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Spokane Shock
Sports >  Spokane Shock

Blanchette: Time will tell whether Shock made right move

So, Spokane is back in a $250-a-game indoor football league.

For some, this will be the entire takeaway from the rebooting of the Spokane Shock that was formalized on Tuesday. Explanations, rationalizations, context, even upside – they won’t want to hear any of it. The idea that the franchise is retreating to a reality of minimum- wage football will spawn the obligatory kneejerk disdain and one-horse-town japes, and it will be reflected at the ticket window next spring.

So Nader Naini has some selling to do.

Or not. Through a long-and-winding announcement at the Spokane Arena, the Shock owner’s analysis of jumping ship from the Arena Football League to this Indoor Football League thing meandered from it being the “best option” to eventually being the “only decision to be made.”

And then he said this, as to how the change might be received:

“If the community supports (the franchise) and wants it, it will remain,” he said. “If the community decides it doesn’t want to support it, that’s a decision for us on how to proceed.”

No, it wasn’t a threat to move the team – Naini reaffirmed he’s never weighed the possibility.

It was, however, a declaration that in serious financial investment, agitation for needed reform in the AFL and now an about-face in the search for long-term stability, he’s done about all he can do to preserve indoor football as an amusement here – even if a return to af2-level payrolls (and talent) of the original Shock suggests the opposite of progress.

Well, except in this respect: Shack’s back.

Yes, Adam Shackleford’s return as head coach is more forward-into-the-past thinking, but in an undeniably good way. Here’s how unbitter he was about the previous ownership’s muff in letting him go after winning a championship six years ago: he’s lived here the whole time and commuted after rustling up work coaching the IFL team in the Tri-Cities.

He won’t tout the new league as the AFL’s equal – though he noted that franchise contraction had allowed players capable of playing at that level to trickle down to the IFL.

OK, sometimes trickle down is deceiving. Donovan Porterie lasted one game as a stopgap quarterback for the Shock in 2014 – and lost his job to a wide receiver. In 2015, he led the IFL in total offense.

But it’s a different game that rewards different skills, and Shackleford sidesteps judgments based on bank accounts.

“When our guys used to make $250 a game,” Shackleford said, reflecting back to the Shock’s af2 days, “there were 10,500 people in the stands. It was pretty good football, and exciting football.”

But those days are gone.

Shock attendance has plummeted 23 percent since the AFL championship year of 2010. Maybe the team won too much early and didn’t win enough lately, but the newness of it all has worn off after 10 years. If the thrill isn’t gone, it’s in remission. And rolling back the talent level won’t roll back the clock.

Just one year ago, the Iowa Barnstormers made this very same move. Like the Shock, both on-field and financial losses were piling up. Like the Shock, they’d seen their average attendance drop 2,000 a game from the af2-to-AFL changeover in 2010. Yet Naini happily reported that in the retreat to the IFL, Iowa ownership told him sponsorships had been renewed at 100 percent – and season ticket attrition was just six percent.

Nonetheless, Iowa’s average attendance this year was 6,421 – down from 8,201 in the AFL. Or about 200 more than what Spokane drew this year.

Of course, the Barnstormers were 6-8 in their IFL debut. Shackleford and Naini believe they’ll be instant bullies, that Spokane will be a destination in the IFL just as it had become a farm club in the AFL – seeing top-shelf quarterbacks Nick Davila and Erik Meyer and others leave for, uh, greener pastures.

And the fact is, the IFL has the same top-heavy competitive issues: Sioux Falls has won five straight United Bowls.

But a reality check does endorse Naini’s decision. The AFL may be major league by indoor standards, but by no other. Major leagues don’t pay to have their games televised. Major leagues don’t have to bail out bankrupt teams every year, foisting the debt onto operators like Naini.

Still, it does seem presumptuous that the Shock’s ticket pricing structure will remain intact while salaries get a 75 percent haircut. The difference between Big Sky football and the Pac-12 is reflected in the ticket price, even if there’s an audience that prefers the former.

“Everybody will judge for themselves whether it’s a step back or not,” Naini said.

Chances are, he’ll know their verdict before kickoff.

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