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The Untold Stories of Forgotten Teams

Archive for the ‘Arena Football’ Category

#54 – New York Knights

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The New York Knights were a one-year wonder in the Arena Football League during the summer of 1988.

League founder Jim Foster sketched his idea for a 50-yard indoor football game on the back of a manilla envelope while watching the Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game at the Madison Square Garden in February 1981.  Foster layered a 50-yard carpeted football field over a hockey rink and dispensed with punting, most rushing, and practically all defense.  Teams would play eight-on-eight, with all players except the quarterback and kicker playing “Iron Man” football – offense and defense.  Taut 30-foot wide nets placed on either side of the uprights kept kickoffs, missed field goals and errant touchdown passes in play.

Armed with an ESPN television deal, Foster launched a preview season in June 1987, featuring four league-owned franchises playing a six-game schedule.  Cable TV ratings and attendance were promising, so Foster expanded the league in 1988 by selling limited partnerships to five new investors groups.  The six team line-up for the 1988 season included the returning Pittsburgh Gladiators and Chicago Bruisers, along with four expansion teams: the Knights, the Detroit Drive, the Los Angeles Cobras and the New England Steamrollers.

New Jersey toy marketer and philanthropist Russ Berrie was the investor behind the Knights.  A self-made millionaire, Berrie started his toy company in garage in 1963, selling inexpensive and often sentimental toys such as Fuzzy Wuzzies, Sillisculpts and troll dolls.  By 1988, Berrie’s firm was a public traded company with over $200 million in annual revenue, a sizable chunk of it generated as the exclusive toy licensee of Snuggles The Fabric Softening Bear.

The Knights featured an eclectic cast of pro football castaways.  Quarterback Jim Crocicchia was a Wharton School grad from U. Penn who played for the New York Giants as a replacement during the 1987 players strike, as did his favorite receiver Edwin Lovelady.  Running back-linebacker Johnny Shepherd was the 1983 Rookie-of-the-Year in the Canadian Football League, and a strike player for the Buffalo Bills.  Vince Courville, Derek Hughes, Eric Schubert and Peter Raeford were refugees from the United States Football League, as was Head Coach and General Manager Jim Valek, who once served in a senior executive role for Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals franchise.

Knights players earned $1,000 per game for the 12-game season, plus a bonus of $150 for each victory.  But the Knights didn’t win much.  They defeated the Los Angeles Cobras twice on the road, but lost their other ten games, including all six home games at Madison Square Garden, to finish in last place at 2-10.  13,667 curiosity seekers turned out for the Knights debut at the Garden on May 9th, 1988, but the teams remaining games all drew announced crowds of 7,500 or fewer.

Following the 1988 season, Foster’s limited partnership structure fell apart.  For their investment, the limited partners received operating rights to their local franchise, but little of the financial and marketing discretion typically accorded to professional sports owners.  Player personnel and league marketing decisions remained the domain of Foster, the league’s Commissioner.  As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman:

“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys.  We tell ‘em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’  That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”

Tom Rooney, director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena where the league-owned Pittsburgh Gladiators played, gave a different take on the arrangement to The Pittsburgh Press in November 1988.

“You don’t tell someone who puts in millions of dollars how to run their team.  Jim Foster was naive.  It’s impractical because of the way of human nature and especially the human nature of people who are worth millions of dollars.  They don’t throw in millions of dollars and say ‘Jim Foster, you run the league’.”

The limited partners attempted to buy out Foster during the fall of 1988, but he refused to sell.  In February 1989, Detroit Drive officials announced to the press that the 1989 season would be cancelled as a result of the dispute.  Ultimately, Foster retained control of his creation but most of the limited partners departed.  The Knights pulled out and shut down prior to the 1989 season, as did the Los Angeles and Providence, RI expansion franchises.

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Russ Berrie passed away suddenly at the age of 69 on Christmas Day 2002.  After his Arena Football investment collapsed at the end of 1988, Berrie turned his attention to the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a Florida-based winter league for ex-Major League players aged 35 and over.  At one point, Berrie traded 500 teddy bears from his toy & gift company to the Winter Haven Super Sox for 48-year old pitcher Luis Tiant.

Former Knights Head Coach & General Manager Jim Valek died in 2005.

In 1996, the Arena Football League sold a franchise to ITT-Cablevision, operators of the Madison Square Garden.  The New York Cityhawks attempted to make a go of it, but the second time was not the charm.  The Cityhawks departed for Hartford, Connecticut in 1999 after two seasons of wretched attendance, marking the final effort of the Arena League to conquer Manhattan.

