KISS ’Em Goodbye: The End of LA’s Arena Football Team

Before the Rams drafted Jared Goff, starred in HBO’s Hard Knocks, and returned to the fabled Coliseum, there was just one professional football team in town, and that was the LA KISS of the Arena Football League.

Last week, however, after just three uneventful seasons, Gene Simmons’ and Paul Stanley’s pyrotechnic gridiron experiment, “faced with dwindling attendance and concerns about the league’s viability” according to the Orange County Register, came to an abrupt and unheralded end.

In April, at the start of the AFL’s 29th season, I requested press access to the team’s second home game, a nationally-televised matchup with the Arizona Rattlers, five-time ArenaBowl champions. I asked a friend and native Angeleno if he wanted to join. He said, “No, I’ve been. It’s only fun once.”

I’m pretty sure he was referring to Los Angeles’ previous arena football team, the Avengers, but still it was a fair warning that I probably should have heeded. He wasn’t alone:

Nick
hahahhhahahhahaha
I didn’t realize Arena football was still a thing
Me
it is
Nick
XFL webpage is ridiculous btw

Or this one, from my girlfriend:

Alex
omg i actually have constantly been thinking when you say arena football that you were being pretentious and calling soccer football
and i was fine with that
i didn’t know it was FOOTBALL

In the end, I went alone. Whether it was on a lark, or on a mission, I had my camera and notepad in hand, ready to experience the psycho circus in Anaheim. After the smoke had cleared and the final scores were tallied, I was at a loss to find a story worth telling in the wreckage. It seems that now an obituary is as good of a reason as any to finish it.

An average LA KISS player's pre-game entrance. (Photo by Justin Hargett)
An average LA KISS player entrance.

***

Saturday, April 9, 2016

I arrived exactly two hours before the 8:05 p.m. kickoff. The first thing I noticed about the Honda Center on an LA KISS game night was that the Pick Up Stix kiosk was closed. Actually, half of the concession stands were shuttered because of the projected crowd size. Wahoo’s Fish Tacos would have to suffice for a quick dinner instead.

On the arena floor—a grayish rink-shaped carpet, adorned in flames and guitar picks—players and coaches warmed up in street clothes, tossing footballs back and forth across the 66-yard field, while fans slowly trickled inside to take their seats. The week before, I was told, more than 4,000 fans attended the season’s opening game in the 18,000+ capacity arena; tonight’s expectations were higher because single game tickets admitted two fans.

Six days from that night the Honda Center would be sold out and over capacity as its primary tenant, the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, hosted Game 1 of their first round playoff matchup against the Nashville Predators. But tonight’s KISS crowd would remain sparse. Nearly all of the 12,000 seats in the upper bowl were empty. The announced attendance (6,427) was well below the league’s average, even though ESPN2’s cameras disguised it well on broadcast. I never shook the nostalgic feeling that I was attending one of the minor league hockey games of my youth in Wheeling, WV.

dsc_0991
Arizona Rattlers wide receiver Amos Anthony breaks a few KISS tackles. (Photo by Justin Hargett)

What the home team’s fans lacked in numbers they more than made up for in KISS Army paraphernalia. Surely as the Demon and the Starchild drew it up, the band’s fans were indistinguishable from the team’s, because what football fan doesn’t wanna rock and roll all night and party every day? (Except maybe for these ones.)

Down in press catering, where the pretzels were stale and the cola RC, I was greeted by two photographers from California Rock News, here to shoot the “LA KISS House Band” (aka The Parasites), as well as the team’s beat writer and photographer from the Orange County Register.

A KISS football game, like the very concept of arena football itself, is rooted in spectacle. The AFL’s short field, eight-man lineups, and loosened rulebook encourage scoring, and hypothetically, more fun. Unique to the KISS franchise, every game also features a mini rock concert beforehand and during halftime. Set up just behind the endzone, and next to Simmons’ personal box, the four-piece rockers ticked off one Zeppelin/Sabbath/ACDC smasher after another, but the arena remained indifferent. There were also enough pre-game pyrotechnics inside to give a few thousand fans black lung. The haze didn’t clear until midway through the first quarter.

