Spokane Empire to cease operations
July 12, 2017 Updated Wed., July 12, 2017 at 8:49 p.m.
The Spokane Empire take the opening kickoff against the Colorado Crush in front of a sparse crowd, May 26, 2017, in Spokane Arena. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)Buy a print of this photo
The Spokane Empire is out of business for the 2018 season and probably for good unless a local owner or ownership group steps forward.
Seattle-based majority owner Nader Naini said the decision to sack the 2018 season was made for financial reasons.
“The challenge is really economically,” he said. “This was a money-losing proposition.”
Naini said he and a California partner have lost “multiple seven figures in four years. At some point, you have to ask yourself is this a hobby or a business.”
Naini purchased the team from Brady Nelson in 2014 and lost substantial money in two years in the Arena Football League. Citing the AFL’s failed business model, Naini moved the team into the less-expensive Indoor Football League in 2016.
The franchise rebranded to the Empire when it switched leagues after declining to pay a reported $250,000 to the AFL for Shock trademark rights.
The Empire won on the field, advancing to the 2016 IFL title game before losing to Sioux Falls, but attendance lagged compared to the Shock days in the AFL (2010-15) and arenafootball2 (2006-09), when sellouts and near capacity crowds were common.
Naini declined to give specific numbers, but it’s believed ownership lost at least $600,000 in 2016.
“I was on a conference call Tuesday when I got the final news,” Empire head coach Adam Shackleford said. “When you lay it out, how do you disagree with a businessman that’s making a business decision?”
Spokane won three titles as af2 and AFL members and averaged 10,000-plus fans from 2007-11. After winning the AFL title in its inaugural season, Spokane’s attendance slowly slipped to 8,034 by 2015.
That figure dropped to 5,275 in 2016. Those were the eight lowest-attended games in organization history, until this season. The team averaged an announced crowd of 4,682 per game.
Naini said to make arena football work attendance needs to be “north of 5,000, plus reasonable, not extraordinary sponsorship support. Short of that, you consistently lose money.”
The product is entertaining and the team wasn’t far from the attendance figures it needed to stay in business, Naini said.
“We had conversations internally about what else we can do to try to push attendance to 5,000,” said Naini, who noted the team has 2,000 diehard fans. “Maybe we weren’t doing something right, maybe we didn’t have a face of the franchise or it was not having local ownership, but for some reason we weren’t able to get over the hump.
“What I’m hoping is it might stimulate a local partner (to get involved). It’s been hard for me as someone who lives on the other side of the state to make an impact with the local community.”
Shackleford is hoping for the same thing, but added, “I think the community, for now, has spoken.”
The IFL has had considerable turnover in Spokane’s two seasons. One league source said the Colorado and Salt Lake City franchises are not expected to return, which would leave seven teams for 2018. Meanwhile, the AFL dwindled to five teams in 2017.
“I’m disappointed, really, really disappointed,” two-year linebacker Nick Haag said. “I just got off the phone with (running back) Trevor Kennedy. A bunch of us are talking and we’re just in disbelief.”
Shackleford said he’s probably coached his last game. He’ll continue as an analyst on SWX football broadcasts, adding, “We’re going to stay here and be part of this community.”
Haag has been in contact with his agent, “but I don’t know my next move.”
The organization said it will refund all 2018 ticket deposits. Fans are asked to contact the ticket office at (509) 242-7462.
Spokane (8-8) lost six of its last seven games and missed the 2017 playoffs. Naini said that wasn’t a factor in his decision to cease operations.
“I don’t like failing at anything, but I feel like we have to do something different to make it succeed. A local owner could make a difference in trying to achieve those objectives,” Naini said. “I’m terribly sad we are where we are.”
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