 

Written by andycrossley

November 8, 2011 at 12:17 am

#53 Pensacola Barracudas

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The Pensacola Barracudas were a brief entry in Arena Football 2 (AF2), the small-market developmental league to the original Arena Football League (1987-2008).

Georgia real estate develop David Berkman owned the Barracudas, along with minority partners Charles Felix and Bruce Burge.  Berkman was a serial hockey investor during the 1990’s who owned, at various times, the Atlanta Knights and Quebec Rafales of the International Hockey League, the Atlanta Fire Ants of Roller Hockey International, and various East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) clubs including the Birmingham Bulls, Jacksonville Lizard Kings and the Pensacola Ice Pilots.

In the spring of 1999 Berkman and his partners made a bid to enter three indoor football franchises into a Southeastern U.S. start-up called the Xtreme Football League.  Berkman’s group reserved the Birmingham, Jacksonville and Pensacola markets – all locations where they had experience operating ECHL hockey clubs.

Meanwhile, the major market Arena Football League announced plans to start its own second-tier league which would be known as AF2 and would launch in 2000.  In July 1999, AF2 bought out and absorbed the Xtreme Football League into AF2.  Berkman and Co. paid a $150,000 fee per franchise to enter the Birmingham Steeldogs, Jacksonville Tomcats and Pensacola Barracudas into AF2.

Former Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets defensive back Kevin Porter served as Pensacola’s Head Coach during the club’s first season in 2000.

Due to the overlapping ownership, the staff of the ECHL Ice Pilots operated the Barracudas during the summer months.  During AF2’s first season in 2000, the Barracudas were a hot ticket, claiming an average of 7,294 fans per game at the Pensacola Civic Center.  Attendance dropped precipitously in the next two seasons, mirroring the experience of the Ice Pilots, whose attendance fell off nearly 50% between 1998 and 2001. Barracudas attendance bottomed out at 2,768 per game in their third season during the summer of 2002.

The club folded on November 11, 2002.

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Wide Receiver/Defensive Back Will Pettis made his pro debut with the Barracudas in 2002.  He went on to join the first-tier Arena Football League’s Dallas Desperadoes in 2003, where he became an All-League performer. Pettis won the league’s Ironman-of-the-Year award in both 2007 and 2008, given to the league’s best two-way player.  Pettis went to NFL training camps with the New Orleans Saints (2003) and the Atlanta Falcons (2005).

Downloads & Further Reading:

2000 Barracudas game results on ArenaFan.com
2001 Barracudas game results on ArenaFan.com
2002 Barracudas game results on ArenaFan.com
Pensacola Barracudas Article Sources

Written by andycrossley

November 4, 2011 at 7:47 pm

#40 Texas Terror / Houston ThunderBears

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The Arena Football League awarded a Houston, Texas expansion franchise to NBA Rockets owner Leslie Alexander on October 26th, 1995.  Alexander, a former Wall Street stock trader who purchased the Rockets in 1993, named the team the Texas Terror and placed them in the Houston Summit, as part of his burgeoning local pro sports empire.  (Alexander would add a founding franchise in the WNBA – the Houston Comets – to his stable in 1997).

The Terror debuted at The Summit on April 27th, 1996.  An announced crowd of 11,501 watched the Terror drop a low-scoring (by Arena Football standards) 36-24 decision to another expansion club, the Minnesota Fighting Pike.  The Terror  were non-competitive under Head Coach John Paul Young, losing their first 11 games, en route to a 1-13 record, second worst in the 15-team league in 1996.  The club lost all seven of its home games, which were played before an announced average of 9,006 fans per game.

Dave Ewart replaced Young as Head Coach prior to the 1997 campaign.  Under Ewart, the Terror improved noticeably on the field to 6-8, but at the box office the season was a disaster.  Only 3,624 turned out for the Terror’s second season debut against Kurt Warner and the Iowa Barnstormers on May 2, 1997.  Announced attendance for seven home dates plunged more than 50% down to 4,153 on average, second worst in the league in 1997.

In December 1997, Alexander and his executives scrapped the Texas Terror brand concept.  The team was not resonating, for whatever reason – losing, a “statewide” identity that didn’t speak to the Houston community, or perhaps the Terror’s cartoonish, Frankenstein-inspired aesthetic which seemed about as intimidating as a box of Franken-Berry children’s cereal.  The franchise continued under Alexander’s ownership and was re-branded the Houston ThunderBears.

