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June 23, 2012 – Kansas City Command vs. Chicago Rush

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Kansas City Command vs. Chicago Rush
June 23, 2012
The Sprint Center
Arena Football League Programs
38 pages

The Arena Football League lost its first franchise in what many observers expect to be a grim offseason last Friday when the Kansas City Command quietly pulled out of the league on August 23rd.  Also purportedly in trouble: the Georgia Force and Milwaukee Mustangs, both of whom have pitiful followings in their markets, and the league-run Chicago Rush, which has been adrift since its previous investor group walked away last fall.  The Pittsburgh Power (more on them in a moment) saw announced attendance decline over 50% in their second year of action.

It’s been a weird year for an increasingly weird league. The AFL’s tag line this year was “Year of the Fan”, but “Year of the Scab” would have been more like it.  The season was dominated by a protracted and disorganized labor dispute that saw players and owners squabbling  publicly over the handful of pocket change left in the sport after the recession and a disastrous 2009 bankruptcy.  Some (or all?) of the players may (or may not?) be represented by Ivan Soto, a mysterious financial adviser from Ohio who rails against ownership to his tiny army of 200 Twitter followers.  Soto’s questionable tactics included persuading a single team – the Cleveland Gladiators – to strike on their own for one game, resulting in a forfeit that helped knock them out of the playoffs.  Whoops.

Owners and league execs have seen and raised Soto’s buffoonery on several occasions, most majestically when Pittsburgh Power honcho Matt Shaner fired his entire team during dinner at Olive Garden and abandoned them in Florida a few hours before the first game of the season.  Shaner’s theatrics drew more attention to the AFL than any other story in this Year of the Fan, including the league’s showpiece Arena Bowl XXV championship game, played before a comically inflated announced crowd of 13,648 in New Orleans two weeks ago.

The AFL promoted the 2012 season as the league’s 25th Anniversary, harkening back to the founding of the original Arena Football League in 1987.  But that’s rather disingenuous.  It’s kind of like saying you’ve seen Motley Crue in concert, when what you really mean is that you saw a tribute band called Shout At The Devil play in a South Carolina bowling alley.  While the sport (and some of the intellectual property) is indeed a quarter century old, today’s Arena Football League is just three years old and boy is it different than what came before.

The original league (1987-2008) played for two decades and had quite a few problems of its own.  Most fundamentally, it never solved the eternal revenue/expense problem faced by leagues that play as tenants in other people’s buildings.  But these business model problems were hidden by a speculative bubble in expansion fees in the early 2000’s, a charismatic chief executive in C. David Baker, and a brief fling with the NFL, that saw investment pour into the AFL from deep-pocketed NFL owners like Arthur Blank, Pat Bowlen, Tom Benson and Jerry Jones.  For a half decade or so, the money kept flowing and the creditors remained patient.

The bubble deflated for the original AFL in 2008 after three years without new expansion money.  The NFL guys got out and never looked back.  There was no Arena Football in 2009 as the league went bankrupt.  This new league, launched in 2010, is primarily composed of the poorer owners from the old league and its former small-market minor league system.  These guys scraped together $6.1 million bucks in late 2009 to purchase the old league’s IP rights at a bankruptcy auction.  Many of the old team identities have been revived and the original league’s history has been reclaimed and packaged as if it were never interrupted.  The only elements missing are the high quality players of the first league – driven away by salary reductions both draconian and inevitable – and the fans, who seem to detect the aura of shabbiness that envelops this new entity.

The question now is whether Arena Football is poised to go the way of indoor soccer, which was bigger than outdoor soccer (and more popular than the NBA in a few cities) in the 1980’s, but has now languished for more than a decade in state of complete and utter irrelevance.  Kansas City may be the first domino to fall in a decisive autumn/winter for the “new” AFL.   But more likely, the league will muddle through for many more years, chasing an elusive formula of smaller arenas, cheaper workers (both on field and off) and lowered expectations in a “Puppet Show and Spinal Tap” kind of way.   There are several second tier football leagues out there trying to carve out a piece of market share – the new, retro-themed USFL, the zombie carcass of the United Football League – but the Arena Football League is the only one that has already fired the silver bullet that the others so obviously covet: partnership with the NFL.  The AFL had that chance once.  It didn’t work out and it’s probably never coming back.  It’s hard to imagine what’s next to resuscitate this sport.



