by Worth Sparkman on Monday, Mar. 6, 2006 12:00 am
Last year, a spot check with area hotels in late June showed rooms in Fayetteville and along Interstate 540 were already being booked for prime football game weekends.
But will Springdale's new National Indoor Football League team, the Arkansas Stars, have the same fan base?
Ron Hargrave, the team's CEO and primary investor, doesn't think he'll ever fill Reynolds Razorback Stadium. But he hopes to hitch his Stars to the success of the Hogs and gather a fanatical following.
He, his wife, Katona Hargrave, and another investor have already ponied up $500,000 to get the Stars off the ground. The team will play seven home games at the Randal Tyson Indoor Track Center in Fayetteville and seven away games in various cities.
Though a minor-league football team may never have the same appeal as Arkansas' beloved boars, there's evidence that family-friendly sporting entertainment could prove as a profitable northwest Arkansas niche. For the last three years, the Springdale Chamber of Commerce has been researching what it would take to either lure or create a minor-league baseball team in that city.
Perry Webb, president of the chamber, said a feasibility study conducted in 2005 by sports consulting firm Con-vention Sports & Leisure International of Wayzata, Minn., showed the area could support a minor-league team.
The firm recommended that the city shoot for a new or relocating Class AA Major League Baseball-affiliated team, a ballpark for the team to call home and an adjacent sports arena for other events and expansion, Webb said.
But any tie-in with the Stars is coincidental.
Hargrave chose to put the Ark-ansas Stars in the area in part because of the vibrant economy, in part because there is an existing college team following and infrastructure, and in part because he has friends and family in the area.
As of Feb. 17, the Arkansas Stars, based out of a one-room office at the All Star Sports Arena in Springdale, had signed 30 players. Nine of those players are former Razorbacks. The team also had 16 cheerleading dancers slated.
Charles Washington, president of operations for the Stars and former defensive back with the Hogs, said the team had contracts for between $50,000 and $70,000 in sponsorships by that date as well. Those included media sponsorships from Fayetteville's NBC affiliate, KNWA-TV, and Cumulus Broadcasting Inc. for radio.
Hargrave said the team will pay a total of $49,000 in sublease fees to University Conference & Entertain-ment, a Fayetteville event company that leases the center from the UA from March 15 through Nov. 30.
The facility will be set up for about 5,000 spectators with ticket prices ranging from $10 for general admission to $70 for reserved box seats close to the action. That's $7,000 per game in facility lease fees, with ticket revenue potential at a minimum of $50,000.
Of course, Hargrave is a realist. He said the Stars are an investment and he doesn't really expect for the team to turn a profit the first three to four years.
"You don't get rich overnight," he said.
Catching the Stars' players, coaches and owners on the phone is a hit-and-miss proposition, because the team is a part-time venture for most of the club.
Ron and Katona Hargrave live in Wetumpka, Ala. He's a design engineer for Hyundai Motor Co., and she's an English instructor at Troy University in Troy, Ala. They're both hot-air balloon pilots and have operated an on-again-off-again business taking thrill-seekers to new heights.
Ron Hargrave played professional soccer for two years until an injury ended that career, he said.
The two are Kansas City, Mo., natives. They plan to move to northwest Arkansas in a few years after Ron Hargrave finishes a product launch for the Korean car company's U.S. division.
Washington is also the operations manager of Employee Screening Management, a Fayetteville drug-testing and background screening company, as well as being the general manager of Wild On Fayetteville, a nightclub. Washington said he will work for the team year-round selling sponsorships.
One of the team's first players to sign on, former Razorback running back Chrys Chukwuma, is also an assistant vice president of sales.
Players are paid $200 per game, and most have full-time jobs outside of the Stars. One of them, Padriac McGinnis, is a Bentonville middle school teacher. Most of the players aren't in it for the money, or even for the limited exposure that could get them called up to the NFL. They're enticed to play for the love of the game, they said.
