Turfcats general manager Ronald Oswalt kept smiling through every bump. The convivial 44-year-old Mississippian never promised fans extravagance or perfection. "The key is: I'm a fan first," he said. "And I want them to have the greatest experience possible."
What's possible in the SIFL, which began with seven teams and finished with five, differs a great deal from what's possible in the NFL or even the top tier of the NCAA. The University of Texas, for example, has a dressing room with flat-screen televisions and a season-ticket base of more than 80,000. The Turfcats have a space near the loading area of the arena and an average attendance of just more than 2,000.
The team pays its 23 players about $225 a game. Naturally, the players who range in age from early 20s to late 30s maintain other careers. Football is a supplemental job, a passion that happens to pay.
"If we weren't doing this, we'd be playing flag football," said Darren Brown, the Turfcats kicker.
Brown is 29, a graduate of Wofford, where he kicked field goals and extra points, and the University of Texas law school. The North Carolinian maintains a general law practice in Austin and owns a sports arena and soccer complex.
Other Turfcats work for the IRS, the State of Texas and a beer distributor.
"Those guys come in handy," Oswalt, the general manager, said of the beer-truck drivers. "They can put my schedules everywhere."
Oswalt is far from bashful about promoting his Turfcats. He said he buys about 75 official league balls for every game, knowing most will end up in the seats, where fans can keep them. The balls leave the arena and poof! they instantly become conversation pieces and advertising on the streets.
His budget is but a thread on a shoestring. He employs three people full-time: a media-relations specialist and two coaches, head coach Chris Duliban and offensive coordinator Kerry Cash. Both, not coincidentally, are former Longhorns players.
With an inexpensive venue (the Wranglers played in the expensive-to-rent Erwin Center) and a modest payroll, Oswalt can offer single-game tickets in the range of $5 to $20. Season tickets, which account for abut 30 percent of the seats sold for 2010, range from $99 for a family of four in the balcony seats to $250 on the field.
Oswalt unabashedly courts any and all sponsors. "We're the NASCAR of football," he said.
Even a piece of the action has a price at a Turfcats game. At the playoff game Saturday, a booming "That's an Adfirmative-dot-com first down!" accompanied each 10-yard progression by the Turfcats.
"Everything's for sale," Oswalt said.
The Turfcats and the Mudbugs went to overtime. Austin scored a touchdown on its first possession; the visiting team's drive ended with an incomplete pass and, to Austin fans, a complete success for the Turfcats.
"We get attached to the guys," said Erinn Hughes, one of the tailgaters.
"Their girlfriends. Their mothers. Their kids."
Final score: Austin 56, Acadiana 49.
A team-record crowd of more than 3,800 watched the Turfcats win their 10th game against two losses. The team will travel to Lake Charles, La., to play Monday night for the President's Cup. They'll face a rematch with the Louisiana Swashbucklers, whose only loss in a dozen games this season was to the Turfcats.
As much as they would like to see their Turfcats win, the tailgaters seem happy enough that the team has made it this far. They hope the 10-2 season is something to build on for the players and coaches, for team management, for the community.
The semifinal game over, the tailgaters rendezvoused back below the Texas flag. Flames licked the hotdogs on the grill. Cooler lids groaned with every fetched beer.
Some of the players came out for a late supper. They mingled with the fans. They stayed until after 1:00.
"That's what I like about arena football," said Hughes. "It's so personal."
Pictures by Larry Kolvoord
http://www.statesman.com/sports/content ... fcats.html
**Turfcat fans Matt Cross, right, and Jason Bennett attend all the games in full festive attire.
**Fan Steve 'Diablo' Litaker of Austin watches the SIFL semifinal at the Travis County Expo Center.
**Turfcats player Shon Mitchell banters with a fan during warmups.