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Spokane Empire

John Blanchette: Indoor football ran out of time in Spokane

UPDATED: Wed., July 12, 2017, 11:15 p.m.

The Spokane Empire appear to have been knocked off their feet for good. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Empire appear to have been knocked off their feet for good. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

As a handy reference for all things minor league in sports, the movie “Slap Shot” is unerring in tone and applicable across the spectrum.

This is especially true when it’s revealed the hockey club is going under.

“I’m doing a tribute to the team on Sunday,” sports writer Dickie Dunn confides to player-coach Reg Dunlop. “ ‘Chiefs fold: a sad commentary.’ Something along those lines.”

Such columns are trotted out in the newspapers of any of a half-dozen minor league burgs every year. A hockey team folds, a baseball team finds the next town that’s built a new jewel of a stadium, an arena football league shrinks. The chopped salad of factors: indifferent corporate support, untenable business models, overextended investors, shifting consumer priorities.

This is Spokane’s Dickie Dunn moment.

The Empire folds, a sad commentary. But about what, exactly?

Spokane’s Indoor Football League franchise made its end-of-business announcement at the end of business Wednesday, not quite a month after staggering to the finish of its 12th season. In the ashbin of a press release was the faint ember suggesting this might be merely a suspension of operations for 2018 while ownership sought additional investors or even a buyer.

Not playing seems an unlikely way to entice either.

Sad? Sure, on several levels. No one ever feels sorry for an owner, but by the time he moved the team from the Arena Football League to the IFL in 2015 Nader Naini had already sunk $3 million into the club in two years – and the red sea kept rising. Having endured the indignity of being fired once here after winning a championship, coach Adam Shackleford made a happy return – and now has the Spokane Arena rug pulled out from under him. A couple of thousand hard-core fans will have to find something else to do with their spring weekend nights out. Earnest players keeping their dreams alive for $225 a game may have to wake up to 9-to-5 reality.

Everyone will survive and move on.

But Spokane was a little more fun a decade ago in the heyday of the team we knew then as the Shock. And maybe the truly sad part is that it didn’t last. Or couldn’t.

Indoor football – AFL, IFL, whatever – does not seem to be a sustainable amusement.

This seems odd in our football-obsessed culture – even if, OK, the indoor game is not real football. That’s part of the problem, of course. It was conceived as a sideshow: a pinball-with-passing hybrid played by NFL and Canadian castoffs. It was marketed as almost a trifle.

That didn’t mean it couldn’t be a hoot. If you were in the seats for the Shock’s inaugural 2006 season in af2 – the AFL’s long-lost JV league – you saw the wildest finishes and most preposterous comebacks possible, culminating in an unlikely championship.

And Spokane didn’t just warm to the team – it glowed orange.

Some 9,837 curious fans showed up for the first game. Average attendance reached a franchise high of 10,588 by Year 3, and stayed more than 10,000 two years into the move up to the AFL.

And then the novelty wore off. Or something.

Staying power is the sport’s big problem. The only bigger af2 success story than the Shock – the Arkansas Twisters – saw their attendance slide from 13,766 to 3,703 over the 10 years of the league’s existence. The original AFL crumbled under the hubris of got-rocks owners. The reimagined league Spokane helped found in 2010 hasn’t done any better – membership has gone from 12 teams to five in just the last two years, and average attendance is less than 10,000 in big-league cities. The IFL – touted by Naini as a more stable proposition – is hardly that; in all likelihood, three of this year’s 10 teams won’t be around for 2018.

Spokane’s situation was complicated by the jump from the AFL to the IFL and having to rebrand the team as the Empire – the Shock name retained by the AFL in some wrangling over money.

That, a less wide-open game and the perception that the IFL was a lesser league gave fans a good excuse to skedaddle: Attendance dropped 34 percent in 2016. This season, the Empire averaged just 4,632 – not that far off Naini’s 5,000 break-even figure. But sponsorships tailed off, too – why would you stick with a product that’s lost half its audience in four years?

Spokane hasn’t had to do the abandonment dance for more than three decades, but indoor football was a new toy with new challenges. Junior hockey players make only a modest stipend; Indians baseball players are paid by the major league club. And both teams travel regionally by bus – and have been run by the same local owner for more than 30 years.

There are countless reasons indoor football didn’t reach its teens in Spokane, but in the end it was simply this: It had its time.

Or something along those lines.