A view from the passenger seat: Jacksonville Sharks arena football

Arena football takes entertainment (and football) to a whole new level 

My husband and I try to trade off what we do on weekends—one weekend we’ll go do something I especially like (cooking-gadget stores!); the next weekend we’ll do something he wants to do (military museums!). It’s how we handle the fact that our interests are totally incompatible; we both agree we can each tolerate a day doing something annoying in order to make the other one happy.

My son-in-law had the idea originally. He got a military discount on tickets to an arena football game in Jacksonville. He and my daughter went to a game and came home raving about how much fun it was. I’d never even heard of arena football. Aren’t football games already played in arenas? My daughter explained that the game is like football on crack—a fast-paced match-up of two football teams inside a hockey-rink-sized field that has field lines lined with padded walls. If a player touches the wall and is tagged by an opposing player, they’re out. Okay, so that sounds interesting.

My husband wanted to take in a game and I figured I’d tag along.

So we headed south to Jacksonville to see the Sharks play the New Orleans VooDoo at the 7:00 p.m. game. The promoters go all out and come up with a theme for every game night—ours was ’80s Night.

We passed a lot of high-end food and drink vendors on our way to our seats—my husband stopped for a $10 beer. “What the heck?” he shrugged happily. The indoor stadium filled pretty quickly—I was happy to see that the seats were really comfy and roomy. It was pretty cold, though—I was glad my daughter had advised me to take a jacket (even though I felt like an idiot walking through the parking lot carrying it in the 100-degree heat). Floridians do love their air-conditioning. The banner ads running along the walls and on the overhead scoreboard flashed for attention—you know you’re in the South when a football game is sponsored by St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Krispy Kreme Donuts.

I didn’t know what to expect, but my daughter told me that it would be loud, loud, loud. She wasn’t kidding. Sharks fans are a rowdy bunch—many brought their own noisemakers and quite a few took the ’80s Night theme very seriously. A few rows over from our seats a fan dressed like Cyndi Lauper (complete with green fish-net stockings) happily downed her PBR as she danced in the aisle with her Rick Springfield look-alike husband. I began to feel under-dressed.

The announcer on the P.A. had one purpose in life—get the crowd riled up. The players ran out on the field to lots of cheering, but the party really got started when “Chum,” the Sharks mascot (whose giant red costume bears an uncanny resemblance to Elmo from Sesame Street), buzzed around the field on a motor scooter and nearly clobbered his own team’s players. Apparently the ambulance parked inside the stadium was there to assist injured players who not only were hit by the opposing team, but also were run over by their own mascot.

The game started and, boy, is it fast-paced compared to regular football. I’m used to having lots of time to get snacks and find the restroom during an NFL game—but in arena football, there’s always something happening on the field. And they play music during the game! I was shocked—the announcer baits the crowd as the plays commence, imploring them to make more and more noise. A remote-controlled giant black shark balloon buzzes over the crowd, even stopping occasionally to let fans in the nose-bleed territory seats get an up-close view. The best part was when the DJ had the entire crowd singing along to “Don’t Stop Believing” and everyone started doing the wave.

This was fun!

Even if I didn’t understand what the heck was going on down on the field, I was totally entertained. The action on the field stops every so often and out comes a DJ who supervises football-throwing contests, singing competitions and light shows. I started to wonder how they were going to top themselves during half-time. My husband paid a little too much attention during the “Attack Dancers” routine when the ladies pranced out onto the field (scantily clad, of course) to perform for the crowd.

During the third quarter, the game was closely tied. The pace of the action on the field matched the energy level in the building—noise, noise, noise! The crowd leapt to its feet at one point when the DJ played “Y-M-C-A” by the Village People. I’d forgotten how everybody used to get into that (I’m showing my age here). I looked around and fans were laughing and waving their plastic shark dolls—the enthusiasm was palpable.

In the end, the VooDoos lost their mojo and lost to the Sharks. It was almost sad that a team had to lose. In fact, it was kind of a buzzkill. It seemed like both teams should dance off the field arm-in-arm as the crowd screamed their enthusiasm from the stands. We packed up and wandered back to our car, jostled by exhausted, but happy, fans who’d spent an evening forgetting their worries, laughing at silly ’80s music, dancing in the aisles and enjoying a new and improved version of the old classic game of football.

The Jacksonville Sharks and the San Jose Sabercats will square off in ArenaBowl XXVIII on Saturday, August 29, on ESPN. Kickoff from the Stockton Arena is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET. For tickets to regular season games, go to jaxsharks.com.