Sports - June 2006

Founder: Indoor football has it made in the shade
Chris Roush

American Indoor Football League founder Andrew Haines insists that he is still enthusiastic about the future of his sport in North Carolina. So far, five indoor-football franchises, from his league as well as two others, have failed in the state. But Haines says he is confident that the team now based in Raleigh will succeed. He also says that he’s seeking owners for franchises he would like to place elsewhere in the state. The man drips with positivism.

You have to wonder why. Since 1996, professional indoor-football teams that were started in Char-lotte, Greensboro, Fayetteville, Raleigh and Asheville have either collapsed or fled to a different locale. The most recent batch of problems cropped up with Asheville’s AIFL franchise. In March, Carolina Ghostriders owner Robert Boyd shut that team down after he was unable to sell it back to the league, which charges $125,000 for a franchise. Even the Raleigh Rebels, the team for which Haines has such high hopes, went through a sudden change of ownership in April when Greg Ellis, facing financial troubles, was forced to sell it to Harry Pierce, a former Home Depot executive who lives in Rome, Ga. The Rebels are the second indoor-football team to try making a go of it in Raleigh.

Haines’ AIFL is a lower-level competitor of the higher-profile Arena Football League and Arena Football 2. The former was started in 1987; it has drawn an average of one million fans a season and landed a national television contract with NBC, which started in 2003. The Arena Football League is in New York and Los Angeles and other larger cities. Arena Football 2 was a spinoff; it has 23 teams, in such places as Birmingham, Ala.; Louisville, Ky.; and Memphis, Tenn. The AIFL is two years old. Haines says he might put a franchise in Concord next season.

Even teams from the original Arena Football League, thus far the sport’s biggest success story, have not done well over the long haul in North Carolina. The Charlotte Rage opened in 1992 and folded in 1996. The Carolina Cobras, who started play in Raleigh in 2000, moved to Charlotte for two seasons and closed in 2004.

So why is Haines certain arena football can flourish in North Carolina? “There is a lot of college football in that area, and there are a lot of athletes in the Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh areas,” says Haines, a former high-school football player from Lancaster, Pa., who is now based in Canton, Ohio. “There are also nice facilities in North Carolina and markets that we feel can be successful.”

Although the reasons Haines cites for his optimism sound generic — how many states have plenty of college football and good markets? — at least one expert believes the sport can find a home somewhere on the spectrum of North Carolina athletics. “There are professional sports that know who they are, like bullfighting and bass fishing,” says John Sweeney, a UNC Chapel Hill advertising professor who teaches sports marketing. “And then you have culturally transcendent sports like NASCAR, baseball and the NFL. Arena football is not transcendent, and it won’t become the next NFL. But it does have a niche.”

To have one in North Carolina, the AIFL will have to surmount the types of difficulties that it has stumbled over in Asheville and Raleigh. In 2005, the league’s first season, both teams played all their games on the road. Asheville’s franchise was launched so close to the beginning of the season that it could not secure an arena; Raleigh, the league says, played its games on the road as a “favor” to other teams.

Whatever the case, it’s not easy to develop a base of fans without games for them to attend. This season, the Ghostriders played in the Asheville Civic Center until Boyd, a Pittsburgh-based Internet businessman, called it quits after four games. The Ghostriders’ average attendance for two home games was 1,268. To fill out the rest of the league’s schedule, Haines reconstituted the team as the Ghostchasers, with all their remaining games played on the road. He says he doubts the AIFL will put a franchise back in Asheville next season.

In Raleigh, the Rebels have found a home: Dorton Arena on the State Fairgrounds. Ellis’ midseason sale of the Rebels to Pierce is characteristic of the turbulent ownership changes that mark fledgling professional sports leagues. Pierce also owns the AIFL franchise in Rome, as well as a work-glove manufacturing company.

As with any business, indoor football is about building revenue and controlling costs. Arena officials estimate that the Raleigh team is averaging 2,000 fans per game, which Haines says is also the norm for the league. Although the AIFL limits rosters to 25 players, with each earning $250 a game and an extra $50 for every victory, turning a profit is still a challenge. Haines says teams will have to spend $300,000 to $500,000 a season and can break even if their average attendance is 1,500, a much lower threshold than in the more expensive Arena Football League or Arena Football 2. “It’s definitely not a money-making sport,” Pierce says. “A lot of people get into it thinking they can make a killing. That can’t be your goal.”

Haines likes the long-term prospects for the Raleigh franchise. Though just 27, he nevertheless has some hard-earned experience in assessing cities as sites for indoor football; he owned teams in Orlando, Fla., and Greenville, S.C., before starting the AIFL. He also has run a commercial-construction company in suburban Philadelphia. “Raleigh has the most potential out of any of the markets that we’re in,” he says. “It’s going to be one of those good markets.”

At its best, indoor football is lively and entertaining, even fre-netic. Each team puts eight players on the 50-yard-long field, and typical AIFL scores this season have been 73-28, 66-33 and 57-38. You simply don’t get any 13-3 games in indoor football. A substantial part of Haines’ optimism about the prospects for indoor football’s survival in North Carolina springs from just how good a show the sport frequently is. In addition to the team for Concord that Haines would like to add next year to the AIFL, he says he is also considering franchises for Hickory and the Triad in the future.

Nationwide, he says that he has four dozen potential owners for franchises somewhere. “Obviously, we’re not going to bring 50 people on as owners, but the interest is definitely there.” That leaves the final question for North Carolina’s sports fans: Do they have an interest in indoor football?