A few days before the team's inaugural game at the Royal Farms Arena, the Baltimore Brigade, the city's new Arena Football League franchise, held an open house at their new home.
Fans were invited to meet players, check out season ticket plans, walk the field, meet the Baltimore Brigade Dancers, and play games as jock jams blared through the speakers.
The team has installed a brand new turf field at Royal Farms Arena—it's got a nice bit of cushion to it. Splayed across the midfield is the Brigade logo: a dark blue pentagon with a large white 'B' inside it and a blue, white, and gray swath of color that looks like a water wave or triangular flag.
At each end of the field hang large rectangular steel frames that look like they were constructed out of discarded foul poles. Two of the poles, separated by nine feet, are the uprights for field goals. The other panels in the frame are covered with a net that receives kick offs.
While staffers in Brigade gear talk with potential ticket package buyers, people get a chance to mess around on the field throwing passes, racing each other, or, as one man did, pulling together the opening in the face mask of the giant inflatable Brigade helmet, getting down in a three-point stance, and pretending to burst through the face mask like it's a pair of tackle dummies.
It is at this open house that I meet George Frye. He stands out in the crowd of several dozen as the only one wearing a shirt for the Baltimore Mariners, the city's short-lived arena football team in the lesser-known, now-defunct American Indoor Football Association.
He's a Brigade season ticket holder.
The fast pace of play and the chance to sit right on top of the action are just two things he loves about it.
"I'm gonna be here from start to finish and I'm gonna be supporting the team," says Frye, 62, of Ellicott City. "And I hope to see some of our old fans."
While the AFL certainly has a long track record, dating back to 1987, and has had literal rock star owners in Jon Bon Jovi, Vince Neil, and the band KISS, the Brigade arrives in Baltimore as the league tries to rebuild itself. There are currently only five teams, down from eight last year, following several years of contraction. As recently as 2009, the AFL season was canceled to create a more viable economic model for the league.
But the Brigade have considerable clout in owner Ted Leonsis, who also counts NBA's Washington Wizards, NHL's Washington Capitals, and WNBA's Washington Mystics in his portfolio. He founded an expansion team in D.C., the Valor—part of the league's new strategy is to build up local rivalries.
"I can't wait for the Baltimore fans to witness firsthand the energy, athleticism and skill these players bring to the field," Leonsis writes on his blog. "Their games have been hard-hitting, action-packed and high scoring—the first win in team history was a 52-49 victory against the Cleveland Gladiators."
"It's fast, fun and affordable entertainment."
On May 7, the team and the city met for the very first time. And while the Brigade lost to the Tampa Bay Storm, 62-55, the announced crowd of 5,915 people getting their first taste of Brigade football seemed to buy in, getting louder and more intense as the game wore on.
Here are some things to know about attending a Brigade game:
Monumental Sports, Leonsis' network for his teams, runs a pretty slick production throughout the game, as evidenced by the numerous well-dressed staffers wearing headsets and carrying clipboards. The pregame intros were big-deal rock concert caliber, including fire and air canons that shot off as players ran through the aforementioned inflatable helmet.
Camera crews were all over the arena, capturing every element of the game from every angle.
There's an in-game "host" introducing different contests or games for fans during the stoppages of play. There's also an in-house DJ, Chris Styles, whose table informs me is "The Party Boy," spinning pump-up jams and getting on the mic to tell people to make noise or raise their hands. Styles mostly spins hip-hop, EDM, and club remixes of just about anything; He's big on Kendrick Lamar's 'Humble' and DMX, at one point remixing 'Party Up' to include the "Cash Me Ousside" girl.
There's also the Blue Crew, a group of younger people who will hold up signs with elements of the Brigade logo or, say, the flame emoji and pump them up and down to the beat of the music. They'll come during a couple breaks in the action to throw T-shirts in the crowd, too.
And there's a family fun area on the arena stage where people can pose for pictures in a photo booth, toss a football, or have their caricature drawn.
All of which is to say there's a lot going on beyond the football being played.
As for the game itself, the field is 50 yards long, but only 80 feet wide—or about a quarter of an NFL field. There's no running game to speak of, it's almost all passing: lots of little quick routes mixed in with some bombs here and there. Oh, and there's a player called "the motion man," a receiver that can start running his route in the backfield before the ball is snapped. Defensive stops are pretty much nil, which is how you arrive at a final score like 62-55.
It's kind of quirky, but it's still football, and this is still Baltimore.
Or as Derrell Johnson Sr., who was there watching his son, Derrell Jr., a Brigade quarterback, put it: "They love football, no matter what it is." (Johnson Jr. is a product of Cardinal Gibbons, by the way).
A great touchdown catch is still a great touchdown catch. A big hit is still a big hit. And as the crowd got more ensconced with what they were seeing, the cheers got louder. Styles wisely played a EDM-ified version of 'Seven Nation Army,' a favorite at M&T Bank Stadium and, well, a sports staple just about everywhere now. The crowd instinctively whipped up an "Ohhhh Oh-oh oh-oh oh" chant, and it, too, picked up decibels as the Brigade kept scoring. Fans waved giveaway towel's with the team's building-from-the-ground-up motto, "Brick by Brick," over their heads.
As the end of the fourth quarter approached, everyone got a lesson in arena football quirk. Up 55-54 with about a minute left in the game, the Brigade onside kicked. On a normal field, you'd kick the ball away and hope your defense would get a stop. Here, though, the onside kick was really the best way to get the ball back and run out the clock. The best outcome is recovering the ball, obviously, but failing that, the worst possible outcome is your opponent scores on a short field, gets the two-point conversion, and then your team drives down the field to win it.
Well, it didn't quite work out. Tampa recovered, milked the clock, scored a touchdown, and got the two-point conversion.
That didn't seem to matter to the fans, who happily lined up on the field after the game to get autographs from the players sitting at tables with name placards and a stack of posters.
At halftime, when the Brigade was down 34-20, I ran into Frye again. Like all other season ticket holders, he was wearing a gray #17 Brigade jersey with "Founding Fan" on the back.
Sure, the team was down two touchdowns. "But who cares?" he said. "I've got my shirt and I'm having fun."