Written by AC

August 28th, 2012 at 8:25 pm

1994-1995 – Las Vegas Dustdevils & Las Vegas Sting

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Bill MacFarland’s Nevada Pro Sports was a short-lived effort to build a business around summer-time arena sports at the brand new MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in the mid-1990’s.  While toiling as a minor league hockey player for the Seattle Totems in the 1960’s, MacFarland put himself through law school.  In the 1970’s, MacFarland served as President and Legal Counsel of the World Hockey Association and later took part in a failed effort to secure an NHL expansion franchise for Seattle in the early 1990’s.  After the Seattle NHL bid failed, MacFarland turned his attention to Las Vegas and the development of MGM Grand Garden.

Nevada Pro Sports’ first acquisition on December 1st, 1992 was an expansion franchise in the start-up Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL).    The CISL was a start-up league whose investors included owners and arena operators from the NBA and NHL looking to fill building dates during the slow summer season.  With the MGM Grand Garden still under construction in 1993, MacFarland elected to defer the debut of his Las Vegas Dustdevils soccer team until the CISL’s sophomore campaign in 1994.  Soon afterwards, Nevada Pro Sports added an Arena Football League expansion franchise, the Las Vegas Sting, to its portfolio of teams set to debut in the summer of 1994.

Neither team drew much interest in Las Vegas, long known as a graveyard of pro sports franchises.  The Sting put an announced crowd of 10,109 into the MGM Grand Garden for their home debut on May 21st, 1994 against the Miami Hooters.  But by the Sting’s third home game in June, attendance plunged below 4,000 and the team finished the year with an average of 6,413, 9th best out of the league’s 11 teams.

On the carpet, the Sting assembled the typical Arena Football collection of pro football nomads and castaways.  Before joining the Sting, two-year starting quarteback Scooter Molander last played for the Colts…the Espoo Colts of the Finland Football League.  Molander’s favorite target in 1994 was Tyrone Thurman. At 5′ 3″ tall and 135 pounts, the kick return specialist was likely the smallest Division I All-American in college football history back in 1988 at Texas Tech.  The Sting’s defensive leader was former UNLV standout Carlton Johnson, who earned All-League honors as a Defensive Specialist in 1994.

Disappointing as the attendance figures were, the Sting numbers were a box office bonanza compared to the Las Vegas Dustdevils indoor soccer team, which mustered an average of just 2,709 at the 12-000 seat MGM Grand Garden for their 14 home dates in 1994.  That was the worst figure in the 14-team CISL, despite the fact that the Dustdevils fielded a championship team that finished 17-11 and featured seven local graduates from the UNLV soccer program.  The team’s “star” was 33-year Croatian forward Branko Segota, one of the all-time greats of the indoor game.  Segota earned the CISL maximum of $3,500/month, as did the indoor veteran goalkeeper Brett Phillips and defender Rusty Troy.  The Dustdevils’ younger players earned between $75/game and $500/week.  A strong playoff run led to a showdown with the Dallas Sidekicks in the best-of-three CISL Championship Series.  On October 8th, 1994, the Dustdevils won the decisive Game 3 in front of a sold-out crowd of 16,652 at Reunion Arena in Dallas.  Still, few in Las Vegas cared.  Only 5,500 turned out to cheer on the Dustdevils in Game 2, the lone match of the series played in Las Vegas.

Following the 1994 season, MacFarland and Nevada Pro Sports moved both of their teams out of the MGM Grand Garden and into the Thomas & Mack Arena on the campus of UNLV.  The move didn’t help.  Sting attendance dropped to an average of 5,053 for six dates in 1995, which was worst among the AFL’s 13 franchises.  A postmortem by The Los Angeles Times claimed the Sting lost in excess of one million dollars in both 1994 and 1995.  The Dustdevils improved insignificantly to 3,274 per game, but it wasn’t enough to save the team.  Nevada Pro Sports folded the Dustdevils shortly after their second season ended in September 1995.

