were a lot more fun to watch at the game. It isn’t something you see all that often but when it happens it always seems to draw your attention because the NFL doesn’t use it as much as a tool.

Final Thoughts

I will be watching the AAF this season and will be attending more games in person. It seemed much more eventful than I ever realized. It had a very cinema-like feel to it that most people I came in contact with thoroughly enjoyed. A game without drama about officiating (for now), a quick game with non-stop action, what more could you ask for? Football isn’t over yet, for the AAF it has just begun, and that is emphatically something to be excited about.