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Arts & Entertainment

Blazing Start

Now past its first year, Utah’s arena football franchise builds a following.

By Geoff Griffin
Posted // June 11,2007 -

There’s a professional sports team that plays in the arena formerly known as the Delta Center. The franchise is owned by a local automobile dealer. The squad scores points by the dozens and plays in front of crowds of more than 10,000 fans wearing team jerseys, hats and T-shirts. It’s a team that bills itself as being from Utah and has a Z in its nickname. And it’s not the Utah Jazz.

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Meet the Utah Blaze, the surprisingly successful franchise of the Arena Football League that has drawn large crowds while largely flying under the media radar when compared with Salt Lake City’s other professional sports teams. The Blaze got off to a roaring start last season by leading the AFL in attendance at 15,498 per game. The Ken Garff Automotive Group'which owns the franchise'did a marvelous job, compared with Dave Checketts and Larry Miller, of staying out of the headlines and selling season-ticket packages to local businesses. This season, the top five levels of the 11 different types of tickets available are sold out for the season. Anyone hanging around The Gateway on game nights last spring could see throngs of people walking around in Blaze gear. Best of all, the team wasn’t threatening to leave town if it didn’t get an infusion of tax dollars.

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Most sports franchises do well in their inaugural season, then see attendance figures drop in the years that follow as their novelty wears off. For 2007, the Blaze are averaging 13,454 for their first two home dates'still above the league average for the last two years, but well below last year’s team figures. However, it’s also important to put that average of 13,454 in context when compared with how well other local sporting events are drawing. University of Utah basketball drew fewer than 10,000 per game in its recent disaster of a season. While BYU fans turned out in droves to watch their men’s basketball conference champions this year, the 2005-06 season saw an average of just over 11,000 fans per game at the Marriott Center. Attendance of 14,222 at the Blaze opener for their second-season would have outdrawn Real Salt Lake’s second-season attendance figures for five home dates in 2006, and been within a few hundred of matching the soccer team on three other occasions. The Blaze'in many ways a minor-league football team'draw more than twice as many spectators as the Salt Lake Bees AAA baseball team.

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It remains to be seen if the Blaze can hang on to their attendance base as season No. 2 progresses, but if they do, it will be in part because the AFL'which is the only league with a fans’ bill of rights'amplifies everything there is to love about football while suppressing the boring parts. There are no grind-it-out, control-the-clock, Bill Parcells-style games in the Arena League. Games aren’t dragged out to an instant replay-delayed, TV timeout-filled four hours in length. There are no contests that focus on “field position.” Punting is illegal; the coach always has to go for some form of a score on fourth down.

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The indoor game is a pass-happy free-for-all where going to get a hot dog can result in missing three touchdowns. In a recent win over Las Vegas, Utah ran the ball just four times while Blaze quarterback Joe Germaine threw the ball 35 times and ended up with seven touchdown passes. That’s pretty much an average day for him, as the Blaze averaged 58 points per game through their first five contests.

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Arena football also has the wacky feel of getting a group of friends together for a Thanksgiving-day pickup game at the local sandlot. There are just eight men per side and limits on who can blitz; only one receiver can be running forward at the snap. And, just like you could play the bounce off the garage when you were in your friend’s back yard as a kid, the ball is still in play when it takes unpredictable caroms off nets located at either end of an Arena League field.

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The Blaze also make their weekly contests an “event” by hosting entertainment and get-togethers before and after the game. The team is made up of guys you’ve kind of heard of from their college days or brief stints in the NFL, so the Blaze substitute star power for access to the players.

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The team offers football fanatics a few more months a year to indulge in their religion/passion/addiction. While the Jazz are clearly the kings of local professional sports, the fact that thousands of people are willing to watch the gridiron game played indoors in spring and summer indicates that, in the overall scheme of things, maybe Salt Lake City is a football town after all.

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UTAH BLAZE VS. LOS ANGELES AVENGERS
nEnergySolutions Arena
n301 W. South Temple
nFriday, April 13
n7 p.m.
nTickets: 257-3111
nUtahBlaze.com

 
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