The Story of the Foster Trophy
To wrap up a great 2016 season, the top two teams in the Arena Football League will battle in ArenaBowl XXIX. Whichever team reigns triumphant will hoist the Foster Trophy on August 26th.
Who is James F. Foster? He is the man behind the AFL's most coveted prize and the only living representative of a trophy in any professional sport.
The story of the man is the story of how Arena Football came to be. But it is not just about an idea. It is a string of events spanning six years that fell in succession at the right times to pave the way for a new brand of fan-friendly football, as though by fate.
In 1981, Foster was the Promotion Manager for the National Football League's marketing group, NFL Properties. On Feb. 11, He attended the All-Star Game of the Major Indoor Soccer League at Madison Square garden with NFL colleague Mark Fagan.
"I've always been a fairly creative person since I was a kid," Foster said. "You come up with a lot of ideas, and some of them are potentially good ones, and some of them are probably a little off-the-wall."
While watching the game, one of those ideas popped into his head. But it didn't involve teams, league operations, or any other fine details. According to Foster, it was much more casual.
"I bet if you could play soccer indoors, you could play football," Foster told Fagan, nonchalantly.
Fagan was intrigued. He looked down at the action below and looked back at Foster. "Well, how would you do it?"
Foster took one another look at the indoor soccer field and went for his briefcase. Inside, he had the now famous 9" x 12" manila envelope Arena Football fans know today as "The Envelope." Foster drew on the envelope for a few minutes, putting skinny goal posts in between nets in the end zones with 7-on-7 (which would later be changed to 8-on-8) football at mid-field, Fagan peering over his shoulder every once in awhile to check his progress. Foster added multiple notes to the margins of the envelope as an ongoing dialogue began with Foster answering Fagan's questions. After about a half hour, the envelope had become a base to work with, rules on the side included.
This is the part of the story Arena fans know by heart. But what happened in those six years before opening kickoff of the inaugural 1987 AFL season? Life is what happens to us when we're making other plans, so the famous Allen Saunders goes.
The day after the All-Star game, Foster walked into work at the NFL offices, and Fagan was already telling their coworkers about Foster's idea. Foster was caught off-guard by the conversation.
"It was still just an idea at that point," Foster recalled. "That's all it was. It was an envelope in my briefcase. It hadn't gone anywhere."
Foster pulled out the envelope and started showing them his ideas, and his colleagues followed along and responded approvingly. Foster was still somewhat unsure about the idea until a friend of his from an advertising agency named John Geohegan, who knew of the idea and liked it, showed up in his office a few weeks later and pulled out a black portfolio.
"Jim, I've got something for you," Geohegan said.
Inside the portfolio was a 3-foot-by-4-foot rendering, modeled after Foster's own drawings, complete with goal-side nets and skinny goal posts between the nets in the end zones and a crowd surrounding the playing field. With detailed sketching and colored markers, Geohegan had extracted Foster's idea from his brain and put it to canvas.
"It was very emotional for me," Foster said. "It was in my mind, I could visualize it, but he had brought it to life. Next to the envelope, in my mind, it's probably one of the founding pieces of the [Arena Football] League."
Some of Foster's coworkers came in to marvel at the artwork and could suddenly see what Foster saw in Madison Square Garden that night, and they became even more intrigued at the thought of playing football indoors. Maybe this was one of his good ideas, Foster thought to himself.
For the next year, when Foster had vacation time, he would go to his home in Connecticut and iron out the logistics: Business plan, tightening of the rules, overview of how the game could be put together. Fortunately, his previous successful experience working with minor league football teams in Iowa, where one needed to build from the ground up instead of many major leagues who built from the top down, allowed his to-do list to on the right track.
The one obstacle Foster knew he would need if he ever actually launched the new sport was television. Luckily, a close friend in the ad agency business named Brad Barton had the television connections could make that possible. He landed Foster a meeting with top brass at ESPN. Armed with his executive summary, Geohegan's artwork and an idea for indoor football in the summer, he made his pitch. ESPN wanted expressed serious interest in broadcasting if the game became a reality. He had a separate meeting with NBC Sports, and they offered him a contract to produce a test game, which would be shown nationally to gauge fan interest.
