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They liked the game, but not the lines

It didn't take Tampa Bay fans long to warm up to Arena Football. Once they got in the door, that is.

With a late-arriving walk-up crowd swamping the Florida Suncoast Dome ticket windows, the new game in town played to mixed reviews Saturday night.

While most of the 10,354 fans seemed to love the fast-paced newfangled football, they loathed the lines that preceded the action, some of which kept them outside 45 minutes past the 7:30 p.m. scheduled start.

"It was terrible. They just weren't ready for us," said Lew Krosner of St. Petersburg, who missed the game's opening 10 minutes. "Or maybe the crowd wasn't ready for this facility. I thought we could walk up and get a ticket almost any time. I'll come back, but I'll probably buy the tickets ahead of time."

Rob Howe, another first-time Tampa Bay Storm fan from St. Petersburg, wasn't quite as forgiving. Then again, Howe missed the entire first quarter queuing up for general admission tickets.

"It stinks," he said, aiming his wrath at the Dome. "I never thought we'd have so much trouble getting a ticket."

With only 3,000 tickets sold in advance of the season-opener, Dome general manager Jerry Oliver said the ticket-window logjams had a very simple explanation _ too many folks too fast.

"Everybody came all at once," Oliver said. "That was basically the problem. At 7 o'clock, there were no lines. At 7:15, everybody showed up. It's impossible to get four or five or 6,000 people in the building in a matter of about 15 minutes."

Twelve of the Dome's 14 operational ticket windows were open Saturday, Oliver said, with the other two servicing will-call requests.

If nothing else, all those late arrivers made Storm owner Bob Gries look quite the sage. Throughout the week, Gries predicted a crowd of around 10,000, mostly on the strength of walk-up sales.

"I had said that Arena crowds are traditionally a late walk-up. Last year in Dallas they held a game up 45 minutes. We held it up almost 15 minutes tonight, but we didn't think it was fair to the fans who were here to hold it any longer."

As for the football side of opening night, most fans seemed content with the miniaturized version of the NFL.

"It's not big-boy football, but it's fun anyway," Krosner said. "It's something to laugh about anyway. I'm sure they'll get better as the season goes on."

"It's as exciting as regular football," said Barbara Cox, of Largo. "It's kind of neat. It's smaller, but I like all the action. I guess it's interesting, because it's so different. I like seeing the balls bounce off the end-zone nets.

At least one spectator likened the pace and feel of Saturday's main event to another indoor game.

"I'm really enjoying this," said Phil Esposito, president of hockey's Tampa Bay Lightning. "The only thing that surprises me is I think the field's even smaller than an ice rink. And you know those boards give, and that interests me a lot. They don't give like that in hockey.

"I think this could be a very, very good thing."

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