At the invitation of friends within the Spokane Shock ownership group, Nader Naini attended a Shock football game last June.
The lifelong football fan said he was overwhelmed by the fervent support for the team and filed the experience away in the back of his mind. When Shock majority owner Brady Nelson made it known he was willing to sell the franchise, Naini jumped at the opportunity.
“I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, but that was one of those experiences where I said, ‘Something is going on here,’ ” Naini said. “I had a lot of passion for the product and the sport, the fan base, the city. It was really, really exciting and we beat them (San Jose) pretty soundly.”
Naini can say “we” because he’s the leader of Arena Football Partners LLC, the Shock’s new ownership group. The sale of the franchise was announced Wednesday, ending the tenure of the affable Nelson, one of the few constants in the ever-changing world of arena football.
Naini said there are “five or six” in his ownership group from Washington, including Spokane, and California. He declined to identify local owners. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
“I was very fortunate to be chosen by Brady as someone to carry the baton forward and building on the terrific foundation already in place,” said Naini, a Bellevue resident and general partner of Seattle-based Frazier Healthcare.
It was a bittersweet day for Nelson, who, along with two or three partners, brought the indoor game to Spokane. He hatched the idea in his basement in spring 2005 when he and his brother, Ryan, were looking to attend a sporting event.
“Ryan had just been in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and he wasn’t able to go to any sporting events for a year. His immune system wasn’t quite strong enough, but he finally got the OK to go outside,” Nelson said. “There wasn’t a single event, high school, college, anything, we could find, and then I remembered an indoor football team from when I lived in Utah.”
Nelson nurtured his idea into an arenafootball2 franchise that won a championship in its first season in 2006 and routinely played in front of 10,000 fans at the Arena. The Shock won another af2 championship in 2009 and an Arena Football League title in 2010.
The 36-year-old Nelson acknowledged rising costs factored into his decision to sell. During a strike-marred 2012 AFL season, a new collective bargaining agreement resulted in higher player salaries. In recent years AFL owners have picked up the tab for several struggling franchises experiencing ownership issues. Attendance at Shock games is still strong, but not at the levels of 2006-11.
“Nobody wants to stop doing the football side, that’s the fun side,” Nelson said, “but you have to look at it as a business and look at your family and your career. It’s never going to be fully out of my blood, but just weighing all the factors and trying to look down the road and see what’s coming, it was time.”
During the negotiation process, the Shock’s current three-year lease with the Arena was modified to make the last season (2015) an option year. That, along with the fact that Naini lives near Seattle, raised questions about the possibility of the team relocating.
“He (Naini) told me fairly clearly that wasn’t his intention,” said Kevin Twohig, executive director of the Spokane Public Facilities District. “He thought it was successful in Spokane and that’s the only reason he would invest.”
Said Naini, who is also a minority owner of the Tacoma Rainiers, the Seattle Mariners’ Triple A affiliate: “We have no plans to move the team. Obviously, that’s a pretty common question when there’s an ownership change. We’re doing this because we want to be successful in Spokane and we’re confident fans will continue to support the team as long as we continue to put a great product on the field.”
Naini said he’s excited about the Shock’s roster and has gotten to know head coach Andy Olson, who he said “has done an outstanding job.
“We want to win, that’s really our objective,” said Naini, 48, who was born and raised in Tacoma. “And we want to do right by the community of Spokane.”
Olson has been part of the Shock organization as a wide receiver, an assistant coach and head coach.
“I have nothing but positives to say about Brady,” Olson said. “He’s done a great deal for the organization and the city of Spokane and I’m very proud to have played for him and coached for him.”
Of the new ownership group, Olson said, “I’m very excited. Nader is an intense guy. He wants to win in all phases on and off the field. His goals are to get better every year and compete for championships every year.”