Nothing will duplicate the novelty of Spokane’s first arena football game in 2006, but majority owner Brady Nelson believes Saturday’s outdoor game at Albi Stadium could come close.
“Nobody knew what to expect then and nobody knows what to expect Saturday,” Nelson said. “But it’s going to be fun and I think people are going to get there early and tailgate.”
Shock work crews are busy setting up the essentials of arena football – a 50-yard field with 8-yard end zones, padded dasherboards and hanging massive goal posts/netting – at Albi. It’s not a simple project.
It begins with nearly 26,000 square feet of turf armor decking that will rest on Albi’s turf. The decking will protect the existing turf and provide a firm foundation for the artificial turf used at Shock games at the Arena. The team considered using Albi’s turf, but it would have required new hash marks and they weren’t certain they could remove the paint.
Dasherboards have been brought in from Yakima, where Spokane played an exhibition game three years ago. Yakima’s boards are more portable than the dashers at the Arena and the Shock practice facility. Roughly 80 dasherboards, each weighing 75-120 pounds, connect to each other and will be braced with the help of concrete blocks. The key will be getting the proper amount of give when players collide with the walls.
Twenty rectangular concrete blocks, similar to ones you’d see where bark is stored at landscaping businesses, will be used. Each 5-foot block weighs between 1,700-1,900 pounds. The field will have open end zones.
Throw in a couple of cranes to hang the iron goal posts and you have an arena field configuration set roughly between Albi’s 15-yard lines. That’s the plan on paper, said Lance Beck, Shock director of marketing and operations.
“This week it’s a lot more on the operations side,” joked Beck, who is putting in 12-hour days.
Beck hopes to replicate, on a smaller scale, the set-up of the Michigan-Michigan State outdoor hockey game at Michigan Stadium last December.
“What makes outdoor hockey games is they have the rink on top of the field and it creates almost a stage,” Beck said. “There’s a really cool photo if you Google that hockey game of how I want this to look. Having our field down will look just like it does in the arena, but it’ll look completely different because it’s outside on another surface.”
Nelson has toyed with the idea for an outdoor game since the team’s inaugural season. It came to fruition when the owners announced an expanded 18-game schedule, giving each team nine home games instead of eight, in late August. By then, the Shock had already sold renewals of eight-game packages to more than 50 percent of season-ticket holders so Nelson made a pitch for an outdoor game.
“I’ve never been a proponent of it because it does change the presentation of the game, but I have enough of an open mind to support it under the circumstances,” AFL commissioner Jerry Kurz said.
Kurz will attend the Cleveland-Philadelphia game in Philly on Friday night and fly across the country to witness the first regular-season outdoor game in the AFL’s 24-year history.
“My only concern is will the fan experience be as good,” Kurz said. “We hold ourselves out there as fan friendly. We support and do a lot of things for the fans and we want them to have that experience.”
Roughly 200-300 people will stand or have seats next to the field. The rest will be in stands. About 10,000 tickets have been sold and Nelson hopes the game draws 15,000. Similar to arena games, fans will be allowed on the field for a postgame autograph session.
A few months ago, Nelson was worried that the game might not draw the 10,000 that typically fill the Arena but Spokane (7-8) has won three of four and is tied with Utah, Saturday’s opponent, for the final playoff spot in the National Conference.
“When it was first announced, there was a lot of, ‘Wow, that will be awesome,’ and, ‘That really negates our ninth-man advantage,’” Nelson said. “That’s kind of died down and it’s become more, ‘This is going to be cool,’ and, ‘Now the game means something.’”
Nelson is like the groom checking the weather forecast every 15 minutes for his weekend wedding. He’s hoping for dry, warm conditions and the latest forecast is favorable (76 degrees, mostly sunny). The Shock’s turf can handle some rain, but not a deluge. Lightning would not be good, Nelson acknowledged with a nervous chuckle.
“There’s so much certainty in the arena with no wind, sun, heat. This brings so much uncertainty,” Nelson said. “I want to walk around, keep an eye on the game and see what the fans are saying, what they like and don’t like. I really want it to be a great show and experience so it’ll be an annual thing.”