The Spokane Empire seem to be winning nearly everywhere but in the stands.
Spokane, as it did in its inaugural season in arenafootball2 in 2006 and in its initial Arena Football League season in 2010, is thriving as first-year members of the Indoor Football League. The team is 9-2 and positioned to host at least one postseason game and possibly throughout the playoffs.
They are unbeaten at the Arena in six games. Those have also been the six smallest crowds in the organization’s 11-year history.
Team officials anticipated some fan attrition after leaving the AFL for the IFL. The AFL retained the rights to Shock trademarks, forcing a rebranding to the Empire, one of several reasons fans have been slow to return.
“I think the rebranding created some confusion,” majority owner Nader Naini said. “People are wondering who the Empire is because all they know is Shock.”
Other possible factors? Some fans have taken a wait-and-see attitude with the new league and new style of football. Some perceive the IFL as a lower level since players make $225 per game compared to roughly $900 for AFL players, the latter figure doesn’t include deductions for housing and union dues.
“I wouldn’t agree with dropping leagues (as a reason), we changed leagues,” Naini said. “I think the quality of play is better. The (AFL) game was a novelty. These games are a lot more authentic.”
“We have every bit the ability that AFL guys have, we just don’t have the experience,” Empire coach Adam Shackleford said. “I watched Portland and Cleveland play the other night and most of those guys played af2. A lot of them played in the IFL.”
Some fans were disappointed that ticket prices remained the same as in 2015. The organization is finalizing a plan with lower ticket prices and offer money-saving incentives for 2017, director of operations Ryan Eucker said.
There have been complaints about the length of games. The first three home games lasted at least three hours, the home opener stretching 3:35. Some miss seeing familiar players who wore a Shock uniform for three or four seasons.
“On (the Empire coaches) radio show last week a gentleman I’d never met before said (the IFL) is just more fun, the running game has added excitement to the game,” Shackleford said. “There are other people that say they miss some of the guys that played here for a while and I get that because they used to sign two- and three-year contracts.
“If that’s why they won’t come any more, I would challenge them to come out and meet these guys. We want to get to 10,000, whether it’s the people who used to come or new people.”
The once-routine days of 10,000-plus crowds have been scarce for years. Spokane drew 10,000 in the 2014 season opener, once in 2013 and twice early in the 2011 season (not counting the Albi Stadium game). Crowd sizes have been shrinking but it was gradual, from 9,296 per game in 2013 to 8,034 last season.
Just 5,468 on average have showed up this season. The last two games have been around 4,500. Roughly 4,000 season tickets were sold in 2015. That figured dropped to 2,200 this season, 2,900 factoring in sponsors, Eucker said.
“I can tell you we’ve never made a penny in (the AFL) or this league,” Naini said. “We would need to see fan turnout dramatically increase for this team to break even. I shared this with my own team and front office: If we ever make a dollar, which we’re not close, it will be reinvested back into the team.”
The Empire are doing their part on the field. They scored a franchise-record 97 points in one game. They’ve won squeakers and blowouts on their home turf. The offense and defense rank in the upper half of the league.
“I’ve been around some things that just took a little longer to get off the ground,” Naini said. “It takes a little time to get people to realize this is a better game. I think we’re building some momentum right now.”
Naini noted 2017 will be a key year for the Empire and the IFL, which has announced the addition of a Salt Lake franchise.
“My partners and I have made a commitment to this,” he said. “If the community tells us it’s not interested in this asset, we’re not crazy. We’re going to want to see those numbers rise.”
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