Professional football is officially a thing in the state of Utah, and it is a glorious site to behold. The Salt Lake Stallions, of the Alliance of American Football, played their first home game of their inaugural season on Saturday against the Arizona Hotshots. While the AAF isn’t the NFL, and doesn’t pretend to be the NFL either, it’s still an incredibly fun league with lots going for it. After witnessing this historic home game, here are some takeaways from Salt Lake City’s newest professional sports franchise.
Let’s start with the actual game that happened. The Salt Lake Stallions came into this game 0-2 on the season, having lost their first two games on the road. Arizona was 2-0, looked like the best team in the league, and they had already defeated the Stallions in Arizona in the season opener. The Hotshots (a dope team name) opened as 3.5-point favorites in the game.
The Hotshots and Stallions had already faced each other once this season, making this the first rematch in AAF history. It could even be suggested that this is now the first rivalry in AAF history. That may be a bit of a stretch though, because usually it takes time to cultivate hatred. Just look at Utah and Colorado, are they really rivals yet?
In the first game between these two teams, the Hotshots demolished the Stallions 38-22. This time around, Salt Lake led for the entire game. The Stallions scored their first points at home in franchise history on a Taylor Bertolet 54-yard field goal. That was very appropriate for a game played at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Ultimately, the Stallions ended up winning by the final of 23-15. The Hotshots had their worst offensive game of the season while the Stallions played their most complete game of the season.
During this game, and all AAF games, while it appeared that these teams were playing standard regulation football, there were a few minor changes that made a huge difference in the game. The AAF has made a few adjustments to the rules to speed up play and make games more entertaining for the fans.
The first change is there are no kickoffs in the game. Whenever a team scores a touchdown, their opponent then gets the ball at their own 25-yard line. Kickoffs are boring, dangerous, and mostly pointless to begin with. A majority of the time they end in touchbacks and generate lots of injuries. Even the touchdowns they generate are boring because guys just run in a straight line for 100 yards. Nick Folk, the current kicker for the Arizona Hotshots, was involved in one of the dumbest kickoffs of all time, so he even probably agrees with this.
Even the most purist of football fans might fail to notice that there are no kickoffs or will stop caring shortly into the game because it doesn’t affect the rest of the game at all. I was supposed to be paying attention to the game, and it didn’t strike me until about the third post-touchdown change of possession that they weren’t even doing kickoffs. This is an excellent change.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, most kicking in football is boring unless Ndamukong Suh is the one doing the kicking. To go along with this rule, the AAF also dumped the extra point attempt. After every touchdown, the scoring team is required to attempt a two-point conversion. Again, this takes away a boring play that is almost always inconsequential unless the kicker does his job extremely poorly. Instead, it becomes a play that is both meaningful and interesting, with a wide variety of outcomes.
During the game, there were four attempts at a two-point conversion, and only one was successful. But you actually wanted to pay attention while those attempts were going on. It wasn’t an instance of going to the fridge to get a soda and then coming back to see that your kicker somehow missed the attempt. If this described scenario happens to you frequently, then you are probably an Alabama Crimson Tide fan.
Honestly, being a kicker in the AAF seems like the best possible gig. You no longer have to worry about extra points or kickoffs at all. You show up, kick somewhere between one and four field goals, and then you get to call it a day and get paid.
The most noticeable of all the differences between the AAF and other levels of football is the complete lack of TV timeouts. There’s no delay of game between a change of possession, when a quarter starts, or really at any time during the game other than halftime or when a coach calls a timeout. The goal of the AAF is to have their games over in two-and-a-half hours. This is an admirable goal when NFL games are rarely over before the three-hour mark.
This makes the game move noticeably faster and keeps fans focused on the thing that is most important, the football that is being played. The only downside is that it makes it nearly impossible to take a bathroom break and not miss any game action. This could be a major problem if, perhaps, one has already downed four Dr. Pepper’s before the game and then needs to wait until halftime to relieve oneself. Just a hypothetical situation of course, and any resemblance to the lives of actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental…
One of the biggest charms of the AAF is that when you look at the rosters of the teams, you say to yourself, “oh that’s cool,” or “oh I remember him,” or “so that’s what he’s doing now,” to nearly every name on the roster. Even the coaches receive that same type of treatment.
