Indoor football is headed here

No sooner has minor league baseball exited the Rogue Valley than minor league football has come knocking.

A start-up indoor football league, with franchises on both coasts, will begin play next spring. The American Indoor Football League is poised to announce its formation July 18.

The Southern Oregon Heat is scheduled to play eight Thursday night games at Jackson County Exposition Park's Compton Arena.

The best-known indoor league is the Arena Football League, and the major difference between it and the AIFL is the latter won't use nets around the field.

Kevin Wells, whose Southern Oregon Blaze left the semipro Oregon Football League prior to the 2000 season, is the Heat's owner.

When a call came from Dick Suess, publisher of Minor League Football News and founder of the Professional Indoor Football League in 1997, Wells was intrigued.

The opportunity was pretty hard to resist, says Wells.

The schedule begins with a pair of exhibition games in late March. The league slate kicks off in April and play continues into July.

The Heat will play 16 games, including the exhibitions. Most will be played in the West.

Given the transfer of the local Northwest League baseball franchise to Canada and the fact auto racing and horse racing are generally on weekends, there wouldn't be a lot of head-to-head competition for the sports entertainment dollar.

Wells has drawn up a seating chart with a capacity of 4,200. Individual tickets would run from $10 to $20 and season packages for eight games for between $100 and $125.

The owner says he's more interested in long-term success than prying every buck he can from fans.

Wells attended a Portland Prowlers indoor football game at Memorial Coliseum, where tickets run $15 and $35, earlier this spring.

We had a great time but left with a sour taste in our mouths, Wells says. Our tickets were $25 and we weren't even on the floor. We bought four beers, two hot dogs and two pretzels and it cost us $34.50. We were still hungry and thirsty, but we weren't buying anything else at that price. We're not going to gouge the heck out of people. We want them to come back.

Wells says he's received a steady flow of calls inquiring about season tickets.

It's a much better response than when we put the semipro league (OFL) together three years ago, he says. The response from advertising and people interested in sponsoring the team has been greater than I anticipated.

Even players, who were not going to beat themselves up for semipro football, have shown a completely different attitude toward this.

The Heat will hold minicamps in October and December, followed by tryouts in January.

Indoor football, as it is commonly known, has been around since 1986. For the first decade, the Arena Football League controlled the indoor game. But when Suess mounted a legal challenge, the courts ruled the AFL's rebound net — not indoor football — — was the patented item.

The sport is an entertaining cross between eight-man football and pinball, where players routinely crash into the padding separating the field from spectators.

The Arena Football League is now owned by the National Football League. Two other major players in the indoor game are the Indoor Professional Football League, a seven-team loop that includes the Portland Prowlers, and the 21-team Indoor Football League with franchises in the Midwest and East Coast.

I read a survey by some company the other day that indoor football is the hottest thing going and that every medium-sized arena is going to have a team before too long, Suess says.

The real market is in smaller communities where there's not a whole lot to do. Give me a choice, and I'd take Medford over El Paso (Texas) or Tucson (Ariz.).

A major difference between the three existing leagues and the AIFL is the start-up cost.

The franchise fee for an Arena team is $250,000. The IPFL fee is $200,000 and an entry in the IFL is $650,000. There is no franchise fee for the AIFL.

What we have is an $18,000 (annual) league assessment fee and we're required to come up with a $25,000 irrevocable line of credit, Wells says.

The $18,000 pays for officials and goes into a playoff fund for bonuses, among other things.

There are differences on the field as well.

Unlike the Arena Football League, the AIFL will not have end zone nets that create bizarre bounces. Kickoffs have to be kept in the field of play in the AIFL and a blitzing linebacker has to declare himself prior to a play — although he can bluff and not blitz. The most unique twist, however, is that three men can be in motion prior to a snap.

It gives the offensive coordinator a lot of leeway, Wells says.

Each club can carry 32 players on its roster, with a minimum of 18 and maximum of 23 dressed for games.

Suess, who has coached football at numerous levels, says Arena players going both ways are susceptible to injury. Thus the AIFL is going with two platoons.

Wells says he has a $400,000 budget for the first year of operation and is hoping to raise roughly 20 percent of that amount from advertising and sponsorships.

Players will make $200 per game, plus playoff bonuses, and $20,000 is budgeted for the coaching staff.

Wells says he needs to average 1,500 fans per game to break even and is aiming to sell between 1,500 to 2,000 season tickets.

We want to make it non-stop action for people, Wells says. Even when the game is stopped, we want something happening all the time.

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