As a child growing up in Detroit, this writer recalls attending dozens of exciting sporting events, watching professional baseball, basketball and, especially, football games – Dad’s favorite sport.

In those days, all three teams played on fields located within the city limits while everything – from the price of tickets to the assorted goodies always on sale, including programs, hotdogs, cotton candy and sodas, were affordable.

Perhaps it’s providing similar opportunities for today’s families in and around the city of Newark and for those who live in nearby Union County that count as one of the reasons that Jermaine Sanders and A.J. Roque, two Black entrepreneurs, combined their experiences in sports, resources, ingenuity, and creativity to establish the Jersey Bearcats Ownership Group.

And you didn’t have to be a doctor, lawyer, or an executive at General Motors to be able to pay for and enjoy a father and son (or daughter) outing during which you could cheer for your favorite team and enjoy an afternoon or evening game.

Courtesy of Jersey Bearcats

And with the season opener coming up on Saturday, April 15, Sanders, co-founder, president, and CEO of the Jersey Bearcats Arena Football Team LLC, along with Roque, co-owner and general manager, agree that they’re “ready for some football.”

Their home games will take place at Warinanco Sports Center in Roselle, New Jersey, while all of their American Arena League (AAL) games will be streamed online.

“We wanted to offer family entertainment that was affordable, showcase talented football players, many of whom come from the tri-state area and who have some great personal stories to share, help our young players learn from more seasoned teammates and provide opportunities for our players to get to or return to the next level in the professional leagues,” Roque said during a recent interview while wrapping up training camp.

The history of the Jersey Bearcats

The Jersey Bearcats, who have been around for four seasons, took last year to develop their brand and to secure their position as part of the American Arena League. Sanders said the organization has faced its share of challenges, especially because of the coronavirus and its impact on all our lives. But he remains optimistic about the future.

“March 2020 and the pandemic shut everything down and even in 2021, our progress was slowed tremendously when we were only able to have three games on the field out of a 10-game schedule,” Sanders said. “The upside was that we used 2021, when we joined the AAL, to learn so that we would not make the same mistakes as previous newcomers to the League. Now we’re ready to expand with AAL2 in 2024, the professional side of the AAL. We’re excited about the growth that has taken place from last year to this year.”

“Sure, there are certain limitations that all teams in the League face but it’s a great experience for fans to see quality football at a price everyone can afford,” Roque added. “We’ve been brainstorming in the front office because we want to be different from other teams by creating more opportunities for our players to gain field experience, sharpen their skills, work with qualified coaches, and provide a springboard for those guys who have what it takes to go to the next level. You could say that our professional development side is almost like the minor leagues which is why we have two tiers for our players.”

Jermaine Sanders, Jersey Bearcats, co-founder, president and CEO, and A.J. Roque, Jersey Bearcats, co-owner, general manager. (Courtesy photo)

Still, Sanders and Roque recognize that “money matters,” as some team owners who want to put a good product on the field, simply do not have the budget required to pay the required fee to be admitted to some of the various leagues located in the U.S. and Canada. But they said they’re determined to be successful.

“The challenge is to give good teams a space to grow – even those who may not have the budget to pay for the kind and size of arena they want and to handle the cost of workmen’s compensation, weekly salaries for players and coaches and housing,” Sanders said. “So, while we have a vision to reach new heights, we also must be smart. Teams like us in the AAL look to build upon a solid foundation at the pro level without breaking the bank. And of course, we must focus on playing in an arena that fits our budget and that’s commensurate to the size of our audience.”

As a point of reference, the American Arena League is a professional indoor football minor league that began playing in 2018. The league was initiated by a merger between Arena Pro Football (APF) and the Can-Am Indoor Football League (Can-Am), although the AAL only claimed the APF history after the former Can-Am founder left the league. Teams from both leagues, new teams, and later teams from Supreme Indoor Football and National Arena League, constituted the new league for its inaugural season.

Benefits abound for players and fans

Sanders said affordability remains tantamount to the top items on his radar, especially after growing up in a single-family home that could not afford to attend a professional football game.

“We just didn’t have the money when I was a little boy and it’s often the same today for a lot of Black families who live in urban settings,” he said. “While I can afford it today, and my children and my grandchildren can join me for an afternoon of fun, I wanted to ensure that others could too.”

“After our home games, we let children come down on the field so they can meet the players – even play catch with them,” said Sanders. “It’s a great experience for them and they look up to the players as role models. Some even see that it’s possible for them to realize their dreams as professional players when they grow up. And they learn that our players come from the gambit of divisions among colleges – some Division 1 and smaller.”

“For some youth who have become players in the AAL, dreams do come true,” Sanders said.

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In part two of this series, we will introduce our readers to some of the members of the Jersey Bearcats.

The Jersey Bearcats take on the Steel City Stampede in their 2023 home opener, also SuperHero Night, on April 15, 6:30 p.m., Warinanco Sports Center, 1 Park Drive, Roselle, New Jersey.

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