When the first-ever Arena Football League game in Baltimore kicked off Sunday afternoon, there were not many inside Royal Farms Arena to see it. When it ended nearly three hours later, those among the announced 5,915 who had come, and who had stayed, could say they'd at least seen a good game.
A back-and-forth, down-to-the-last-minute matinee between the league's oldest existing franchise and one of its two newest ended in a 62-55 win for the Tampa Bay Storm (3-1) over the Baltimore Brigade (1-3). It was the kind of game advertised when the franchise formed in November: high scores, loud music, a combined 75 pass attempts and seven carries, more video game than something seen in "NFL Films Presents."
It was also, most saliently, a defeat. Brigade wide receiver Paul Browning's third touchdown catch, a go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter, was one-upped with five seconds remaining when Tampa Bay's Lamark Brown caught a 3-yard pass in the end zone. The novelty of the afternoon — the sights, the sounds, the attempt to comprehend why a team would (smartly) attempt an onside kick while leading in the final minute — was reduced to a footnote.
"It was a great atmosphere," Brigade coach Omarr Smith said. "As far as the game's concerned, very unhappy with our execution, our attention to detail."
On the field, what was old to Smith — handcuffed by injuries and a midgame ejection, the Brigade continued their struggle for respect in the five-team league — was new to almost everyone else.
Fans clapped and gasped and groaned as the unfamiliar action, held in a venue more accustomed to Blast indoor-soccer games, played out before them. The Brigade will have to wait until at least May 27, against the Cleveland Gladiators, for their first AFL victory within city limits, but the man who brought the team to Baltimore sees promise where other second-tier football franchises have failed.
Ted Leonsis had spent the night before watching the Washington Capitals avoid season-ending misery. On Sunday, the Monumental Sports & Entertainment owner was in Baltimore, wearing a Brigade sweater, to take in the start of something new.
"I really am doing everything I can to get the league relaunched," Leonsis said of the AFL pregame, leaning against a stage behind one of the end zones. "I really think that arena football has unbelievable potential to reach young kids. They just want to be exposed to lots of action, and traditional football, while it's the No. 1 sport, there's just not a lot of action in it."
Behind him, in the "Brigade Fun Zone," was the other entertainment. It was like a mix of after-prom activities and boardwalk sideshows.
Brigade cheerleaders were offering signatures. Fans tried to throw footballs through holes on a Brigade-branded inflatable. Others posed for photos with Brigade footballs and helmets in front of a green screen as images were superimposed onto the background. One man sat still on a chair, like a statue, as a caricaturist drew an exaggerated portrait. A radio DJ blasted top-40 hits over the public-address system. There was even a game of cornhole going on.
It was an intimacy unfamiliar to games featuring the city's other professional football team. There were some operational errors, sure — the gameday host, in her pregame introductions, welcomed fans to "American Football League" action — but the fans who did show up could not have mistaken the atmosphere for any other sport's.
During one timeout, a young fan kicked a short field goal for a prize. As he came off the field and the Brigade came on, he got low-fives from players. The crowd roared at the prospect of free T-shirts being thrown into the stands. One Storm wide receiver toppled over the dasher boards and into some seats, empty though they were, as he tried unsuccessfully to hold on to a pass.
"This is something a little different," said Renate Buttrum, 51, of Eldersburg. "It's something new."
She smiled as she stood next to her husband, Joe, 51, at halftime. Together they embodied the Brigade's target customer base: What money they spend on entertainment, they spend on sports, from the Orioles to the Capitals. When they heard the Brigade were coming to town, they bought tickets. When Renate told friends and coworkers she was going to the game, they seemed interested.
But others, Joe said, were more caught off guard: "Really, Baltimore has arena football?" The franchise has existed for less than half a year, after all. That Royal Farms Arena could even host the game Sunday, when it didn't have a suitable turf field until last month, was an achievement unto itself.
Leonsis said he was "hopeful" that the game would be the first in a history with a "a lot of — a lot of — seasons for it." He also acknowledged that the obstacles were more structural than a matter of amassing talent in Baltimore.
The building, he said, is "older"; the fan base, "skeptical." Even as Royal Farms Arena pulsed in the final minute, bringing fans to their feet, a panorama of the lower bowl would not have made for good promotional material. Rows of empty seats raised an obvious question: Where are the other fans?
The answer, or part of it, was less than a mile away. The Orioles were playing the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards, and it was Little League Day.