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Arena of the absurd: Local indoor football has had funny bounces

There probably isn’t any other professional team sport in America that goes through as much upheaval on a weekly basis as indoor football.

And there might not be any locale in the land that has generated as much commotion in the sport the past four months as the Albuquerque metro area.

For those keeping score:

■ In mid-February, all was relatively quiet as the Rio Rancho-based New Mexico Stars prepared for their fourth season. On the eve of training camp, though, second-year head coach Dominic Bramante resigned and went home to Oklahoma. Within a week, newly minted team owners Tracy and Crystal Duran (TNC Duran LLC) then alerted the Champions Indoor Football league that they were shutting down operations for 2015 to reboot for 2016.

■ Three days later, on Feb. 24, voila! The Albuquerque-based Duke City Gladiators were born thanks to the perseverance of co-owner Matt Caward.

The irony is, a month earlier he had been excited about an agreement he thought he had reached with the Stars’ owners to become the team’s GM. But when Caward learned he wasn’t in the mix, he leaped into action with Plan B.

Caward lured Bramante back to New Mexico with a three-year deal and negotiated to get the hastily constructed franchise admitted to the CIF, essentially filling the void of the Stars.

And while the Gladiators have been an on-field success with a 5-3 overall record and 3-3 league mark, average announced crowds of fewer than 1,000 fans for five dates at Tingley Coliseum have been a disappointment.

Said Caward: “We didn’t do ourselves any favors by jumping into this in just two weeks, because we didn’t have an offseason to sell ourselves.

“But I know for a fact we’re going to do very well down the road.”

⋄  Then last month, at a news conference at Tamaya Resort, the Durans revealed they are back in business and that the Stars will resurface in 2016.

Tracy Duran said the team will join the fledgling North American Indoor Football league and introduced West Mesa alumnus Farasi Norman as head coach. Duran also said a women’s team is in the works, likely for 2017.

On top of that, Duran was proud to announce the NAIF would hold this season’s “championship game” at the Santa Ana Star Center on May 16, and that the coinciding league meetings would be conducted at the Tamaya Resort.

Of course, the Durans didn’t encounter smooth sailing.

Norman resigned from his oral agreement in a huff after he said the Durans weren’t answering his emails, texts or phone calls. Later, the NAIF game and league meetings were called off because of financial difficulties within the league.

Farasi Norman was announced as the head coach and general manager for the 2016 New Mexico Stars, but he and ownership had a parting of ways only days later. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Farasi Norman was announced as the head coach and general manager for the 2016 New Mexico Stars, but he and ownership had a parting of ways only days later. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

To compound the coaching drama, Norman emailed an 808-word letter to the media – roughly the length of a Lobo basketball feature in the Journal – accusing the Durans of being unprofessional.

Smoke filled the air from the bridges Norman was burning.

In the meantime, Duran said he had grown concerned about Norman’s past after learning he had run two football academies in Texas and one in Albuquerque (2009) and was accused of abandoning both in midstream.

“I’m still flabbergasted by his letter to the press,” Duran said. “Honestly, if you’ve got that kind of track record, you don’t want to bring attention to yourself. … He said, ‘Jerry Jones wouldn’t do that (not return messages) to Jason Garrett.’ But when you’re starting a team, you may not be available to answer your calls every 10 minutes.”

At the time, Norman said two other coaching options were on the table for him – at Ellsworth (Iowa) Community College and with the Gladiators. But Ellsworth head coach Jesse Montalto said he never offered Norman a position on his staff, and Caward said he wasn’t going to Norman either.

So, Norman remains in coaching limbo. But he said in an email to the Journal on Thursday that he plans to “throw my name back out there” next week.

⋄  Last but not least, the Stars’ association with the new league apparently isn’t on firm ground, prompting Duran to enter talks with two other indoor leagues.

Anyway, before delving into what the future might hold for New Mexico’s two men’s pro indoor teams, here’s background on how the game has grown since its inception in the mid-1980s.

First kickoff

Thirty years ago, there was no such thing as pro indoor football, a game played on fields the size of a hockey rink, with dasher boards and eight players to a side.

Now, there are seven pro indoor leagues operating as of Thursday, with teams all over the map in major metropolitan areas, midsize cities and even relatively tiny ones, such as Dodge City, Kan.

The granddaddy of the associations is the Arena Football League, which had its beginnings 28 years ago with four teams. Most notably, the AFL served as the launching pad to the career of future Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner, who played from 1995-97 with the Iowa Barnstormers.

But the AFL absorbed public-relations black eyes, too.

In 1989, there was an episode in which the head coach of the Pittsburgh franchise famously slugged the league commissioner during a game.

In 2009, the AFL even shut down for a year before regaining its footing in 2010. Today 12 teams are in business playing an 18-game schedule.

Early years in NM

New Mexico got its first taste of indoor ball seven years ago when the New Mexico Wildcats entered the American Indoor Football Association. The team played in Rio Rancho’s Star Center, which opened a year and a half earlier.

After a 5-9 record in 2008, the team bottomed out in 2009 with a 1-13 season in which it played the same three foes over and over. The Wildcats didn’t return for 2010.

The Stars then arrived with great fanfare for the 2012 season. A highlight was when polarizing former NFL star receiver Terrell Owens played for the Allen Wranglers against New Mexico before about 6,000 fans at the Star Center. But crowds were rarely half that for other games, averaging 2,200 the first two seasons and 1,800 in 2014.

In that time, Stars owners, GMs, coaches and players were coming and going through a revolving door – preseason, midseason, whenever.

Formula for success

Tommy Benizio is the CEO of the Texas Revolution of the CIF and ex-commissioner of the Indoor Football League, which ranks second to the AFL in the indoor hierarchy. He said there are three things you need to make a franchise succeed.

“First you need a community of suitable size – one that hasn’t been burned by previous teams,” he said. “Second, you have to have an arena that’s not too big, not too small.

“The third is the most important. You need to find an owner with the money, time and heart to do the job.”

Duran agrees on some levels.

“We’re having to mop up a lot of previous wrongs,” he said of football, basketball and hockey ventures that have started and ceased operations in Rio Rancho. “There’s a lot of mistrust, but the community wants a team. They want something to root for. There’s not much else going on in New Mexico besides going to a movie or a Lobo basketball game.”

But Duran disagrees with the need to have deep pockets.

“What you do need is a sound business plan,” he said. “You need community businesses behind you that will provide a lot of the income. If they don’t participate, it doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire.”

Two teams, one locale

The owners of the Gladiators and Stars are confident the two franchises can co-exist. Caward even talks of how beneficial it would be if the teams wound up in the same league and met two or three times a season.

“Since the franchises are so far away from each other (30 miles between Tingley and the Star Center), I think both can survive, and I think ours can flourish,” Caward said.

“I think the two franchises would actually help each other immensely if they can get in the same league. It would be exponentially helpful to both since the highest cost to teams is travel. If we played each other two or three times, we could save around $20,000 in expenses.”

Duran also thinks two teams can work.

“I honestly believe we can both survive,” he said. “We’re just worried about ourselves, though. It’s not like we’re trying to put them out of business. We both want to survive. We’re on one side of town, they’re on another. I’m not trying to build a team to beat the Gladiators.”

In the meantime, Duran didn’t waste time in selecting a new head coach.

He just hasn’t picked a date to unveil him.

“When people find out who it is, it’s going to shock the snot out of them,” Duran said.

After what’s already happened around here, there might not be much snot left to shock.