August 25, 2008 in City

AFL move would be a shock

Owner sees af2 league as ideal fit for Spokane
By The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photo

The crowd gets on their feet as the Shock take the field during their playoff game against Central Valley earlier this month.
(Full-size photo)

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ArenaCup: Spokane Shock vs. Tennessee Valley, 7 p.m., Comcast Cable channel 78.

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Spokane Shock majority owner Brady Nelson gets asked the question at every home game: Should the arenafootball2 Shock attempt to move up to the Arena Football League?

“I think it’s a fun question to toy with,” Nelson said, “but in the current financial setup of the AFL it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Or cents, Nelson explained.

“Aside from getting approval from the AFL, you have to pay an expansion fee of $14 million to $18 million,” he said. “That would never be recouped because the operating budget in the AFL is twice what we bring in during a great season.”

AFL franchises typically are in larger television markets, and teams play in 15,000- to 20,000-seat arenas. Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena seats about 10,500.

“They want major markets because it helps TV ratings, in theory,” Nelson said. “The (AFL champion) Philadelphia Soul averages 16,000 fans – that’s 6,000 more than we would be able to hold and all the tickets would be more expensive.”

Besides, why mess with a good thing? Spokane and af2 seemingly has been a perfect match from the beginning. In just three seasons, Spokane arguably is the premiere franchise in af2, basically the younger brother of the AFL. Spokane won the af2 championship in its inaugural season in 2006, followed that with a division title last year and the current team is 18-1 and bidding for another ArenaCup title against Tennessee Valley tonight at 7.

Spokane routinely plays in front of sellout crowds, many clad in Shock orange or blue. The Shock have their own practice facility and team headquarters – a rarity in af2 – and a thriving booster club. Home games are televised on a network affiliate, another af2 rarity.

“When fans talk about, ‘We’re doing so well and we’re selling out, we should go AFL,’ one of the consequences of that is ticket prices would go up,” af2 president Jerry Kurz said. “So I ask them, ‘Would you pay two to three times more for season tickets?’ AFL teams have close to a $3 million salary cap; our cost is about $100,000.”

Nelson is content in af2, and he believes Shock fans feel the same way.

“The product and the players fit really well,” he said. “There’s something about players playing for their shot at the big-time that resonates with people. They see them laying their bodies on the line and they respect that. The arena game is set up to take advantage of the changing appetites of fans. It’s a lot of things happening at once, a lot of things going on, which is more appealing to a fan of entertainment and not just of sports.”

Nelson said the Shock turn a profit, “but people would be surprised that we’re not hauling bags of money to the bank.”

Kurz said most af2 teams make enough to pay the bills and profits tend to be reinvested in the franchise. Kurz has seen several af2 teams enjoy on-field success but cut back on marketing and advertising, moves that hurt when their win-loss records slid.

“What the guys are doing in Spokane is making sure that they’re going to be here a year from now, five years, 10 years,” Kurz said. “It’s a full-time occupation for them.”

Owning af2 teams is a full-time occupation for Doug MacGregor. He and three partners operate nine af2 franchises, including Tennessee Valley and Amarillo, whom the Shock thumped 79-49 last week.

He also owns the Austin Wranglers, who dropped from AFL to af2 this season.

“We felt it was better fit for the Austin area,” said MacGregor, who lives in Austin.

The AFL salary cap of $2.6 million to $3 million “was a pretty big pill to swallow, but there were a number of factors,” like Austin being far down the chart among television markets, MacGregor said. “When the number crunchers look at markets and they get beyond the top 10 they get distracted. It was the right move. Some people wanted to see us playing Philly and New York as opposed to Lubbock and Spokane, but it’s the same great game. We just asked them to give us a try and they found out it’s pretty much the same game.”

Nelson is fully aware of that fact: “I love the af2. In my mind there’s nothing magical about saying we have AFL. I like AFL, but af2 just seems to fit where we are here.”

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