FORT MYERS — You might have heard this one before: Southwest Florida is getting a new indoor football team.
But before you roll your eyes, take note that this latest chapter of Southwest Florida sports history brings a new business model, which the Florida Tarpons ownership says is going to keep them in town for the long haul. Team owners Andrew Haines and Michael Taylor moved their families to Southwest Florida in June with that in mind.
“I wouldn’t have signed a three-year deal and I wouldn’t have moved my family here if I wasn’t thinking long-term,” Haines said.
The Ultimate Indoor Football League, which Haines and Taylor co-founded, is holding its offseason owners meetings at Gateway Golf and Country Club this weekend. The league has its sights on expanding from six to 16 teams before entering its second season in March. Two expansion teams, including the Tarpons, have been announced, and several others are in the works.
The football is not going to be terribly different than what the Florida Firecats brought to the turf from 2001 to 2009. Key differences include the lack of a rebound net and a rule allowing two motion men on offense. But otherwise, the skill level and style of play is similar to that which Firecats fans remember from arenafootball2.
Like the Firecats, the Tarpons plan to take advantage of Southwest Florida talent. The team announced its first player signings Thursday, which included a half-dozen chosen from an open tryout. Notable signees include defensive back/wide receiver Meenyus Miller, who starred at Barron Collier in the mid-90s, and former St. John Neumann receiver Anthony Tumbarello, whose college run at Iona was cut short after his freshman year when the school nixed its football program.
“We deal with the young up-and-comers who are just trying to advance, and we get guys who are a little older who want to end their careers playing in front of family and friends. You rarely find guys in the middle,” said Taylor, who is also the team’s head coach.
But the field is where the similarities end. The business side, from the league leadership down, is fundamentally different than that of the Firecats and af2. Haines, who sold his ownership stake in the UIFL but stayed on as league president, said that the league is more team-friendly. Franchise fees are lower than they were in af2, he said.
“Our league is set up for the owners to have long-term success,” Haines said. “Budgets are reasonable and much more realistic for teams to break even. As long as teams can break even, they’ll be around for the long haul. Teams are only going to lose money for so long.”
The league also operates with salary caps, both for players and coaches. The latter is a novel concept that Haines says is a first. The UIFL saw it as a way to prevent teams from one-upping each other in their bids to hire the best coaches.
“We wanted to do that because that’s one of those expenses that jumps through the roof really quickly,” Haines said. “A rookie owner out there will go out and hire a coach for 60 or 80 grand, and all of a sudden the whole league has an increase.”
The UIFL put a former player in as commissioner, and a familiar one at that. Jared Lorenzen, who is best known for his bruising short-yardage carries on third down as the New York Giants’ third-string quarterback, is a known quantity in indoor football. Firecats fans may recall the 2009 shootout during which Florida quarterback Chris Wallace beat Lorenzen and the Kentucky Horsemen 68-62.
But Lorenzen has a business side in the game, as well, as he was hired to be the general manager of the Northern Kentucky River Monsters during the UIFL’s inaugural season last year. He vacated that position to put the pads back on and became the league’s first MVP as the River Monsters’ quarterback.
“It’s pretty neat to say that our league MVP last year is now our commissioner,” Haines said.
But getting a franchise in place takes more than existing in a league with a different attitude. Haines and Taylor have been building local relationships, often having to overcome the skepticism from some of the Firecats’ old backers. Bar Louie at Gulf Coast Town Center, for example, initially spurned the Tarpons’ sponsorship offers.
“But finally, through us doing what we say we’re going to do and them seeing the progress, they jumped on board with us,” Haines said.
The restaurant ended up being the location of the team’s most recent press conference.
The team is working to build relationships with sponsors (partners, as Haines calls them) beyond putting up signs at the arena. The staff produces video features highlighting those businesses and posts them on the team’s website. Haines’ marketing company, Conquest Creative, handles marketing for both the team and several of the sponsors.
Both owners moved down here, in part, to cultivate those relationships as well as keep tabs on things. Taylor was living thousands of miles away from one of his teams, the Fairbanks Grizzlies, when he helped start up in the Intense Football League.
“If you have a team not where you live, you have all of the headaches, but you enjoy none of the rewards,” Taylor said.
A lot of the team’s sponsors are becoming their fishing buddies, not just their clients, Haines said.
Perhaps the biggest coup for the Tarpons was picking up Germain Arena as its home arena. Other recent startups, such as the Florida Stingrays and the Fort Myers Tarpons, played their home games at the old and distant Lee County Civic Center, which is better known for its gun shows than its sporting events.
It wasn’t easy, though. Negotiations took about six months, as Germain Arena management vetted the Tarpons and the UIFL to make sure that they weren’t getting a franchise that was doomed to fail.
“Everybody wants to be in this business, but not many people can afford to or even know how to go about doing it,” Haines said. “I’m sure Germain and all these arenas we’re in, they get calls constantly with people wanting to do it. Everybody’s got a dream, and that’s great, because I do, too. But it takes a lot of money to get something like this off the ground.”