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Q&A: Spokane Shock owner Sam Adams talks about season cancellation, getting games in and the state of football in America

Spokane Shock owner Sam Adams smiles during the news conference at the Spokane Arena announcing the return of the arena football team on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Shock owner Sam Adams smiles during the news conference at the Spokane Arena announcing the return of the arena football team on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Six months ago retired Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Sam Adams stepped to a lectern in front of an orange-clad crowd inside the Spokane Arena, announcing the return of Spokane’s once-successful professional football franchise.

The Indoor Football League’s Spokane Shock – which had successful af2 and Arena Football League run until it rebranded to the Spokane Empire and ceased operations in 2017 under previous ownership – was back after a two-year hiatus.

Adams, the Shock’s new owner, instantly assembled one of the IFL’s most talented teams and plucked championship coach Billy Back from the Carolina Cobras. Another winning season in the Lilac City appeared imminent.

But in March, just after the team shed its roster to 25 players after training camp, the coronavirus pandemic stopped the reborn Shock in their tracks before their March 22 season opener. The IFL ultimately canceled the season.

Adams, a Seattle-area resident who also owns other businesses, is confident the Shock will flourish again once things start to open up. He wants the team to play games as soon as it’s deemed safe to do so, league games or not.

He spoke to The Spokesman-Review about the organization’s past two months.

The Spokesman-Review: What was the waiting process like, initially, before the IFL decided to the shelve the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns? Keeping the players, coaches, personnel and fans patient during an uncertain time must have been hard.

Adams: It reminded me of September 11th, when I was still playing (with the Baltimore Ravens). That was rough. I think we were about to play New York that week, but they were saying, “Hey, we’re looking at playing, but our stadium parking lot is where all the deceased are being placed,” and we were waiting to see if we would play that week.

Right now we are in a crisis, and the best thing for our society is to chill right now. I told our players and fans, some that looked at me sideways, that, ‘Hey, people are getting sick and dying, and we have to look at what’s important. This is a game, and we want what’s best for everyone and everyone involved, and that’s for us to stop doing what we’re going. Let’s wait and see.’ There are more things important than us playing football right now.

Some guys were from very high-risk areas like New York, so I kept them here until they felt it was safe to return. We housed the players and we wanted to keep local restaurants going, too, by ordering takeout for them.

S-R: You recently guaranteed the Shock will play games in 2020 if things start to open back up, though the official IFL season won’t start until 2021. IFL commissioner Todd Tryon said pre-2021 games would have to be approved by the IFL Board of Directors should the Shock or other teams go that rout. What did you have in mind?

A: I don’t know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen. It depends on who wants to play, how much time we’d have to play. There will be other teams that want to get some games in, but right now I don’t know what that looks like. If things start open up again in the next couple months, we’ll have time to rock and roll. We’d want to play some teams from the region, and some said they would play us. But right now it’s hard to say.

S-R: With a roster dotted with former Southeastern Conference, Pac-12 and several others who’ve already proven themselves in the professional indoor game, who were you most excited to watch?

A: I thought people would get behind quarterback Charles McCullum, who is 1,000 yards away from being the IFL’s all-time leading passer; (defensive end) Nate Woodman and (defensive back) Seth Ellis were set to have a great year defensively. At nose tackle Chris Okoye, that’s a guy (Back) said he’s had his eye on for years. There’s a lot of great players on the roster.

S-R: So most of the team has returned to their respective hometowns?

A: Yes, but some are still around Spokane and got jobs, which is tough to do right now. Some are moving furniture and stuff like that, but many of them have degrees they’ll put to use once the economy opens back up.

S-R: And the coaches will be around?

A: Our coaches all live here and many moved here, like (Back), who will be here for a few years. We even have coaches who will be helping out coaching schools in the area, like (Shock offensive line coach) Marshall Hart, who is the head coach at Northwest Christian.

S-R: Professional football leagues in America that aren’t the NFL – namely the recently defunct AAF, XFL and, after decades of existence, the Arena Football League – have typically struggled. What’s it about the 13-team Indoor Football League that made you want to invest in it?

A: It’s the model. You look at how much it costs to play in the IFL, CIF, as compared to what it cost in the AFL, that cost up to $5 million (to have a team). In the IFL, we pay our players at affordable rate at $250 a game, where some AFL players were making thousands a game, and that model isn’t sustainable with the amount of money the arenas are bringing in.

S-R: Did the Shock take any big financial losses because of the pandemic?

A: No, we haven’t had our season yet, and the fiscal year isn’t over. We don’t plan on losing money, but you have to take care of your ticket one year at a time. We’re on a three-year plan. I bought the field and other expenditures, but this is Year 1 in an investment that will take two to three years once we get back on track. What (the canceled 2020 season) does is give us more time to prepare because now we have time to get things where they need to go.

S-R: Are you confident most of your roster will still return once the social distancing mandates are lifted?

A: They can’t leave for another (IFL) team, but they can to another league if they want. I don’t think we’ll have a problem bringing our players back. We’re going to have the best team that we can, and I felt like we were going to be the best team in the league this year.

But a lot can happen in a year. A player’s wife can decide, ‘Hey, you should probably hang ’em up,’ and you never know. But we’re excited about what’s happening going forward.

S-R: Do 2020 season-ticket holders get a refund?

A: Yes. We know people are losing their jobs and wanted to give them that option.

They also have the option to roll over their tickets for the 2021 season, which will be a 16-game regular season.

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