New name, same problems.

The Thunderbears trotted out their new “Thunder Blue, Touchdown Teal and Electric Orange” colors on May 9th, 1998 at the Compaq Center.  (Another offseason re-branding project…after nearly a quarter century as the Houston Summit, the personal computing giant bought naming rights to the building in late 1997.).  Only 4,629 curiosity-seekers turned out to see the ThunderBears defeat the Florida Bobcats.  It was the last time the would crack the 4,000 mark all season, except for a season finale outlier crowd of 9,734, a number which would seem to have all the hallmarks of a massive discounting/comping effort.

On the field, at least, the team continued to improve under new Head Coach Steve Thonn.  The ThunderBears won the Central Division title with an 8-6 record, riding the arm of former East Texas State quarterback Clint Dolezel who threw 81 touchdown passes.  The Arizona Rattlers eliminated the T-Bears in the first round of the Arena Football playoffs in August 1998.

Under Thonn, the Thunderbears led the Arena Football League in total offense for three consecutive years from 1998 to 2000, but the club fell back to losing records in 1999 and 2000, failing to return to the playoffs.  Attendance bottomed out in 1999, when the club averaged  a  league-worst 3,022 fans.  This included an embarrassing crowd of 1,517 for a May 1st, 1999 game against the Grand Rapids Rampage at Compaq Center – the smallest announced figure in the league’s 13-year history.

Under the circumstances, it was remarkable that Leslie Alexander hung in for as long as he did.  On February 16th, 2001, on the eve of the team’s 6th season, Alexander sold the franchise back to the Arena Football League for an undisclosed sum.  The league designated the now homeless T-Bears as a travel team, barnstorming across the country to gauge interest for expansion franchises for Arena Football 2, the small market developmental league.  The T-Bears “home games” would be played in far flung cities such as Bismarck (ND), Charleston (WV), Fresno (CA), Lubbock (TX) and Madison (WI).

The ThunderBears finished their final season in last place in Arena Football’s Western Division with a 3-11 record.  Arena Football folded the club following the 2001 season.

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Forbes named former Terror/ThunderBears owner Leslie Alexander to its list of the 400 wealthiest Americans on several occasions between 2000 and 2006, with a personal net worth as high as $1.2 billion in 2006.  In December 2008, Forbes named Alexander as the NBA’s best owner.  He continues to own the Houston Rockets, although he divested himself of the WNBA’s Houston Comets in early 2007.

The Houston Summit/Compaq Center was rendered obsolete with the construction of the Toyota Center in 2003.  The former Summit building now hosts Houston’s Lakewood mega church, whose ubiquitous pastor and self-help author Joel Osteen broadcasts his sermons to more than 100 nations worldwide from the former arena.

Former Terror/Thundbears quarterback Clint Dolezel left the team prior to the 2000 season to sign with the Chicago Bears.  He was cut in training camp and returned to the Arena Football League in 2001, where he went on to establish numerous career passing records, including becoming the first player to pass for 900 career touchdowns indoors.  As of 2011, he is the Head Coach of the Arena Football League’s Dallas Vigilantes.

Sources:

Texas Terror/Houston ThunderBears Sources

Written by andycrossley

October 1, 2011 at 4:22 pm

#33 Toronto Phantoms

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On September 1st, 2000, Canadian communications giant Rogers Communications moved into professional sports ownership, agreeing to purchase 80% of the Toronto Blue Jays from Interbrew SA for $112 million.  Rogers brought in former Toronto Sun publisher and CEO Paul Godfrey to run the club as Blue Jays President.

Meanwhile, Godfrey’s 27-year old son Rob Godfrey had sports ambitions of his own for Toronto.  Godfrey and partners Ronnie Strasser and Keith Stein approached Arena Football League (AFL) Commissioner David Baker in the summer of 2000 about the possibility of acquiring an AFL expansion franchise for Toronto or purchasing and relocating an existing club.  Baker and his staff brokered the purchase of the nomadic New England Sea Wolves franchise for a reported price of approximately $7 million.  Toronto would be the fifth stop for the luckless franchise, which traced its history to the formation of the short-lived Cincinnati Rockers (1992-1993), and subsequently failed in two separate stints at the Hartford Civic Center and in a demoralizing two-year run at Madison Square Garden in New York.  Just five years earlier, the moribund franchise sold in a league-brokered fire sale for only $200,000.