Nevada Pro Sports had more luck ridding itself of its failing Arena Football franchise.  In September 1995, a Southern California group purchased the Las Vegas Sting for an estimated $1 million and relocated the club to the Arrowhead Pond arena in Anaheim.  Re-named the Anaheim Piranhas, the former Sting franchise played two more seasons in the Arena Football League before folding in November 1997.


Former Dustdevils and Sting owner Bill MacFarland passed away in 2011 at the age of 79.

Former UNLV and Sting defensive standout Carlton Johnson remained in Las Vegas, working as a substitute teacher in the Clark County school system.  In 2005, Johnson murdered his brother, 6-year old niece and his own 5-year old son.  Johnson had no prior criminal history or history of mental illness and offered no motive for the killings.  He was convicted on three counts of second degree murder in 2007 and is currently serving a 20-60 year sentence.

Downloads & Links:

1994 Las Vegas Sting Statistics on
1995 Las Vegas Sting Statistics on

Las Vegas Dustdevils & Las Vegas Sting Sources


Written by AC

March 18th, 2012 at 3:34 am

1995-2008 Iowa Barnstormers / New York Dragons


The inspiring story of Kurt Warner, who rose from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl Champion and MVP over the course of five years, is one of the great legacies of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008).  Warner, undrafted out of college and later released in training camp by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, famously signed on with the Arena League’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995.  He led the Barnstormers to the Arena Bowl title games in 1996 and 1997, before finally earning his shot at the NFL with the St. Louis Rams.  By 1999, he was the NFL’s MVP and quarterback of a Super Bowl championship team in his first season as a starter.  Warner’s fame briefly made the Iowa Barnstormers an object of cult fascination, if not quite a household brand name.

So what became of the Barnstormers?

The Barnstormers started out as an Arena Football expansion franchise in the spring of 1995.  Jim Foster, founder of the Arena Football League in 1987, owned the club, which played in the 11,400-seat  Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, dubbed “The Barn”.  Head Coach John Gregory was a long-time Canadian Football League coach.  Gregory brought in CFL vet Willis Jacox to play the role of Iowa’s Offensive Specialist – most AFL players played “Ironman” football in this era, meaning they played both offense and defense.  The offensive specialist was akin to the DH in baseball, playing offense only and returning kicks.  Gregory also plucked Warner out of the Hy-Vee grocery store aisle prior to the Barnstormers’ first season in 1995.

The team was competitive in 1995, advancing as far as the playoff semi-finals.  Gregory earned AFL Coach-of-the-Year honors (he would repeat in 1996) and the team drew terrific cowbell-clanging crowds to The Barn.  In a 2012 celebration of Arena Football’s 25th Anniversary, the league ranked the 1990’s atmosphere at The Barn as the 2nd best in the sport’s history.

The Barnstormers glory years came in 1996 and 1997, when Warner and Jacox led the Barnstormers to back-to-back Arena Bowls.  In 1996, the Barnstomers hosted Arena Bowl X before a national cable TV audience but lost to the Tampa Bay Storm 42-38.  The following year, the Barnstormers fell to the Arizona Rattlers 55-33 in Arena Bowl XI in Phoenix, in what would prove to be Warner’s last AFL game.

Warner headed the Rams and Jacox retired after the 1997 season.  But Gregory and the Barnstormers uncovered more great players in WR-DB Carlos James, offensive specialist Mike Horacek and, especially, quarterback Aaron Garcia.  Garcia would go on the set every major career passing record in Arena Football over the course of the next decade plus.

On November 1st, 2000, after the conclusion of the Barnstormers’ sixth season in Des Moines and nine months after Warner’s historic Super Bowl performance, Jim Foster sold the team to New York Islanders owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar.  The franchise relocated to Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum as the New York Dragons for the 2001 Arena Football League season.

The move to New York was in keeping with Arena Football’s growing ambition to become a “5th Major League”, as the league began favoring major markets over cities like Des Moines and Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In the course of a decade, Arena Football franchise valuations ballooned from $125,000 in 1990 to $7 million – the price paid by Wang & Kumar for the Barnstormers, and for another AFL franchise, the New England Sea Wolves, which also changed hands in the autumn of 2000.

