Blanchette: Nelson keeps the orange but not the team
The “For Sale” sign has been covered with a “Sold!” at Spokane Shock HQ in the Valley, and now the worry beads are out at the Church of Indoor Football.
The new CEO is an out-of-towner. The other owners, purportedly including representation from Spokane, are going all Garbo on us already. The lease was rejiggered to make the 2015 season an option for the buying group rather than an ironclad commitment. Not only is the fan base afeard of the team being trucked down the road, but dubious of other changes that might be in store – and if the new guys will invest in winning.
Already there is angst, and possibly yearning for the steady hand, the stability, the continuity, the comfortable- as-an-old-shoe approach of the old boss.
You know. The guy who, at age 27, rounded up three buddies to launch professional football under a roof in Spokane – and paid his entry fee before seeing a game. The guy who hired three rookie head coaches – and fired two of them after they won championships. The guy who took the indoor game outdoors at Albi Stadium, who shipped out one of the franchise’s most popular players in the middle of one season and brought back one branded as a labor agitator to start another.
The guy who insisted Spokane would look good in orange, and damned if he wasn’t right.
How will arena football survive here without Mr. Predictable – Brady Nelson – to calm the waters?
And by survive, we don’t necessarily mean win it all and fill the Spokane Arena every game night the way Nelson’s creation did right out of the gate in 2006.
If that’s the bar new managing partner Nader Naini has to reach, that MBA of his had better have come in miracles and magic.
It is not unfair to suggest that the Shock will miss Nelson more than he will them, though that sounds overly harsh.
“It’s just so all-encompassing, all-consuming,” he said. “If you’re a hands-on owner, I liken it to playing chess with 15 people at the same time – all of whom are trying to steal your pieces and cheat.”
In eight years of running Spokane’s entries in the old af2 and Arena Football League, Nelson’s teams won 116 of 152 games, three championships and the hearts of nearly 800,000 amusement seekers who passed through the turnstiles. Professional baseball and hockey and Gonzaga basketball have all carved out large and loyal audiences, but never has there been another instant – and sustained – hit like this in Spokane.
“Fans were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt when we started,” Nelson said, “and I don’t think we let them down. But I couldn’t have imagined being embraced to this extent.”
The hobby part of Nelson’s leap didn’t last. The fun did – mostly.
“I didn’t realize what a business it was,” he admitted. “It was hard getting all those guys into that first training camp and then having (coach Chris) Siegfried tell me, ‘Yeah, all these guys are going to be gone today.’ I really had to learn that there isn’t any loyalty, either way. The bottom line is everyone is paid to win. You think you have a really good relationship and a guy is gone for more meal cards.”
Or he’s traded away because there’s a championship to be won.
But there was fun to be had in the product – and in the success of Nelson himself.
If Spokane had or has an athletic establishment, he was certainly an outsider – just a kid from the Valley with a notion that Spokane had a sports and entertainment void that needed filling, and eventually bumping heads to compete with franchises in Phoenix, Chicago, Orlando and Philadelphia, among others – major league markets all.
Nelson confessed he didn’t really want to make the jump to the AFL when Orlando Predators owner Brett Bouchy called and said the suspended league was “trying to get the band back together” and wanted Spokane. Then he realized the old af2 was likely to be toast. So all the Shock did was win it all in AFL’s first season back.
“I think that told our fans that we belonged,” said Nelson, “though I really don’t know if we got the rest of the league’s respect until this last year.”
Nelson insisted the direction and operation of the AFL is more professional than ever. But the fact is, the league has had to take over operation of three franchises in two years, and the extra payroll costs since the league’s labor agreement have probably hit the league’s smallest market the hardest. Average attendance has dropped a thousand from the championship heyday, and last August’s playoff crowd of 6,916 was the lowest for an arena game here.
The newness has worn off – and, yes, for the original owner, too. But not his emotional attachment.
“And,” he said, “I’ve still got a lot of orange in my closet.”