Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Football frenzy: Friday Night Lights in Los Alamitos

Stop by Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos, California, on a Friday night in the spring or the fall and you'll see a field blanketed by kids in colorful uniforms playing flag football.

As many as 17 games might be going on simultaneously. The sound of referees' whistles and of coaches shouting instructions will come in bursts from different directions. A touchdown, or other big play, will prompt an eruption of cheering from parents.

This is Friday Night Lights, a flag football league that has grown wildly since its birth in 2006. The fall 2013 league in Los Alamitos involved some 1,600 boys and girls (mostly boys) in kindergarten through 8th grade. 

The league has become so popular that in recent years it has branched out to start play at seven other locations in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.

Friday Night Lights is no small-time volunteer-run sports league. The league took in nearly $1.9 million in revenue in 2012 an 80% increase over the previous year and $414,000 of that went to compensate the organization's officers and commissioners. One league commissioner was paid nearly $120,000 in 2012 (see "Inside the budget: Friday Night Lights of Los Alamitos").

FNL flag football is a six-versus-six "non-contact" game where no tackling or blocking is allowed. Each team has eight players and all players have to play at least three quarters of each game.

Games last about 45-50 minutes, and teams get about eight games in a regular season. Playoffs can add on another one to six games.

Should you sign up your son or daughter for FNL? There are various things to consider.

Registration for Los Alamitos FNL is $200. If your team doesn't get a sponsor, you may have to split that cost with the other families so figure about another $35. Also, you may have to pay for shorts ($15) for your player; the registration fee only includes a jersey.

This seems a little high to me for this sort of league. An American Youth Soccer Organization league in nearby Long Beach charges $105 to $150 for a similar season, plus another possible $20 to $25 per player for the sponsor fee.

Still, the fact that Friday Night Lights seems to sell out every season indicates that many parents find the price worth it. Indeed, a lot of families love FNL. The competition can be exciting and it is, of course, a thrill to see your child make a touchdown or grab a big interception.

With just one practice and one game a week, there's not a huge time commitment and it does leave your Saturdays and Sundays free.

If you think your child might be playing contact football someday, FNL's volunteer coaches can help them learn some of the fundamentals of passing, catching, taking a handoff and playing defense.

That said, FNL Los Alamitos has some negatives, one of which will be obvious the first time you try to attend a game: The parking situation is horrible. If you sign up for FNL, resign yourself to some frustrating moments circling a parking lot and muttering profanities under your breath as you hunt for an empty space.

League organizers are aware of the parking problems and have worked to get additional parking lots available nearby. But, strangely, the one step they haven't taken is probably the one thing that would have the biggest impact: Reduce the size of the league.

Los Alamitos FNL has about 200 teams cutting that by, say, 10% might relieve the parking crunch. I'm sure organizers would say they're reluctant to do that because they want to give as many kids a chance to play as possible, but choices have to be made when families are stuck idling in the parking lot rather than watching their child play. (Also, 20 fewer teams would mean at least $32,000 in lost revenue for the league, not a minor consideration.)

Perhaps a more serious mark against Friday Night Lights is that it shows little interest in balancing teams. Competition at any level of sport is more fun if teams are evenly matched, but in FNL coaches are allowed to assemble teams of the best players and build powerhouses. New coaches tend to get the players who are left over. This results in some ugly blowouts.

In the fall 2013 regular season, for example, one team crushed its opponents by a combined score of 302-24. Another team ended with a 205-13 point margin. On the other side of the coin were teams that essentially had no chance from the start. One team was outscored 269-12 over the season.

There are some other minor irritants in FNL:

The reffing can be inconsistent and sloppy (the officials often lose track of what down it is), an inevitable result of having refs do four or five games back to back.

Some of the fields are squeezed so tightly together that spectators facing one direction are rubbing elbows with others looking the opposite way to the neighboring game. Games are scheduled so tightly that players and parents are hurried away as soon as one game ends, so the next can begin.

As the evening wears on, some of the chalk lines marking the perimeter of each field often become completely wiped away by the many footsteps of players and coaches. This can cause confusion, and sometimes controversy, when players and referees can't tell where out of bounds is.

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