The Godfrey group’s purchase of the Sea Wolves received preliminary approval during Arena Football League governors meetings at Arena Bowl XIV in Orlando in August 2000.  In early September, just as Rogers Communications bought the Blue Jays and Paul Godfrey took over the baseball club, Rogers also agreed to take a reported 51% majority stake in the Toronto Phantoms Football Limited Partnership.  League officials and team execs introduced the Phantoms to Toronto at a press conference on October 17th, 2000, marking the first expansion of the Arena Football League outside the United States.

The Phantoms derived their name from a not-so-frightening source: co-founder and minority partner Ronnie Strasser’s Toronto-based Phantom Industries, North America’s third largest manufacturer of women’s hosiery.  Nevertheless, at least two people found Arena Football’s arrival in Toronto quite terriying: Canadian Football League President Jeff Giles and Sherwood Schwarz, owner of the CFL’s struggling Toronto Argonauts.  The Phantoms’ April-August schedule would overlap by two months the the Argos’ June-November outdoor season at Skydome.  In addition, the two clubs would spent the winter months competing for the same local sponsor and season ticket accounts.

“I’m disappointed in the arena league because they said they wouldn’t do anything to harm or hurt the CFL,” Giles told Canadian Press in October 2000. “I think it is extremely naive to say that it (arena football) won’t hurt the CFL.”

The Phantoms debuted at the Air Canada Centre on April 14th, 2001, a 61-54 loss to the Buffalo Destroyers in front of an announced crowd of 10,023.  The Toronto Star did few favors for the new franchise with its inaugural game coverage, published under the nasty headline “Obscure Phantoms Kick Off”.  Star beat writer Mark Harding used his story lead to cast doubt on the club’s attendance figures.

On the turf, the 2001 Phantoms posted an 8-6 record with a mostly unheralded roster.  Former University of Southern California quarterback Pat O’Hara, a two-time Arena Bowl winner with the Orlando Predators, led the team offensively, along with Offensive Specialist Damian Harrell, a Sea Wolves holdover.  In the postseason, the Phantoms defeated their divisional rivals the New York Dragons in the Wild Card round before falling to the Nashville Kats in the AFL quarterfinal.

Any fears that the Phantoms would sink the Toronto Argonauts and the CFL at the box office proved unfounded.  The Sherwood Schwarz-era was a dark time for Toronto Argos fans, but the damage was largely self-inflicted.  The Phantoms announced attendance of 48,448 for an average of just 6,921 over seven home dates.  The figures ranked 16th out of 18 AFL franchises in 2001, better only than the New Jersey Gladiators and the Florida Bobcats and worst among AFL markets that returned for the 2002 season.

The 2002 Phantoms got off to a 5-5 start before dropping their final four games to finish at 5-9 and out of playoff contention.  Attendance remained flat at 6,975, which ranked 14th in the 16-team league.  In September 2002, the Phantoms owners dropped out of the league after 24 months. 

Phantoms President Rob Gregory cited several factors in the decision in a September 2002 Sports Business Journal article, including larger than expected losses, the unfavorable exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollar and the impending move of the Arena Football League’s 2003 season to a February (instead of April) start to accomodate the league’s new national American broadcast television contract with NBC.  The Air Canada Centre already had three winter season tenants in the NHL’s Maple Leafs, NBA’s Raptors and the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League, which made attractive home dates scarce as the AFL became a winter/spring sport to appease its broadcast partner.

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The Arena Football League never returned to Canada after the failure of the Phantoms.  The original AFL folded and filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after 22 seasons.  A group of former AFL owners subsequently bought the name out of bankruptcy in November 2009 and re-launched a modestly budgeted, lower profile version of the league in the spring of 2010.

Rob Godfrey joined his father Paul in the Toronto Blue Jays front office and worked his way up to Senior Vice President of Busines Operations before departing in 2006.

Downloads & Links:

2001 Toronto Phantoms stats & game results on ArenaFan.com
2002 Toronto Phantoms stats & game results on ArenaFan.com

Sources:

“Toronto is new haunt for AFL Phantoms” Canadian Press, October 18, 2000
“Obscure Phantoms kick off; Announced crowd of 10,023 on hand for 61-54 loss to in inaugural season as the first Arena Football
League team in Canada”, Mark Harding, The Toronto Star, April 15, 2001
“AFL goes 1-1 in off season”, John Lombardo, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal, September 30, 2002
“Godfrey ready to leave Jays?” Perry Lefko, Sportsnet.ca, October 22, 2007

Written by andycrossley

July 1, 2011 at 11:38 pm

#21 & #22 Hartford Hellcats & Connecticut Coyotes

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Maybe we should blame it on Morrie Silver.  In 1956, faced with the loss of his city’s beloved Red Wings minor league baseball club, the Rochester, New York businessman rallied more than 8,000 of his fellow citizens to purchase stock in Rochester Community Baseball, Inc. in order to buy the team and its ballpark from the St. Louis Cardinals.  Today the Rochester Red Wings are the longest running team in the history of minor league sports and remain community-owned under the auspices of Rochester Community Baseball, which continues to be traded as an over-the-counter stock.

