FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's not just players such as Kurt Warner who used the Arena Football League as a steppingstone to the NFL. The indoor circuit also was a training ground for many referees on their way up, and a place for them to keep their skills sharp in the offseason after they got there.
The Arena League shut down this week, giving up after a year on the sidelines when it couldn't figure out a way to make money.
Players and executives throughout football lamented the demise of the 8-on-8 NFL offshoot that propelled Warner to the Super Bowl MVP and turned John Elway and Jon Bon Jovi into owners.
But the AFL also will be missed by referees, who used their time indoors to hone their skills and get discovered by NFL scouts.
"It's a shame," said Ed Camp, a linesman in his 10th year in the NFL. "They always say the more snaps you see, the better you're going to be. That was another opportunity."
Baseball and hockey have their minor leagues, where teams can develop players while stocking the rosters in small towns that could never support a major league club. The NBA started its developmental league in 2001 for players who were done with college but not ready for the NBA.
Although football has never had a formal minor league for players, the NFL took over the Arena League's officiating program in 2001 so that referees, at least, would have a clearer path to the top.
"Direct supervision of this program will allow the NFL to track the progress of new officials ascending through the ranks," the NFL said in an overview of the program. "This program will allow officials to work more games and will accelerate their development."
An NFL spokesman could not immediately say how many of the league's officials had worked in the Arena League. But of the five officials in Foxborough on Wednesday for the New England Patriots' training camp, three had worked in the AFL or its offshoot, af2.
Umpire Paul King said the indoor league's shorter and narrower field, designed to fit into basketball and hockey arenas, made things move quickly -- and the officials had to react.
"The speed of the game was beneficial for those quick reflexes you need on the field," said King, who was part of an NFL officiating crew in Foxborough on Wednesday to work the New England Patriots' training camp. "It was a great opportunity for officials."
NFL officiating is considered part-time work, and many of the men who wear stripes on Sundays are wearing pinstripes during the week as teachers, businessmen or priests. Some also keep busy by working college games or minor pro leagues such as NFL Europe, the AFL or its offshoot, af2.
NFL Europe, later known as NFL Europa, closed its doors in 2007 after 16 years. The Arena League suspended play for 2009, saying owners hoped to restructure and work out a new deal with the players that would allow it to be profitable next year. The league said this spring that it had a new collective bargaining agreement with the players and that it was working on a new TV deal with ESPN.
But this week, the Georgia Force posted on their Web site a note that said: "On August 4, 2009, the Arena Football League announced it was suspending operations, effective immediately. As a result, the Georgia Force will cease operations." The Philadelphia Soul, the defending ArenaBowl champions owned in part by Bon Jovi, left a note on their Web site thanking fans for five years of support.
ESPN said its broadcast deal with the AFL had been terminated.
The league has yet to publicly confirm its demise. But in a statement sent to teams on Tuesday night, it said it was suspending operations.
King, who had worked in both the Arena League and NFL Europe, said he hadn't been on a field since December and it felt odd to have the spring off for the first time in a long time. On the other hand: "I got to see my family in the spring," he said.
The NFL officials at training camp on Wednesday noted that referees will still be able to come up through the ranks in college, though fewer games will mean fewer chances. King also said that college conferences have different expectations from officials than the NFL in terms of where to stand and what to watch for -- not to mention the different rules they have to adjust to at each level.
"Coming from a college conference, it makes for a tougher transition," he said. "There should be some developmental program for officials to keep working."
Both King and Camp said they didn't think the quality of officiating in the NFL would suffer. Instead, it would hurt the officials themselves in their personal development and their chances for advancement.
"That was a big opportunity to get scouted and go under the grading system you're going to get from the league," Camp said. "It opened our eyes to what would be expected of us."