Upcoming arena football league plants flag in Bakersfield amid uncertain circumstances

·5 min read

Sep. 15—Saturday was supposed to be a banner day for West Coast Arena Football. The California-based low-level arena football league had been planning a long-awaited exhibition game that would introduce a new local team, the Pantheons, to Bakersfield and beyond.

But in all its marketing materials and fundraising, the league didn't advertise a venue for these inaugural games. Commissioner Todd Watson said the WCAF had discussions with Mechanics Bank Arena, but didn't want to announce a site for sure amid rising COVID-19 cases. Sure enough, on Sept. 8 the league officially announced its plans to postpone the event.

It's another delay in the quest to bring indoor football back to Bakersfield, former home of the af2's Bakersfield Blitz and current host of an arena-based high school all-star game.

Don't be fooled by social media profiles that just call them the "Pantheons"; the team will be Bakersfield's. (Mechanics Bank Arena confirmed to The Californian that the facility has talked informally with the league about hosting games, a relationship that can become official when the WCAF is ready to kick off.) The team's location is obscured as part of an ambitious branding tactic, president of football operations Michael Greer said.

"As a business plan, what we're trying to do is capture national and international sponsors as well as people that want to be involved in our company," he said, noting that they don't want a possible out-of-state partner to get "bent out of shape" by the league's Californian home base.

The league will feature teams in markets like Fresno and Stockton, with local players, who Greer said will earn $175 per game and California worker's compensation, gathered from a 65-mile radius around home facilities.

"Bakersfield was actually a spot (where) there was a lot of interest," Watson said, "and that actually had very little entertainment options."

Greer is responsible for recruiting players and coaches. His resume features an alphabet soup of past lower-level football leagues: NSFL, UNGL, NIFL and more. The line he cites most is his years with the San Jose Sabercats, who he said influenced the fast-paced playstyle he wants to bring to the WCAF and combine with modern run-pass option concepts.

He noted that the NFL siphons off a tiny fraction of college football players around the country: "about 365 guys, out of 22, 26, 27 thousand." So far, the WCAF has hosted two combines, with 62 players at the first and 52 at the second, Greer said.

The league is now shooting for exhibitions in October and February and a spring 2022 start, and Watson said he expects player recruitment to be easier next year. This year, many college players stayed an extra year due to COVID-19.

"As we conclude the 2021 football season," he said, "that's when that plethora of players is going to come out, and they're going to be looking for a home, and we're going to be ready for them."

Anthony Bartley, slated to serve as the Pantheons' coach, has been keeping up with the combines from afar. He said he would like to handpick players who share his aggressive mindset.

But Bartley, a former football player in Germany who has "racked up frequent flyer miles" in the arena football world, said he values stability in league management and still has a lot left to learn about the WCAF before he arrives in Bakersfield. Bartley left the Reno Express of the America West Football Conference after what he called a "mutiny."

"I've seen the good and the bad and everything in between," Bartley said. "I'm not going to do anything that's going to put myself in jeopardy, nor am I going to go out and misrepresent something that's going to be positive either."

WCAF marketing, which calls the league "The Game for Millennials," doesn't always elaborate on the league's goals. In one mission statement the league alludes to both unique "music entertainment" — as it turns out, what leadership hopes will be an "American Idol-ish" halftime show featuring artists on the rise — and an emphasis on education, which includes having "partnered with a major university."

As it turns out, WCAF has ties in the world of higher learning through its connection with DeVry University, which Watson calls "part of our league structure."

DeVry, an Illinois-based for-profit institution, was initially going to supply interns to the WCAF. Now, not only does half the staff (including Watson, an area manager for AT&T by day) come from DeVry as graduates or students, the league has a partnership by which the school will supply scholarships to WCAF players to help them earn degrees.

"They can pick any of our degree programs," DeVry account manager (and WCAF video producer) Pierre Mikhail said, "West Coast Arena Football league would put in a certain amount of money, let's say it's $5,000 for example, and DeVry would match, in the form of a scholarship, the other $5,000."

Mikhail said he's worked on similar programs with other companies but not a sports league. He expects degrees in business or IT to be most popular.

Even if Bartley needs to settle some of the particulars, the coach, who worked with Greer previously, said he believes in Greer's ability to avoid instability and keep building the league up to its opening kickoff.

"He and I experienced a lot of turmoil when we were with the NIFL, so I know he doesn't want to reinvent that drama," he said. "I know he's got a good foundation, it's just a matter of now putting that frame together, getting that drywall up."

For Greer, the plan is straightforward enough.

"We're going to have great athletes on the floor, we're going to have great football, and we're going to follow through and do everything we said we're going to do," he said. "When leagues destroy themselves, it's because they try to do too much."

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.

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