Silver’s so-called “72-day Miracle” in Rochester has inspired numerous imitators but few equals.  Virtually all efforts to finance minor league sports franchises through public stock offerings have ended in abject failure.  The Chicago Hustle of the Women’s Professional Basketball League and the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League tried (and failed) to dig out of accumulated debts through the issuance of stock.  The New York Express soccer team tried to fund their 1986 start-up with a massive $5.3 million offering – few were interested and the team folded before finishing their first season.

Hartford Sports & Entertainment Group formed in early 1993 for the purpose of bringing professional basketball to downtown Hartford, Connecticut.  Like the New York Express, Hartford Sports formed with the intent to fund operations with the proceeds of a public stock sale.  On May 26th, 1993, Hartford Sports struck a deal with Albany-based sports investor Joseph O’Hara to lease his Capital Region (NY) Pontiacs franchise in the Continental Basketball Association and relocate it to the Hartford Civic Center for the 1993-94 season.  The three-year agreement allowed Hartford Sports to lease and operate O’Hara’s CBA club for a fee of $100,000 per season.  At the time, the CBA was the Official Developmental League of the NBA.  Dozens of CBA players made the jump to the NBA each year,typically on short-term 10-day contracts.  Overlooked players such as Michael Adams and John Starks broke out as NBA All-Stars after first gaining notice in the CBA.

The Hellcats debuted at the Civic Center on November 20th, 1993 against the Columbus (OH) Horizon before a CBA record crowd of 11,762.  Two weeks later, 10,346 packed the Civic Center to watch the Hellcats play an exhibition against Magic Johnson’s All-Stars.  General Manager Rich Coffey told The New York Times that the Hellcats sold 2,384 season tickets and inked $300,000 in corporate sponsorship for the 1993-94 season.

Despite a losing record of 18-38 in 1993-94, the Hellcats announced an average attendance of 5,003 per game which ranked second in the 16-team CBA.  In pre-season interviews, Hartford Sports President Michael Kerski pegged the team’s breakeven attendance at 4,000 paid customers per game.  But the notion of a “breakeven attendance figure” is often more about spin rather than substance, meant to assure local media and sponsors that the owners have a clear-eyed business plan.  A breakeven calculation based on ticket sales would quickly fall by the wayside if the team underperformed in other key areas, such as expense controls or corporate sponsorship.  The Hellcats posted an operating loss of $590,386 for the 1993-94 season.

There was another problem.  Without deep-pocketed ownership to backstop the team’s finances, Hartford Sports relied on the success of the public stock sale to generate working capital.  Hartford Sports offered 100,000 shares valued at $10.00 each.  Investors had to make a minimum purchase of $2,500 for one investment unit of 250 shares.  Ultimately, Hartford signed on over 150 shareholders, but most were small businessmen and private individuals who purchased only the $2,500 minimum stake.  The corporation managed to raise only $410,000 from the planned $1 million offering.

In the spring of 1994, Hartford Sports partnered with the Connecticut Development Authority (CDA), the financing arm of Connecticut Department of Economic Development, to obtain a $1.25 million loan package to provide more working capital.  The CDA provided a $250,000 direct loan from the Connecticut Growth Fund and guaranteed an additional $1 million loan from Shawmut Bank.  Several Hartford Sports board members and Hellcats General Manager Rich Coffey, the CBA’s Executive-of-the-Year for 1993-94, expressed concerns about the additional debt burden and terms and parted ways with the organization.

The loan contained several challenging provisions.  The CDA wanted the asset value of the franchise as collateral against the debt it had guaranteed.  Hartford Sports was required to purchase the Hellcats outright from Joseph O’Hara rather than renew their lease option.  In addition, Hartford Sports agreed to purchase an inactive Arena Football League franchise – the Cincinnati Rockers – and move it to the Civic Center in the spring of 1995.  Finally, the lease required Hartford Sports to radically modify their lease with the state-run Hartford Civic Center.  The Hellcats paid a flat rental fee of $4,000 per game during the 1993-94 season.  For the 1994-95 campaign, Hartford Sports agreed to pay the greater amount of $8,100 per game or $4,000 + 15% of the game day box office receipts.  Although the Hellcats rent would more than double, Hartford Sports still would not receive any share of Civic Center concessions or parking revenue.

