Snakes alive: Passionate fan base has Rattlers close to another championship

Theatrics are a big part of the Rattlers games experience. Touchdowns are frequent, fireworks are common and the fan base is loud. (Photo by James Franks/Cronkite News)

At Rattlers games, much of the fan base – known as the “Snake Pit” – sits close to the action. (Photo by James Franks/Cronkite News)

Keeping fans entertained is a priority at Rattlers games, and that includes competition in inflatable balls. (Photo by James Franks/Cronkite News)

Rattlers fan Mark Palmer said he enjoys the games because the “high intensity, it’s just non-stop” and he likes high-scoring competition. (Photo by James Franks/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – When this Arizona sports team rolls into the semifinals Sunday, fans will be so close to the action, they can reach out and touch the players.

Blink, and there’s another touchdown. Blink again, and you won’t be able to hear the person next to you speak.

In the back seat of the crowded Arizona sports landscape is a unique sport, and Phoenix is home to one of its most storied franchises.

The Rattlers offer a fast-paced, high energy experience for sports fans around the Valley. Their fan base, the “Snake Pit” and the “Ninth Man,” has created one of the most formidable home-field advantages in both the Arena Football League and the Indoor Football League.

During their time in the original AFL and the IFL, which they joined in 2017, the Rattlers have reached the league championship game 12 times, winning six of them.

The Rattlers are the third oldest professional team in the Phoenix area, beginning play in 1992, five years before the Mercury and six before the Diamondbacks.

Indoor football creates a swift, high scoring environment, which differs from traditional American football.

“The high intensity, it’s just non-stop. … I like high scoring,” said Mark Palmer, a fan from Birmingham, England, as he watched a recent game at Footprint Center, the Rattlers’ home base.

From goal line to goal line, the field is only 50 yards long – half of an NFL field. Because it is short, there is no punting. Teams must either go for it on fourth down or kick a field goal. Eight players are on the field, not football’s usual 11, which is how the team’s “Ninth Man” slogan came to be. Fireworks explode after touchdowns, another of the sport’s signature touches.

Instead of sidelines, out of bounds is marked by padded walls along the side of the field, allowing fans to sit right up close to the action.

“We get really up close and personal (with the players),” Palmer said.

After COVID-19 canceled the remainder of the 2020 season shortly after it began, the Rattlers returned in dominant fashion in 2021, going 12-2 and earning the top seed in the IFL playoffs.

Coach Kevin Guy said the Rattlers fan has really helped the organization create a home-field advantage. (Photo by James Franks/Cronkite News)

In addition to the action on the field, players, coaches and fans have formed a close-knit bond off the field.

“It’s very much a community, so you feel like you’re more a part of the team,” fan B.J. Knuth said. “It’s different than any other professional game that you can go to around here.”

During the regular season, the Rattlers went a perfect 7-0 at home to secure home-field advantage throughout the IFL playoffs.

“Rattler Nation, they’ve helped us create this home-field advantage,” said coach Kevin Guy, who has led the team to the playoffs every season since taking the helm in 2008. “They just bring so much energy. They’re passionate and we got a bunch of rabid fans.”

There were times where the noise was so loud during the game, Guy said he couldn’t hear the other coaches on his headset.

That home field advantage helped the Rattlers top the Sioux Falls Storm 69-42 Sunday to advance to the IFL semifinals.

“That’s what we’re trying to create, for the (opposing) offense: communication problems,” defensive back Dillion Winfrey said about how the crowd impacts the game.

“When they start having problems, it’s finna be a long night for them,” Winfrey said.

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After the game, fans were able to come onto the field for autographs from their favorite players, including quarterback Drew Powell. Even as Powell was leaving the field after the session, he still stopped for every fan who wanted a picture or a signature.

Rattlers tickets are cheaper than other sporting events around the Valley, making it more affordable and practical. Tickets for Sunday’s semifinal game are on sale for as low as $19 on Ticketmaster.

While the Rattlers are the most storied indoor football team in Arizona, there are two younger teams in the IFL as well. The Tucson Sugar Skulls just finished their second full season, and the Prescott-based Northern Arizona Wranglers just wrapped up their inaugural season.

Next up for the Rattlers is Sunday’s IFL semifinal matchup against the Duke City Gladiators of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the winner advancing to the 2021 United Bowl on Sep. 12. If they advance, the Rattlers will host the championship game.

“We got eight more quarters, four next week, Duke City it is,” Winfrey said.

“We tell them (the fans) all the time, ‘I wanna see you next week… we need you. Keep getting louder.’”

Dylan Wilhelm DIL-lun WIL-helm (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Dylan Wilhelm expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Wilhelm, who has worked for The State Press, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

James Franks expects to graduate in December 2021 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sports communication from Bradley University.