Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Many Problems of the SIFL

Modern professional indoor football has been around since the early 1980’s, after its inventor Jim Foster devised the sport on the back of a manila envelope while watching indoor soccer.  His vision utilized a 50 yard field and eight players on defense on offense instead of the traditional eleven.  Leagues began sprouting up around the country as a way to bring professional football to markets without NFL teams, and to provide Spring-time sports for markets with existing NFL teams.  These leagues sell season tickets every year to thousands of fans around the country with the promise of wholesome family fun at affordable prices.  Often times the leagues that control the teams don’t deliver completely, and sometimes they don’t deliver at all.

The Southern Indoor Football League (SIFL) was founded in Louisiana in 2008, and five teams located in Louisiana and Texas took the field the inaugural season.  The business model behind the creation of the SIFL was actually genius.  The SIFL model included low franchise fees for owners (compared to the AFL and IFL) and for regions to feel local, creating strong team rivalries for fans. Additionally, the league was hoping the short distance between teams would invite fans to travel to see their favorite franchise play the away games (boosting ticket sales) and reducing overall travel expense for owners.  However, after the league’s second season, the SIFL purchased the AIFA East and its footprint stretched from Texas and Louisiana, all the way through North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and now included 16 teams.  This transaction moved the Richmond Raiders from the AIFA to the SIFL.

When the third season of the SIFL began this year, it was not without its’ challenges.  Weeks before the season was to begin, the Lafayette Wildcatters (LA) were forced to cancel the entire 2011 season after being unable to secure sufficient Workers Compensation insurance for team employees.  Teams in the Western Conference that had Lafayette on their schedule were awarded wins by default or faced a semi pro team in their place for an easy win.  Mean while, the Houston Stallions (TX) were unable to secure a home venue and would end up playing road games the entire season.  This was just the beginning of the problems.

In Mobile, Alabama a man named Ray Ward came to town promising years of successful indoor football, and purchased the Mobile Bay Tarpons.  Ward was able to field a team, secure equipment, a venue and even sponsorships from local businesses.  Unfortunately, after two home games and loads of unpaid bills, Ward skipped town.  Players went un-paid; commitments that sponsors purchased went unfulfilled and worst of all, fans that purchased season tickets were out almost an entire season.  With no owner to fund the team, the Tarpons ceased operations completely.  Additionally, it was reported that the SIFL changed losses to wins for the teams that were defeated by Mobile Bay after the team folded.
Andrew Bondarowicz, a prominent New Jersey Sports Attorney, is co-owner of the SIFL. He is also the owner of two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Trenton Steel and the Fayetteville Force.  Half way through the 2011 season, Trenton (5-4) was battling Richmond (4-4) for a playoff slot, and Fayetteville’s (3-5) hope of playoff contention was gone.  Bondarowicz stopped paying his Force players and searched out locals in Fayetteville for potential investors to buy him out.  During this time he continued to pay the Steel players, but went almost an entire month without giving out a single game check to the Force staff.  When no investors could be found to take Fayetteville off his hands, he released the players from the roster essentially killing the team.  In order to fulfill schedule obligations, Bondarowicz is putting together a ‘team’ of unknowns to play as the Fayetteville Force for its’ remaining four games, including versus the Richmond Raiders on June 11th.

The Trenton Steel lost their first game of the regular season to the Richmond Raiders.  This gives the Raiders the tie breaker should the Steel and Raiders finish the season with identical records, and only one of the two teams will take the fourth seed to represent the Western Conference in the SIFL playoffs.  One team out, one team in, and Andrew Bonarowics knows this.  This week the entire Fayetteville Force roster was released, many of which signed with the dismal Carolina Speed (1-8), including WR Chris Schubert and QB Lamar Little.  The Carolina Speed still have the Richmond Raiders on the schedule twice, Friday May 20th in Charlotte and in Richmond on June 4th.  League officials are pulling the strings to ensure Trenton makes the playoffs and Richmond does not.

Why does this all matter?  Why should the public care about a small time indoor football league and the corruption that is being allowed?  Because times are tough, and the SIFL is taking our hard earned dollars and promising something they are not giving, and laughing all the way to the bank.  The fans deserve professional football in underserved markets.  The season ticket holders deserve to be reimbursed for home games not played due to a con artist owner.  A sports team must provide a product that is played fairly and actually benefits the community instead of taking advantage of it.  It’s not right for a league owner to own a team in the league he controls, let alone two or three teams in the same conference. This is an invitation to breed corruption and rule bending.  In the end the fans and the players lose and that’s not right.

Ruben Foster can be reached and invites all commentary