On June 22, 1994, Hartford Sports announced the purchase of both clubs, paying $700,000 to take ownership of the Hellcats and $200,000 to acquire the Arena Football franchise, which would now be known as the Connecticut Coyotes.  After paying the two franchise fees, some overhanging debt from the Hellcats first season, and legal fees associated with the loan process, Hartford Sports was left with a new $1.25M debt obligation…and less than $100,000 of new working capital heading into their second Continental Basketball Association season.

The dominoes fell quickly for Hartford Sports & Entertainment after that.  Hartford Sports went most of the summer without a General Manager for the Hellcats and Coyotes properties until Casey Kahler arrived in mid-August of 1994.   The corporation issued a prospectus in mid-October that projected necessary sales of 5,000 Hellcats and 10,000 Coyotes tickets per game to meet its debt and payables obligations.  During the offseason, Hellcats season ticket sales fell from 2,400 to 1,800 for the club’s second season.  Hartford Sports missed its very first interest payment on the loan package in November 1994.  Shawmut Bank notified the team it was in default on the $1 million loan on December 14th, 1994.

On the court, the Hellcats assembled a rogues gallery of basketball curios during their brief run in the CBA.  There was the 7′ 5″ center Chuck Nevitt, one of the four tallest player in NBA history.  And Bo Kimble, who led 11th-seeded Loyola-Marymount’s improbable and inspiring run to the Elite Eight in 1990 after the death of his teammate and friend Hank Gathers.  During their final days, the Hellcats traded for the controversial former Georgetown star and 1988 U.S. Olympian Charles Smith.  Smith joined the Hellcats in December 1994, several months after his release from a two-year prison term for killing two Boston University students in a March 1991 hit-and-run incident.  Smith had been with the Boston Celtics at the time, playing on a 10-day contract after a call-up from the CBA.

On January 20th, 1995 the CDA took over the operation of the Connecticut Coyotes franchise from Hartford Sports, seeking to sell the team as a hedge against the now toxic loan.  The Hellcats staggered on through January 1995, “flat broke” in the words of Hartford Sports board member Tom Drohan.  The team charged fans to shoot baskets on the Civic Center floor following home games in order to generate meal money for upcoming road trips.  A late January road trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan was funded by drawing down on a letter of credit posted with the CBA league office – a rarely used last resort measure.

The Hellcats gave up the ghost on January 30th, 1995, cancelling a scheduled home game against the Mexico City Aztecas and folding in midseason.  Connecticut Development Authority spokesman Joe Cohen provided a damning epitaph in a press interview:

“I don’t think it’s so much an example of Hartford not being able to support a CBA basketball franchise as it is a reflection of weak management that took what was a strong concept and ran it into the ground from a business standpoint.”

Brian Foley, a health care entrepeneur from Avon, Connecticut, agreed with Cohen’s assessment.  He stepped forward in February 1995 with an offer to purchase the shuttered Hellcats franchise from the CBA for $750,000.  The league initially balked, which meant the club could not be resuscitated in time to play out the 1994-95 schedule.  Foley eventually purchased the former Hellcats franchise in May of 1995 for an estimated $450,000.  Foley re-branded the club as the Connecticut Pride and entered it in the CBA for the 1995-96 season.

Meanwhile, the CDA-managed Connecticut Coyotes debuted at the Civic Center on May 13, 1995, losing to the Orlando Predators 45-43 in front of an announced crowd of 7,643.  The Arena Football team flopped on the turf and at the box office.  Under coach Rick Buffington, the Coyotes finished 1-11, losing all six of their home games in Hartford.  The Coyotes average attendance of 7,853 for six games ranked 11th in the 13-team AFL.  In October 1995, the CDA unloaded the Coyotes to Benjamin Morris and Scott Gerard, both of Connecticut, for $750,000.

“This is my first venture of this type, but it’s somewhat similar to what I do,” Morris told The Hartford Courant.  “I usually buy undeveloped or rundown real estate properties, and I see a lot of parallels.”