The two coaches were Dennis Erickson for the Stallions and Rick Neuheisel for the Hotshots. Neuheisel has been the head coach of three different Pac-12 teams but hasn’t coached since being fired from UCLA in 2011. Erickson, who’s last coaching job was with the Utes in 2016, is a two-time National Champion coach at the college level with Miami. He also was the head coach for the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and twice was head coach for prominent college football powerhouse, Idaho. At one point, the officials stated that “Seattle’s coach had issued a challenge,” and they probably just forgot that Erickson was no longer the coach of the Seahawks as of 21 years ago. That’s an honest mistake.
There were several Broncos fans in attendance who suddenly remembered some traumatizing memories when they realized that Rahim Moore was playing for the Arizona Hotshots. They may be even more upset once they realize that Moore’s infamous play is what has led them to having Joe Flacco as their current quarterback.
Before Clemson destroyed Alabama’s soul this year, one of the best ways to upset Alabama fans was to mention the 2014 Sugar Bowl. That game featured an Oklahoma team, led by a largely unknown Trevor Knight, lighting up No. 3 Alabama for 45 points and a stunning loss. Now Trevor Knight suits up as a quarterback for the Arizona Hotshots. Normally the backup, he played most of the second half when starting quarterback, John Wolford, went down with injury. It’s fun to relive some treasured memories.
Branden Oliver is a running back for the Stallions now? I could have sworn I had him on my NFL fantasy team at some point this last season.
For Utah fans especially, the Salt Lake Stallions roster is a trip down memory lane. Matt Asiata, former Utah running back, now maintains the same position for the Stallions. Unfortunately, he was inactive on Saturday. Kaelin Clay is playing wide receiver, and almost got his dreads ripped out while getting tackled on one play. Gionni Paul is once again one of the leaders for a defense that plays at Rice-Eccles Stadium. There are tons of guys with Polynesian names who once played for Utah who are now on Salt Lake’s offensive and defensive line. Their names will definitely sound familiar even if you can’t place exactly who they are. All in all, the Stallions have ten former Utes on their roster, which is more players from a single college than any other team has.
There is one major flaw with the Stallions’ roster though, neither their kicker nor their punter is a former Ute. If the Stallions wanted to do something perfectly on-brand for playing at Rice-Eccles, they would have former Utes running the special teams.
The football itself and the rosters of the AAF are definitely fun, but if the fans aren’t buying in, then it will all come to naught. For the most part though, it seemed like the fans in attendance were very pleased with the product.
The largest knock on this home game was the attendance. The announced attendance for the game was 10,412. Based on the eye test though, that number would appear, to put it nicely, dubious.
While the images of empty seats certainly didn’t look great on social media, there were several things working against attendance at this game. The first was that it was cold outside, and people don’t like being cold. The high for the day was only 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Naturally, if the AAF is going to play football games in Salt Lake City in February, there are going to be cold games. As the season progresses, and the temperatures warm, there will be far more fans willing to brave the elements to attend a football game.
Also, the time slot for the game was just awful from a local perspective. The game was at the same time as a University of Utah gymnastics meet against No. 2 UCLA. Both events were happening a mile apart on the same college campus. Plus, Utah is one of the few universities in the country that routinely sells out gymnastics meets. This would take out a sizeable portion of people who would also be willing to go to or watch the game from home. There will not always be these types of conflicts between events that could impede fans.
Finally, rational consumers want to verify that a product is good and viable before they invest in it. Although a large number of fans are interested in the Stallions, they very well may want to see how the first game plays out before spending their money on an untested product. As people witness the product and word of mouth spreads, more people will be willing to part with their time and money to attend the games.
There should be an expected increase in attendance, but even this week there was a strong atmosphere at the game. The crowd was loud, very supportive, and there was a shocking number of people who already had purchased Stallions gear to wear to the game. The Stallions’ easily have the best color scheme of any of the AAF teams. The silver with the baby blue is an excellent combo, and their uniforms are so fresh and so clean.
The only downside to that was they didn’t paint the field with a Stallion logo and colors. The reasoning for that was the difficulty of doing so on Utah’s turf, and they’re working on a solution for future games. I’m all for getting Utah’s logo out there as much as possible, but it wasn’t a great look for the AAF to be promoting the Pac-12 logo on the field rather than their own league. After all, we all know nobody wants to be associated with the Pac-12 right now.