If the band, the fire, and the sparklers weren’t enough for your ADD-raddled brain to consume, there was still even more left to enjoy, including a few routines from the LA KISS Girls and an epically SoCal halftime show that featured BMXers and a ramp.

LA KISS quarterback Nathan Stanley in the pocket.
LA KISS quarterback Nathan Stanley in the pocket. (Photo by Justin Hargett)

***

Despite the lampoonable, dad-rock spectacle, a professional sport was still the night’s drawing attraction, and ultimately—given the abrupt nature of the franchise’s demise—that seems to me the most important part of this LA KISS story (in this version of it at least).

In hindsight, an AFL game feels a lot like watching Last Chance U, the Netflix documentary about the East Mississippi Community College football team whose players compete for an opportunity to transfer to a Division 1 NCAA program and potentially a pro career. For athletes in the AFL (and its Canadian counterpart), their play might lead to the NFL, or it could just be the final off-ramp of a career in the game.

For the 24 men on each roster and their stable of coaches, this week two match-up was still a job—at $830/game, a part-time one at that—and one more chance to showcase their talents to a higher power.

The Rattlers huddle just before scoring one of their ten touchdowns. (Photo by Justin Hargett)
The Rattlers huddle just before scoring one of their ten touchdowns. (Photo by Justin Hargett)

If you’re at all familiar with arena football, you probably know two things: that the field is small and the scores are high. I’m here to confirm that this is all true. The Rattlers winning reputation was well deserved. With the help of three interceptions and three turnovers on downs, Arizona scored 69 points to the KISS’ 28. The Rattlers scored on every drive but one, and quarterback Nick Davila completed 20 of 26 passes, including two over 30 yards, and five for touchdowns. Post-game, it sounded like a pretty good night in the visiting team’s locker room.

The KISS, unfortunately, brought a traditional football score to an arena football game. Their 28 points were highlighted by a solid performance from their now-retired team captain and AFL-lifer, Donovan Morgan, who scored three of the team’s four touchdowns. Nathan Stanley, however, had a miserable night in the pocket, throwing a staggering 23 incompletions.

I never thought a game with so many touchdowns could be so boring, but I found myself, more often than not, mesmerized by the fleet footwork of the ESPN2 cameraman and his cord-managing assistant, who shared the walled-in field with the players, referees, and both head coaches. It was a miracle nobody tripped over the camera cable.

An intermission in play. (Photo by Justin Hargett)
An intermission in play. (Photo by Justin Hargett)

As the fourth quarter wound down, I began to notice that after any football left the field of play the PA would exclaim: “You can keep that ball!” Surely a bid to entice fans to come again, the proclamation lost its intended effect with each additional telling. How many did they give away? Five, or ten? I couldn’t say.

After the game, KISS head coach Omarr Smith gave his obligatory press conference. There were a few uninspired questions—of which I regretfully contributed none—and the festivities wrapped as his disappointment and anger seethed over into the gathered corps.

Eventually, the KISS finished the season with seven wins and eight losses and—like all AFL teams this season—advanced to the postseason, losing their first-ever playoff game to the Cleveland Gladiators by just four points. The Rattlers reached yet another ArenaBowl, but lost to the underdogs from Philadelphia. Unlike the KISS, their organization has decided to take its talents to a rival league for next season.

Today, the AFL is on the verge of collapse again. In 2009, the league preemptively cancelled its season, and now the Rattlers and the KISS are the fourth and fifth teams to bow out this week. Just five teams, including an expansion franchise opening up in Washington, D.C., are contracted to play out the 2017 season.

Last year, beneath all of the make-up and the distractions disguised as entertainment, the LA KISS played something resembling football in Southern California. Eight of their players were selected in last week’s AFL disbursement draft, and once again, there is only one professional football team in Los Angeles.

dsc_0862
KISS wide receiver DJ Stephens kneels in the end zone just before a kick-off return. (Photo by Justin Hargett)
Tags from the story
Written By

Justin Hargett is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Eephus, and the host of The Big Game podcast.