Takin' It Indoors
The NIFL is based in Lafayette, La., and is affiliated with the NFL. The NIFL's season runs from March through the end of June with playoffs slated for July and the "Indoor Bowl," the league's championship game, on Aug. 5. The 2005 NIFL national champions were the Tri-Cities Fever, based in Kennewick, Wash.
The NIFL was the result of the combination of the Indoor Professional Football League and the Indoor Football League in 2000. The NIFL also merged with the Intense Football League in 2005.
Team owners pay a one-time $250,000 franchise fee and a monthly fee of $1,000 to be a part of the NIFL.
Last year, 30 NIFL players were asked to try out for the NFL, but nobody is sure how many made the final cut and ended up in the pro ranks.
The league has two conferences — Atlantic and Pacific — with three divisions each. The Arkansas Stars are in the south division of the Pacific Conference.
Bruce Bailey is owner of the Lincoln Capitals, a five-year-old NIFL team in Lincoln, Neb. He said attendance in his town can run from 1,400 to 6,000, but the average is between 1,500 and 1,800. Lincoln's population is 150,000, he said.
Bailey is on the NIFL's seven-person executive committee and helped form the league.
Carolyn Shiver, president of the NIFL, said there are 30 league teams, although only 24 will play the 2006 season.
By comparison, there are 19 teams in the Arena Football League. Some AFL games are televised on NBC stations, and the AFL has more national sponsors.
The NIFL's game is played on a field that's roughly half as wide and half as long as a pro football field. Essentially, there is no difference between NIFL and Arena's rules, Washington said, so people accustomed to Arena will pick up on the NIFL game easily.
Washington said the game is very exciting and that the average team's score is about 75.
"It's high-energy level, very intense," Katona Hargrave said. "There's no time to think twice."
Shiver, who was in northwest Arkansas in mid-February to help the Stars' sales team close some sponsorship deals, said NIFL teams are "football teams that market."
In an interview at a Fayetteville restaurant, Shiver explained a complex "bingo card" promotion that involves sponsors' logos on the cards and schoolchildren selling the cards. The end-user plays "bingo" with their card as tackles are made on the field, matching a sponsor's logo on the card with their logo placement on the field.
The schools that buy the cards stand to make money off the sale of the cards, too, she said, and the team has the potential to reap up to $400,000 in a year, depending on the number of cards printed and sold.
Shiver said revenue that the NIFL generates above its operating expenses is passed back to the team owners. In 2005, the league gave each team a check for $39,900 — a turnback of nearly $1 million.
Washington, who has been an employee of the new team since mid-January, has worked evenings after his regular job and before his nightclub job, training the Stars' sales staff of about nine.
If a logo can be put on it, Washington is selling it. He has prices for sponsorships on everything from patches on players' jerseys to "dasher boards" — the dividing wall between the field and the spectators — to halftime and time-out shows to the facility's' 14-by-17-foot video screen. Video ads run from $500 for a 10-second spot for one game to $10,500 for a one-minute spot running at all seven home games.
If long-term sponsorship contracts and an enthusiastic fan base are what will make a minor league team a northwest Arkansas success, the Stars at least have a head start.
On Feb. 14, the Springdale City Council voted to allow bond underwriters Citigroup, Crews & Associates and Morgan Keegan to study cost and funding options for a Springdale ballpark. A ballpark — estimated to cost between $25 million and $30 million — will be the single most important factor in landing a minor-league baseball team.
Webb said if funding, land-purchase, construction and a team all come together just right, "the boys of summer" could be playing in his town as early as 2008, though he admits that's a tall order.
If the Stars are still wooing fans at that time, families may have multiple choices in what sporting events earn their entertainment dollars.
The Stars' first game is set for March 18 in Beaumont, Texas. The first home game will be April 1 against the Lincoln Capitals. All games will begin at 7 p.m., and only one game is on the same day as a Razorback baseball game, but the two are at different times of the day, Katona Hargrave said.
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