Morris brought in Larry Kuharich, who coached the Tampa Bay Storm to the 1993 Arena Bowl title, to replace Buffington.  Kuharich signed the young quarterback Aaron Garcia to lead the team on the field.  Garcia, in his second AFL season, had a strong campaign throwing for 31 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions.  But overall, the product was the same.  The Coyotes finished 2-12, dropping their two-year cumulative record to a woeful 3-23 with only two wins for the home crowds in Hartford.  Attendance figures remained near the bottom of the league in 1996 with a purported average of 7,850 per game.

In September 1996, Morris negotiated to sell his Arena Football franchise to ITT-Cablevision, owners of Madison Square Garden.  The Arena Football League blocked the sale, wishing to sell their own New York City expansion team to ITT-Cablevision.  Morris took legal action against the league.  In October 1996, the parties reached an undisclosed settlement, the net result of which was that Morris sold or returned the Coyotes back to the league, who dissolved the franchise during the first week of November.  The league subsequently sold an expansion franchise to ITT-Cablevision which began play at the Madison Square Garden in 1997 as the New York Cityhawks.

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Brian Foley operated the Connecticut Pride, formed out of the ashes of the Hellcats, in the CBA until the end of the 1998-99 season, when CBA owners sold the entire league to Isaiah Thomas for $10 million.  Foley lost an estimated $2 million in the CBA during his four years of ownership.  Thomas fared worse, running the entire league into the ground in less than two years.  The CBA shut down in 2001 and the Pride followed shortly thereafter.

The New York Cityhawks fared poorly in Manhattan.  After two seasons at the Garden, the club’s owner relocated the team to Hartford, giving the city it’s second helping of Arena Football.  The renamed New England Sea Wolves fared no better than the Coyotes before them, lasting only two years at the Civic Center (1999-2000) before leaving town for Toronto.

Downloads:

Hartford Hellcats & Connecticut Coyotes Sources

Written by andycrossley

June 3, 2011 at 9:40 am

#17 Chicago Bruisers

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Jim Foster sketched the concept for Arena Football on the back of a manilla envelope while watching the Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden in February 1981.  Foster’s idea for a high-scoring, pass happy Frankensport layered a 50-yard carpeted football field over a hockey rink.  Teams would play eight-on-eight, with all players except the quarterback playing both ways – offense and defense.  There would be no punting and taut 30-foot wide nets placed on either side of the uprights to keep kickoffs, missed field goals and errant passes in play.

Foster commissioned the equipment and staged test games of Arena Football at the Rockford, Illinois MetroCentre in the spring of 1986 and the Rosemont Horizon in suburban Chicago in February 1987.  Armed with an ESPN television deal, Foster launched a preview season in June 1987, featuring four league-owned franchises playing a six-game schedule.  The four original clubs were the Chicago Bruisers, Denver Dynamite, Pittsburgh Gladiators and Washington Commandos.

The Chicago Bruisers made their home at the Rosemont Horizon, site of one of Foster’s test games, in early 1987.  The Bruisers sold 1,100 season tickets for the 1987 season and debuted at home on June 20th, 1987 against the Denver Dynamite on ESPN.   The teams treated the announced crowd of 10,103 to the type of hyperactive end-to-end scoring that Foster had promised.  The Bruisers blew an eight point lead and missed a game winning field goal attempt – all in the final 43 seconds of regulation – before falling 52-44 in overtime.

The 1987 Bruisers roster consisted mostly of NFL training camp castoffs and refugees from the defunct USFL.  The most experienced players included NFL and USFL vets Durwood Roquemore, Reggie “Super Gnat” Smith and the kicker Nick MikeMayer.  Back-up quarterback Sean Payton barely saw the field during his lone season in Arena Football, but would later go on to coach the New Orleans Saints to victory in Super Bowl XLIV.  The Bruisers finished the brief season at 2-4, allowing the most points in the league (310) and scoring the fewest (217).   The league overall claimed average attendance in excess of 11,000 per game.

Following Arena Football’s 1987 success, Foster sold limited partnerships in his creation to five new investor groups.  Arena Football placed expansion clubs in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and Providence, Rhode Island.   A group of four Illinois businessmen stepped forward as limited partners in the Bruisers, led by Chicago heart surgeon Dr. Constantine “Dino” Tatooles.

Everything about the 1988 Arena Football League was bigger.  The scheduled doubled from 6 to 12 regular season games per team.  Player pay increasesd from $500 per game with a $50 bonus for each win to $1,000 per game with a $150 victory bonus.  The 1988 Bruisers surged to a 10-0 start on the arm of Arena League MVP Ben Bennett, who passed for 49 touchdowns in 12 games. 

