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Spokane Empire

Shock a cut above Stockton

Sun., Aug. 2, 2009

A few ticks into the second quarter Saturday night, you could have sworn the Stockton Lightning glanced at the Spokane Arena scoreboard, saw themselves up 21-7 and said to themselves, “What are we doing here?”

Which is what the rest of us were asking about them all along.

How a team with a 6-10 record – five of the wins coming against non-playoff bottom feeders – could come to be using up oxygen in the af2 postseason has nothing to do with competitive legitimacy, of course, but economics. Thar’s gold in them thar playoffs – and the more rounds, the more gold, even if it means four teams with losing records get in.

Surely the Lightning sensed it, too. Their belief and belonging blew out in the space of back-to-back plays which turned that two-touchdown lead over the Spokane Shock into a tie. By halftime, the swing was four touchdowns and the Shock were on their way to a 62-21 romp.

Even those of us who do algebra on our fingers and toes can deduce that the Lightning did not score again after that improbable head start. So much for the truism that playoff football is a different animal than the regular season, since this is pretty much how it went the last time Spokane and Stockton met.

And now the playoffs can truly begin.

If that seems like a harsh judgment, it was not unshared. Saturday’s attendance was 7,267 – a healthy gate in any other af2 market, but a franchise low in Spokane. The message delivered: Get back to us when there’s going to be, you know, a game.

A similar sentiment took hold in various other af2 outposts this season. Average attendance around the league was the lowest it’s been since 2003. Yes, that’s probably as much a function of the economy and some teams’ marketing efforts as anything, but it was hard to dismiss completely the notion that there’s a growing competitive disparity in the af2.

Doesn’t seem right to call them haves and have-nots, when it may be more a case of the dos and do-nots.

“I think the teams succeeding on the field are really the same ones that are the most stable off the field as well,” said Shock owner Brady Nelson, whose club has led af2 in attendance from the moment it joined four years ago.

And there are several that are not at all stable. It is likely that the team down the road in Tri-Cities will not be part of af2 next summer, and down in Florida the Firecats were denied their playoff berth after borrowing money from the league to pay bills and then bagging on the tab. Peoria has also struggled financially.

But there’s addition and subtraction almost every year in the af2.

“Not everybody is profitable,” Nelson said. “Most people are pretty close to break even, but you never know until ArenaCup who’s committed to come back.

“For a lot of guys, this isn’t a business for financial gain. It’s exposure for other businesses they have. A couple of teams are actually charities – Kentucky is one. Central Valley is owned by a casino, an Indian tribe. There’s different reasons why people are in the league.”

Which stands to reason – this is not the NFL. But it can also lead to a competitive imbalance between the franchises that are doing all they can to win, and those that might be a hobby or a marketing tool.

“The teams which have good records, year in and year out, are the teams that are recruiting earlier,” Nelson said. “We’ve already made calls to guys in this year’s (NFL) draft class that are going into training camps now and letting them know that if things don’t work out, let’s talk.

“There are some teams from the early years where when the season ends, the coach might not do much – he goes back home, maybe makes a few calls. But we have our staff and a player personnel director going all year. If you leave it up to one person, it’s not enough. And that’s a mindset from the organization.”

And it’s pretty clear what the Shock’s mindset is.

“Economically, an extra $200,000 for rent of our (practice) facility doesn’t make sense for af2,” Nelson acknowledged, “but we look at it in terms of attracting better players. Better players get us more playoff games – and once we get to the playoffs, that’s where we make our money.”

And once they get to the playoffs, they never have to wonder just what they’re doing there.

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