Six months after signing the contract with NBC in 1982, the United States Football League announced they were bringing spring football in 1983, putting Foster's idea of indoor football on hold.
Instead, Foster answered a call from the USFL that led him to leave his dream job in the NFL to become assistant general manager of the Arizona Wranglers of the USFL.
"I thought that leaving the NFL might be worth it," Foster said, "because it would put me in on the ground floor of developing a new team in a new league, and that would be good experience for me should the opportunity come about to do Arena Football."
Foster spent the 1983 USFL season doing everything except football operations for the Wranglers. Looking back, he refers to that team as his Arena Football "laboratory," where his innovative marketing strategies ranked the Wranglers third in the league in attendance. However, he worried the league may not have the sustainability to last long-term.
One year later, Foster moved to a similar position with the Chicago Blitz because he felt either Chicago or New York would be the best place to launch Arena Football. When the USFL announced they were moving to the fall the next season, Foster felt if he was going to make Arena Football work, this was his chance. He moved on from the USFL to the Chicago Sting indoor soccer team, gaining valuable experience working with arenas for the first time to refine his dream even further.
As he got situated in his marketing role, he developed a friendship with Sting general manager, Doug Verb. One night, the two were talking and Verb asked Foster about his long-term plans. Foster pulled out his file on Arena Football, and Verb, who was fascinated by the idea, called Doug Logan, then the building manager at the Rockford Metro Center in Rockford, Ill., and helped set up practices and evaluation sessions that led to the first test game of Arena Football on April 26, 1986. Complete with coaches, uniforms, and former minor league and USFL players, they played a full game in front of 1,300 people. Foster had the game videotaped.
The game was a big hit, receiving press coverage from the Sporting News and ESPN, and an official market research study fan audit from the Pacific Select sports marketing firm revealed 70 percent of fans marked the game "Very Entertaining" and zero percent marked the game "Boring." The fans went nuts early in the game when a player caught a missed field goal off the net and ran it over 50 yards for a touchdown. It was the first time football fans had seen a play like that happen.
"People loved it because you're inside, it was exciting, you're close to the action with lots of speed and hitting; all of the things that make Arena Football a great product stood out to them," Foster said.
All of the hype from the first game led to a second "Showcase" game on February 26, 1987 at the Chicago Rosemont Horizon in front of 8,200 people (FUN FACT: Cleveland Gladiators head coach Steve Thonn made his Arena Football debut in this game before joining the league as a player in 1988). With another successful showing in one of the nation's largest sports markets, the Arena Football League launched their inaugural 1987 season after receiving a contract from ESPN and several major presenting sponsors. The AFL's ratings that first season doubled that of the established National Hockey League, which was just finishing its first season on ESPN. Arena Football has captivated audiences ever since.
"Without ESPN, I don't think we would have gotten off the ground completely," Foster said.
In 1992, the AFL honored Foster by putting his name on the ArenaBowl trophy. They unveiled a new design for the James F. Foster Trophy in 2004 with the words Character, Commitment, Excellence and Teamwork inscribed around the column.
Some people may call it chance or a happy accident, but the circumstances surrounding Foster's crazy idea that led Arena Football to become the longest running football league since the NFL makes him proud to this day.
"God has a plan, and I look back and think it's amazing how all of these things wired together to get the game to a point where it can succeed. It took a lot of people from the very beginning in Madison Square Garden with Mark Fagan, John Geohegan, Brad Barton, and Doug Verb, as well as expert football minds like Ray Jauch, Mouse Davis and other dedicated believers, who helped shape and successfully launch the league."
The Gladiators will face the Los Angeles KISS in the first round of the AFL Postseason this Sunday night at 6 PM. Listen live on 92.3 The Fan FM or watch on ESPN3.