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Sports >  Spokane Shock

John Blanchette: Let the Empire building begin

John Blanchette Correspondent

Indoor football returns to Spokane Arena on Saturday night, and a sizable crowd figures to be on hand to enjoy it, or at least take it in, but …

No Shock there.

The city has embraced the indoor game from the beginning, and even if that embrace has slackened over the years, there is a core demographic not ready to let go even now that Spokane’s days in the Arena Football League – the Shock days – are history. What remains to be seen is whether there are enough new passengers ready to grab on when the Empire, as the franchise has been re-christened, pulls out of the station into the new world of the Indoor Football League.

This isn’t just an alphabet-soup nuance.

It’s a new game, with new equipment, new rivals, new pay scale and a new veneer. Yes, there are some enduring associations – ownership, a sliver of the color scheme and a familiar and popular figure calling the plays in former Shock coach Adam Shackleford, who won Spokane a championship back in the original af2 days.

And one old challenge: retaining the audience.

This would have been the case even if the Shock had returned as the Shock in the AFL, which has some retention problems of its own – dwindling in just three years from 14 teams to eight, including the obligatory league-operated albatross in Portland.

The sad math is that attendance at Shock games dropped nearly 22 percent over the past five seasons, a virus with many strains – among them slippage from the original runaway success on the field, some appeal-sapping roster turnover and just the realization that there’s no more new-car smell.

Now, while applying the tourniquet to that spurter, the management is having to explain to potential customers why they’re back to paying players $250 a game in a league populated by Billings, Grand Island and the Tri-Cities instead of Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Jose.

“A lot of people have made it clear they want to see the first game and sample the product, and I understand that,” said Ryan Eucker, the Empire’s director of operations. “But I don’t think anyone’s going to be disappointed by the team we’re putting on the field.”

In practical terms, that skepticism has shaved season-ticket renewals to “about 70 percent,” Eucker said, from the usual 85 – giving the Empire a starting point in the 2,500-3,000 range.

So what are they waiting to see?

– Whether they’re getting lesser talent for that $250.

It’s not quite like when Triple-A went away and was replaced by entry-level baseball, but there’s a similar perception gap.

“We just have less experienced players,” said Shackleford. “Our guys are 22 to 26, mostly. But in spots, we have better athletes.”

In the AFL, offensive linemen under 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds need not apply – they couldn’t handle the every-down-a-pass bull rushes. Smaller, shiftier receivers often lost out to 6-foot-7 projects. Jack linebackers might get rushed into crisis management as receivers or quarterbacks.

“Now we’ve got true linebackers,” said Eucker, “a guy like Nick Haag who’s spent time with the Indianapolis Colts.”

– Whether they’re getting the same thrills.

Spokane beat Tri-Cities last week, 60-51. But Cedar Rapids also beat Green Bay 39-15. Sioux Falls scored 90 points in a game last year; Bemidji – no longer in the league – was shut out.

The true football fan should appreciate the return of the running game and even read-option quarterbacking “and that we can do things on defense to gain an advantage,” Shackleford said. “I enjoy the AFL game, but this takes the gimmick part out of it.”

And broadens the playbook beyond the same three or four pass plays – even if they produced a touchdown every third or fourth play.

But the indoor fan will miss the rebound nets and just their potential for craziness, though the ball being live off the wall in the IFL compensates a bit.

“I caught myself on film today chasing a field goal like it was going to bounce off the net,” said Empire defensive back Josh Ferguson, a former Shockie. “I’m thinking, ‘Why am I the only one running back there?’ ”

But maybe the real worry in a climate of attendance retreat is if the bolt from the AFL – which kept the Shock name out of spite – gives fence-sitters another reason to move on if they sense their emotional investment has been, well, discarded.

Eucker insisted that’s not the case.

“We entirely own our history,” he said. “It’s part of who we are as a franchise, but it’s also what our fans helped create. The AFL may have owned the trademark, but the brand was created by our fans, players and coaches, and we all enjoyed that success.

“Those last 10 years have led up to us building an empire.”

If that’s a marketing turn of phrase, it’s not bad.

No Shock there, either.

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