The Bruisers finished the season in first place with a 10-1-1 record and earned the right to host Arena Bowl II on July 30th, 1988.  In an unusually low-scoring game, the Detroit Drive defeated the Bruisers 24-13 before 15,018 at the Rosemont Horizon and a national television audience on ESPN.

Following the 1988 season, Foster’s limited partnership structure began to fall apart.  For their investment, the limited partners received operating rights to their local franchise, but little of the financial and marketing discretion typically accorded to professional sports owners.  Player personnel and league marketing decisions remained the domain of Foster, the league’s Commissioner.  As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman:

“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys.  We tell ’em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’  That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”

Tom Rooney, director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena where the league-owned Pittsburgh Gladiators played, gave a different take on the arrangement to The Pittsburgh Press in November 1988.

“You don’t tell someone who puts in millions of dollars how to run their team.  Jim Foster was naive.  It’s impractical because of the way of human nature and especially the human nature of people who are worth millions of dollars.  They don’t throw in millions of dollars and say ‘Jim Foster, you run the league’.”

Ben Bennett - 1988

The limited partners attempted to buy out Foster during the fall of 1988, but he refused to sell.  In February 1989, Detroit Drive officials announced to the press that the 1989 season would be cancelled as a result of the dispute.  Ultimately, Foster retained control of his creation and most of the limited partners departed.  The Los Angeles, New England and New York clubs were shut down.  Deprived of investors and time, Foster scrambled to put together an abbreviated 1989 season.  Games would be co-promoted with arena management companies, rather than franchise investors.  The Denver Dynamite and Washington (now Maryland) Commandos were resuscitated to boost the league to five active clubs, possibly because their helmets and uniforms were already in storage from 1987.  The league announced plans for what amounted to a barnstorming season.  The entire league schedule would consist of just ten regular season games, plus two semi-finals and Arena Bowl III.  Each of the five clubs would play four games, appearing only one time in their home city.  The remaining five games were scheduled in neutral markets as test games for future expansion opportunities.

Foster slashed player salaries from $1,000 per game to $400 per game in 1989, but many key players returned anyway, including Bruisers quarterback and 1988 league MVP Ben Bennett, Reggie Smith and RB-LB Osia Lewis.  Head Coach Perry Moss did not return after leading the Bruisers to a first place record in 1988.  He was replaced by long-time Ottawa Rough Riders Head Coach George Brancato.

The 1989 “Chicago” Bruisers made their lone appearance in Illinois on July 7th, 1989 against the Detroit Drive in a rematch of the previous year’s Arena Bowl II.  In keeping with the on-the-cheap nature of the 1989 season, both end zones at the Rosemont Horizon displayed the name and colors of the visiting team.  To save money on equipment, the league simply shipped Detroit’s carpet surface from city to city.  The Drive defeated the Bruisers 40-28 before an announced crowd of 6,662.  The Bruisers finished their final season with a 1-3 record.

Jim Foster received a patent for his Arena Football game system in March 1990.  Armed with the patent, Foster again began recruiting new investors, this time on a more traditional franchise model, with greater control for local owners.  New teams were added in Albany and Dallas and investors came forward for the Denver and Pittsburgh clubs.  Local ownership did not step up for the Bruisers.  Arena Football announced in April 1990 that the Bruisers would not be part of the upcoming season and folded the club.

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The 1989 Charles Bronson actioner Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects features an extended sequence shot during an actual Chicago Bruisers Arena Football game played in 1988 against the Los Angeles Cobras at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.  This is one of the first depictions of the sport of Arena Football in the broader popular culture.

In August 1990, Chicago attorney Jerry Kurz announced plans to revive the Bruisers for the 1991 Arena Football season.  However, Kurz’s group failed to get their financing together and Arena Football revoked the franchise license in March 1991.  Today, Kurz is the Commissioner of a re-constituted Arena Football League which began play in 2010.

Arena Football returned to Chicago and the former Rosemont Horizon, now known as Allstate Arena, in 2001.   The Chicago Rush were co-owned by Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka and played in the original Arena Football League from 2001 until its demise in 2008.  A revived version of the Rush continue to play in the Arena Football successor league today.

Downloads & Links:

1987 Chicago Bruisers stats & game results on ArenaFan.com
1988 Chicago Bruisers stats & game results on ArenaFan.com
1989 Chicago Bruisers stats & game results on ArenaFan.com

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Written by andycrossley

May 21, 2011 at 12:36 pm

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