Several top Barnstormers made the move from Iowa to New York, including Head Coach John Gregory and All-AFL quarterback Aaron Garcia.  In New York, the franchise also produced another future NFL star, as it had with Kurt Warner in Iowa.  In 2002, the Dragons signed WR-DB Mike Furrey, a refugee of World Wrestling Entertainment chief Vince McMahon’s defunct XFL.  Furrey became the favorite target of Garcia in 2002 and 2003.  Furrey left the Dragons partway through the 2003 season – he was leading the AFL in receptions at the time – to sign with the St. Louis Rams.  Furrey went on to play both wide receiver and defensive back in the NFL, leading the NFC in receptions in 1996 with 98 catches for 1,086 years as a member of the Detroit Lions.  In a bizarre coincidence, Furrey played college football at Northern Iowa University, just like Warner.

Back in Des Moines, a new Iowa Barnstormers expansion team was issued to play in AF2, a small market minor league spinoff of the AFL.  The new minor league Barnstormers were not able to re-capture the interest of area fans and this version of the Barnstormers folded after a single season in 2001.

The Dragons were never one of Arena Football’s top draws and the Nassau Coliseum was typically regarded as one of the league’s worst venues, much as it was in the National Hockey League.  Announced attendance averages peaked in 2005 at 11,922 per game.  By 2008, announced attendance dipped to 9,072, the second lowest figure in the 17-team league.

In July 2008, Wang sold the Dragons to Steve and Shanna Silva for an estimated $12 million.  This would prove to be the last time a franchise changed hands in the original Arena Football League.  By this time, the league was struggling under $14 million in accumulated debt.  A postseason attempt to sell a $100 million controlling stake in the league to leveraged buyout firm Platinum Equity and re-organize the league as a single-entity structure fell through in late 2008.  The league suspended the 2009 season in December 2008 and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in August 2009 after owners failed to come together on a way forward.

The Silvas were left with nothing for their unfortunately timed investment.  Another Arena Football investor who bought into the league late at the peak of the bubble – Dr. Robert Nucci who bought the Tampa Bay Storm for approximately $18 million in 2007 – later filed a lawsuit claiming that the late-era Arena Football League was little more than a debt-laden ponzi scheme that relied on constantly rising expansion fees to finance its existence.  The Silvas, for their part, got as far as announcing a new logo and color scheme for the Dragons in September 2008.  The new green-and-black color scheme would have been used for the 2009, but the league collapsed first:


A group of former Arena Football League owners and officials called Arena Football One purchased the assets of the original Arena Football League out of bankruptcy for $6.1 million in December 2009.   It was a long way down from the proposed Platinum Equity purchase of the AFL just a year earlier, which valued the league at approximately $250 million.

A much more budget-conscious (and non-union) reinvention of the Arena Football League debuted in 2010, with many franchises returning under their old names and, in some cases, their old investors.   The New York Dragons and the Silvas were not among them.  But the Iowa Barnstormers were.   A third incarnation of the Iowa Barnstormers joined AF2 for the 2008 season as an expansion team playing in the new $99 million Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.  The team retained the old logo of the original Kurt Warner-era Barnstormers and still practices in The Barn – venerable Veterans Memorial Auditorium.   When the Arena Football League went dark in 2009, AF2 kept playing.  In 2010, the new Barnstormers took a leap up to rejoin the new Arena Football League.

Kurt Warner retired from the NFL in January 2010.  He led two different franchises to Super Bowl appearances, starting in three and winning one.  As of 2011, he holds one of the top ten passer ratings in NFL history.

Mike Furrey played seven seasons in the NFL, ending in 2009.  He is now one of the growing number of former NFL players filing suit against the league over concussion-related health problems.




1996-2001 Texas Terror / Houston ThunderBears

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2000 Houston Thunderbears Media Guide
Arena Football League Media Guides
108 pages

The Arena Football League awarded a Houston, Texas expansion franchise to NBA Houston 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.


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.


Texas Terror/Houston ThunderBears Sources

1993-1996 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.


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.


Hartford Hellcats & Connecticut Coyotes Sources

Written by AC

June 3rd, 2011 at 9:40 am


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