Football kicks off in Worcester

Massachusetts is no stranger to winning football teams, but this spring, fans will have a new reason to cheer. With the official announcement made in November, Worcester’s DCU Center became the home of the National Arena League’s (NAL) latest expansion team, the Massachusetts Pirates.

Fresh off of its inaugural season, the NAL is comprised of six teams, including the newly formed Maine Mammoths, Massachusetts Pirates and Carolina Cobras, who are set to begin play in 2018. Though several teams folded or joined other arena football leagues following the 2017 season, the NAL hopes to continue expanding in upcoming years.

For those not familiar with the NAL or arena football as a sport, many of the rules are similar to those found in the NFL. The sports’ major differences involve the length and setup of the field. NAL fields span 50 yards in length, half the distance of traditional NFL fields, with a width of 85 feet. The shorter field length leads to a faster-paced, higher-scoring game. Additionally, the field is bordered by a 48-inch, foam-padded wall, which serves as the out-of-bounds marker. Fan seating starts just on the other side of this wall, allowing spectators to feel as though they are right on top of the action. In many ways, the sport offers a higher entertainment value for a lower ticket cost.

Another key difference is the season timing. With the first game slated for early April, the season will run through July. Thus, the NAL season falls during the NFL off-season, decreasing competition between the two leagues. Games will be played on Saturday nights and offer area fans another fun weekend entertainment option.

The lead-up to the announcement of the new team involved months of back and forth between league officials and the Pirates front office, as well as research into other possible markets to find the best fit for the new team.

“We met with several markets on where we were going to end up, from Providence to Boston, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — really all over New England. In the end, it’s a no-brainer to go with your hometown,” said Brandon Perotto, the team’s director of operations, who hails from Central Massachusetts. When it came time to make the final decision, it was the familiarity with the area, along with the DCU Center itself, which sold them on the location.

In the months since the team’s announcement, the Pirates front office has been working diligently to ensure that everything is on schedule for April’s opening night.

“It’s been a busy couple of months,” said Perotto, a sentiment that was echoed by Head Coach Ameer Ismail and team President Jawad Yatim.
“Now that the schedule has been finalized and released, we have set target dates to have certain goals accomplished,” Yatim said. “Right now, [the front office’s] main focus is selling tickets and sponsorships to businesses around the state. Marketing is a key component of everything, and we are starting to pick things up.”

With ticket prices skyrocketing for other professional sports teams in the area, one major draw for the Pirates is affordability. In fact, the NAL as a whole has made a commitment to keeping the events both reasonably priced and family-friendly. According to Yatim, this has made a major impact on early ticket sales numbers.

With the season-opener a little more than two months away, the Pirates have already locked down several major sponsors, which will be announced in the coming weeks. As the team’s heads continue work, they hope to create partnerships with media outlets and businesses across the state.

“One major focus of ours this season is to find a broadcast partner, ideally, one that reaches the whole state. We are the Massachusetts Pirates, not just the Worcester Pirates,” said Yatim. The team’s commitment to the entire state has Yatim optimistic that the Pirates will make Worcester a destination for high-quality football and entertainment. “It’s surreal to think that we can provide the people of the Bay State with another form of entertainment during the spring and summer — especially those looking to enjoy some quality football.”

While Yatim and the rest of the front office continue to get the word out about the new team, Head Coach Ameer Ismail has been hard at work recruiting players to join the Pirates.

“Right now, we are just trying to get the best talent we can,” he said. “We are recruiting a lot of guys with NFL experience and guys who have played arena football in the past.”

With the focus on bringing in players who can win the team a title, the organization also aims to help their players reach their individual goals. For some, this means developing their skills and ultimately earning NFL contracts, while others hope to find a place where they can continue to play the sport that they love at high level.

Ever since Ismail was brought on to coach the team, he has been on the road scouting and recruiting the players who will take the field this spring. Ensuring that the team is bringing in the best available talent involves a great deal of research, outreach and negotiation.

“It’s a lot of phone calls, emails, messaging and social media work,” said Ismail.

While the task of building a team has involved scouting players from across the country, the Pirates have made sure not to overlook talent in their own backyard. In fact, the team recently held an open tryout at the John Smith Sports Center in Milford. According to Ismail, the tryout had a great turnout and he has high hopes that he will see some of the guys back when training camp starts up in March. And it’s the training camp that has the Pirates staff excited.

“There is a lot of work to be done once we can finally get on the field,” said Ismail.

Just as the front office and coaching staff have been hard at work putting the finishing touches on many of the business aspects of building the team, the players have been doing everything in their power to get ready to take the field. Among them is Mardy Gilyard. A two-time All-American Wide Receiver at Cincinnati, Gilyard was drafted into the NFL in 2010 by the St. Louis Rams. Before signing with the Pirates earlier this winter, he had played stints with numerous NFL and CFL teams. With eight years of professional football under his belt, Gilyard hopes that some of his best play is yet to come.

“I’m working on being more explosive and getting stronger. I don’t want to drop any balls,” he said.

Though he acknowledges that every team the in the NAL is filled with talented players, Gilyard is confident in his own skill set and aims to make up for any shortcomings by outworking the competition.

“It’s good competition, but I will bet on my skills versus anybody,” he said. “I’m gonna work to be the best player I can be, and I want that out of my teammates. If we can do that, then we’ll be something special.”

While his experience and work ethic solidify Gilyard as a team leader, his cockiness and enthusiasm for the game are sure to excite the fans. “I’m gonna beat [my opponent] to the ball. I don’t care who they are, how tall they are, or how smooth their footwork is. I’m gonna beat them to the spot.”

It’s this attitude that players and front office staff hope will bring a championship to the Pirates. “The vision of this team is to build a championship ball club, which is what our state has been used to for some time now,” said Yatim. “Anything less is a failure in our eyes.”

Though these may seem like lofty expectations for a team that was officially formed less than three months ago, Gilyard is certain they will be able to achieve everything they set out to do.

“I came here to win a championship. I know how it’s done. I’ve seen it done. Now, it’s time to do it.”

First Game will be against the Maine Mammoths on April 7, 2018 at the DCU Center. Tickets are available at

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Instagram (@Mass.Pirates)


Story by Kyle Sullivan
Photography by Demet Sentur