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Questions surround NIFL expansion

by Paul Reeths
March 21, 2007 - National Indoor Football League (NIFL)

One game into the National Indoor Football League's seventh season, the NIFL's aggressive, league-sponsored expansion is running into problems. One contest was nearly cancelled, another game scheduled for this weekend has been called off, and former coaches are questioning the viability of an entire division.

After canceling nearly two-dozen games in 2006 and using semi-pro replacement squads in several others, the NIFL returns just five of the 22 teams that started play a year ago, with four remaining in the same city. The league plans to field 24 teams this season. Of the 19 expansion franchises, NIFL President of Football Operations Cleveland Gary or the league reportedly owns at least 16 of them.

With few new investors, the league is attempting to lease less-expensive venues, such as equestrian centers and fairgrounds arenas, and operate without front offices in most of the new cities in order to keep costs down. Coaches have been made responsible for assembling teams, contracting with suppliers and selling sponsorships.

The league has told the new coaches to send any bills they incur to Gary for payment. All revenue from player tryout fees, ticket sales and sponsorships is to be sent into the league office as well.

The only NIFL team to play a regular season home game this year, the Columbia (S.C.) Stingers, nearly had to cancel the contest because it did not have turf. The Columbus, Georgia, team from the World Indoor Football League loaned the Stingers its turf so Columbia could play as scheduled. The turf arrived the day before the game.

Potential team investors have pulled out in Port St. Lucie and Palm Beach, Florida, according to published stories.

Another of the new teams, the Pueblo (Colorado) Pistols, was scheduled to open its season this Saturday, but a spokesperson for the team's home venue at the Colorado State Fairgrounds stated the game would not be played.

According to an article in the Pueblo Chieftain, the Pistols do not have any equipment, turf or uniforms. No tickets have been sold.

Two coaches who recently left the league say the same is true in other expansion cities.

After being named head coach of the Houston Wild Riders, a team that folded before the season started, DeMarco King took the head-coaching job with the Fort Worth Sixers four weeks ago. King is no stranger to the league, having played for NIFL franchises in Waco (Tex.), Knoxville (Tenn.) and Evansville (Ind.).

King said Mike Greer, head coach of the California-based Tri-Valley Ranchers, called to tell him he was dismissed from his position with the Sixers this past weekend. King and Gary had been involved in a shouting match during a conference call last week after King questioned league support for the Fort Worth team. King stated he was most concerned about his players.

"It's been a bunch of chaos," said King. "I respect the league because I played in it three years and was a player/assistant coach for a year. Being on this end of the deal is really hard. I don't want to get young guys' hopes up only to not deliver. I have to look out for the welfare of these guys.

"I don't want to mess up my reputation here in Fort Worth for a guy, Cleveland, who this city hasn't seen or heard from. Right now, we have no advertisements, and I have not held a tryout."

King wasn't alone in his opinion. Will Hanna, slated to coach the NIFL's San Antonio Steers, resigned last week with the same concerns for his players.

In his resignation letter submitted to Gary, Hanna stated, "As we are 3 weeks from the start of the season, we have not yet received uniforms, footballs, a secured practice facility, turf for our venue, nor has our venue been secured for the season. In fact, the check that was written as a deposit bounced. That is not the type of business that I do here in this city...

"I would have enjoyed the opportunity to help further develop these young men, but your lack of compassion and commitment to the future of these men has deteriorated the interest in playing for your organization. Just thought you may want to consider that in the future. These same problems are occurring all over as I talk with some of your other people."

Hanna said the league, as owner of the team, did not deliver on promises to support the Steers.

"In my opinion, it was run unprofessionally," said Hanna. "We had tried to get things done here that would have made things work. We didn't have a practice facility, equipment or helmets. The facility we were supposed to play at received a check that bounced. We saw no money from the league.

"They haven't seen the facility here. I don't know how they'll make it work there. I talked to (NIFL president) Carolyn Shiver, and she offered me a percentage of ownership to stay on. The problem was the league affiliation."

Fort Worth and San Antonio are two of the three teams slated to play in the NIFL's all-Texas Pacific South Division. The other member of the group is the Beaumont Drillers, which is scheduled to play 12 of its 14 games against Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Another point of concern cited by both coaches is a newly unveiled National Indoor Football League Players Association, an organization neither had heard of before. According to King and Hanna, players were required to pay the league a $50 application fee, whether they were identified through a tryout or located by the coach, upon signing with the club. Each week, $40 would be deducted from every player paycheck to pay for membership in the association.

Jeff Sprowls, owner and general manager of the San Diego Shockwave, said that he had not heard of any players association for this season, and he would not have his players contribute any money toward it.

"I feel like it was a scam," said King. "The $50 player application fee and $40 a week for the NIFL Players Association is what really tipped me off. Nowhere in the NIFL Operations Manual does it say anything about that."

Gary had a different take on the state of the NIFL.

"We're fine," said Gary. "We have coaches. We're making changes. I won't elaborate on anything more. We're getting ready to play football."

Both King and Hanna felt the NIFL would still try to field squads in Fort Worth and San Antonio, most likely comprised of local semi-pro players. They do not believe either city will support the teams.

"They dropped the ball. They didn't take care of business here," King said of the NIFL. "I hate that the league is going down like this. The original owners have no idea what to do. This is a sad thing to have happen in a league I was once a part of."

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National Indoor Football League Stories from March 21, 2007

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