League hurdles couldn't keep Outlaws down
Indoor football in Billings, Montana was on life support. For four seasons, Duane Anderson had operated the Billings Outlaws, one of indoor football's most successful franchises and a charter member of the National Indoor Football League, but he had finally had enough of the NIFL. Angered by a disagreement with league president Carolyn Shiver, just a month before the start of the season in February of 2005, Anderson announced his intention to bench the team for the year, with the intention of bringing it back the following season in another league. In retaliation, the NIFL revoked his franchise.
According to public court documents obtained by OurSports Central, Dan Austin, a local businessman, stepped in to save the team. His company, Montana Professional Sports, LLC, (MPS) bought the rights to the Billings franchise from the NIFL less than a month later. The league informed Austin that he would have the right to operate as the Billings Outlaws, allowing MPS to capitalize on the local popularity of the team.
There was only one problem. The Billings Outlaws name and logo were actually federally registered and owned by Anderson, not the NIFL, and he wanted to be paid for them. When Anderson threatened to sue if the name and logo were used, Austin instead christened his franchise the Billings Mavericks for 2005 and began negotiations with Anderson to buy the Outlaws trademarks.
Austin informed the league that he was negotiating for the rights to the name and would use it again if he they could strike a deal. He kept the league updated about his progress throughout the negotiations through NIFL marketing and sales executive Mike Domico. In October of 2005, MPS and Anderson reached an agreement, with the final sale taking place on November 10. Austin then informed the league that he had acquired the trademarks and would operate as the Billings Outlaws in 2006 and beyond. He began ordering new uniforms, a new field and new merchandise with the Outlaws logo.
The NIFL issued a press release in November in which league president Carolyn Shiver said in part, "The Billings Outlaws' name is such a big part of the history of the NIFL; it is great to see the Outlaw name back in the NIFL lineup. We look forward to years of watching the Outlaws play in the beautiful city of Billings."
But just days later, Shiver told Austin that she had granted a Florida team the right to operate as the Osceola Outlaws, and his Billings team would not be able to use the Outlaws name. When Austin asked the league to reconsider, both the NIFL and Osceola refused.
"We wouldn't have selected Outlaws if the NIFL hadn't sanctioned it," an email from the Osceola owner Dave Doebler stated.
The NIFL disabled the link to the Billings Outlaws' website (www.billingsoutlaws.com) on the league site, and removed the team logo and all mention of the nickname from the website and press releases, even those submitted by the Billings organization.
Having spent a considerable amount of time and money acquiring the name and buying new uniforms and a new field, Austin sued the NIFL and Osceola team in a Florida court.
During the trial, Austin learned that someone within the league had taken his signed team participation agreement with the NIFL and written the word "Mavericks" in where he had left the team name blank. Austin argued this modification of a signed contract constituted fraud. It was later revealed that Shiver had written in the name.
On February 7, 2006, Judge G. Kendall Sharp sided with MPS, forbidding the league and Osceola from using the trademarks or interfering with the Billings Outlaws.
"We butted heads with Billings on the nickname issue, but we have no hard feelings against them at all," said Osceola co-owner Dave Czech recently. "We think they're some of the good guys, trying to do the right thing for their community.
"We entered the league and our contract was approved by Carolyn as the Osceola Outlaws. If the league had said at any time there's an issue with this name as Billings was pursuing their trademark things, we would have done something else. That was 100 percent the NIFL's fault."
Despite the ruling, the league answered with a letter from Executive Director D. Randy Wagley threatening to suspend Billings from the 2006 season just 10 days before the campaign was to begin. The Outlaws immediately obtained a temporary restraining order in order to play the season, and a permanent injunction against the NIFL was granted on May 31. In addition, Billings was awarded $89,627.82 in compensatory damages for attorneys' fees, lost sponsorships and advertising costs along with $100,000 in punitive damages. The NIFL has since lost an appeal of the decision.
Though the Osceola franchise abandoned the nickname battle, the NIFL refused to give up its fight. On July 12, just three days before their first playoff game, the league informed Billings that it would not be allowed to participate in the postseason because it had not completed "all paperwork." In particular, Billings had not signed a document entitled "Confidentiality, Non-Competition and Non-Solicitation Agreement." The Outlaws considered the non-compete portion of the agreement, with wording that would have bound them to the NIFL for two seasons, to be illegal in Montana as an unlawful restraint of trade.
Again the Billings Outlaws sought relief from the courts, and again they prevailed. The Outlaws obtained a temporary restraining order prohibiting the league from excluding Billings from the playoffs or from interfering in any Outlaws playoff games.
By virtue of a 15-1 regular season record, Billings had earned the top seed entering the postseason, and though that should have guaranteed the team home-field advantage as long as it played, the league had one more move to make. Billings won its first two playoff games and prepared to host the title game on Friday, July 28, immediately launching advertising and ticket sales campaigns. The Tuesday before the game, Shiver told the Fayetteville Observer that the site of the championship game was up in the air and would be decided upon by the league's executive committee. She cited the Fayetteville Guard's higher attendance as one factor in Billings opponents' favor, but later admitted the league had not seen attendance figures from the Guard all year.
The executive committee was not consulted on the matter, and less than 48 hours before game time, Shiver relented, saying the contest would be played in Billings. The league did not inform the Outlaws that it was looking at other sites at any point during the week, and Austin had to rely on newspaper reports to stay updated on the situation.
Before nearly 8,000 fans, the Billings Outlaws capped their season, and year-long battle with the league, with a 59-44 victory and the 2006 NIFL title.
Though Guard owner Richard King took most of the blame for the the attempted championship site maneuver, Fayetteville Observer columnist Brett Friedlander, among others, charged that Shiver pushed him into it in an attempt to "stick it to" Austin. Whatever the case, it appears the league's actions have only pushed some of its strongest franchises away, as published reports have Billings and up to four other franchises leaving the league as early as next week.
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National Indoor Football League Stories from August 30, 2006
- League hurdles couldn't keep Outlaws down - OSC Original by Paul Reeths
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s), and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of OurSports Central or its staff.