For the people in the stands, the entertainment when football wasn’t being played was directed at cultivating fan loyalty and acknowledging the culture of the fans. A good example of this was the halftime show.
Halftime is only 13 minutes in the AAF, so there’s not a lot they can do with it to begin with. The Stallions chose to use their time by recognizing that there are fans of every school in Utah in attendance. They showed a collection of highlights on the video from several great football players in the history of BYU, Utah, and Utah State.
The BYU package contained the highlights of all-time greats Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, and then for some inexplicable reason, Taysom Hill? In that group of four, one of those things is not like the other, one of those things doesn’t belong. Hint: it’s Taysom Hill. I don’t understand the love Taysom Hill gets in the slightest, he’s basically a worse version of Tim Tebow whose return ended up destroying Tanner Mangum’s development and sent the team backwards. Whatever, it was a great thing for Utah.
I feel the same way listening to people rave about how great Taysom Hill is on the Saints as Ben did when people freaked out about Lil Sebastian pic.twitter.com/DJoCOGAuGY— Ryan Larson (@RyanAndLarson) January 13, 2019
The Utah highlight package showed the likes of Steve Smith, Alex Smith, Eric Weddle, and finished with Devontae Booker. Surprisingly, it was Booker who elicited the largest cheer from the fans.
Utah State got some highlights of Bobby Wagner, so that was cool. He’s really good.
The Imagine Dragons, in their unending quest to be part of every sporting event ever, were the most frequently played artist over the PA system. The second most common was, more appropriately, Kanye West. The best use of Kanye West music was playing “No Church in the Wild” at the start of the game, because that song is one of the greatest pump-up songs of all time and great for any intense situation. The worst use of Kanye West was when a lady appeared to be doing the “Gangnam Style” dance to the tune of “Power”.
However, the two songs the fans got the most hyped, and the most ready to start selling their souls dancing for a few seconds of jumbotron fame were: “Shake It Off”, by Taylor Swift, and “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. People losing their minds to Taylor Swift wasn’t all that surprising because anyone who didn’t die before 2014 has heard “Shake It Off” at least 2,462 times by now. Also, the goal of the song is literally to get people to shake, so that’s to be expected.
As for “Sweet Caroline”, I think everyone just loves the opportunity to scream nonsensical noises (BA-BA-BA) while surrounded by strangers, without worrying about being judged. The problem with “Sweet Caroline” is nobody knows the words outside of the chorus, so everyone just sways awkwardly during the verses because they don’t know what to do until they can start screaming the chorus again.
At the end of the game, as the Salt Lake players were celebrating their first win in franchise history, they obviously wanted to play an anthem about winning, so naturally they chose “The Greatest Show”, from the movie, The Greatest Showman. Only in Utah, my friends. They’re definitely embracing the culture of what type of music gets their fans really excited. I respect it.
I didn’t witness the TV broadcast because I was at the game, but based on this video, it seems like things went well.
Failure to shut off a microphone notwithstanding, after one game in Salt Lake City, it looks like the AAF has some staying power. After the game, all the players and coaches were optimistic about the league and its future during interviews. There’s a clear mission statement from the league, the AAF wants to support the NFL as a feeder system similar to minor league baseball, not compete with the NFL. They have players who are buying in with the chance to reach or return to the NFL. The competition is good, and the league is well organized. So far, television ratings have been very positive for the AAF.
There are some things that will need to improve still. The league, and Salt Lake specifically, are going to want more fans in the seats. The league needs fans to have more access to stats and game results as there’s no clear place to go for AAF news and statistics right now. They also have a degree of financial uncertainty, both in the present and the future. The NFL clearly supports the league, which is a huge asset. If the NFL will buy in financially, the AAF will have a great chance at being a long-term success.
It’s hard not to feel like the AAF will be around for a while, and at the very least, longer than the disastrous XFL was. The league has made a smart decision to make it about the fan’s experience. The games are fun to attend, the product on the field is good, and the rule changes keep the game at manageable lengths for more causal fans. The best part of all? The league is giving us more football to watch. That alone is a reason to keep the AAF around as long as possible.