By: Jonathan Hull
Wichita Falls Nighthawks owner Drew Carnes’ summer project was finding a way to better stabilize the franchise.
He believes he did that Tuesday, announcing the Nighthawks are officially joining the Champions Indoor Football league for the 2018 season at a news conference held at the MPEC.
Carnes was joined on the podium by CIF League Commissioner Ricky Bertz and Nighthawks coach Billy Back. The Nighthawks become the CIF’s 15th member after spending the past two seasons as part of the Indoor Football League. They’re the second IFL team to join the CIF with five-time IFL champion Sioux Falls also making the jump.
“This is probably the worst-kept secret in indoor football,” said Carnes, who announced the Nighthawks had applied for entry to the CIF in July. “We’ve got a lot of teams that play around us in the CIF, but it’s also a financial decision as well.”
The Nighthawks will compete in the CIF’s South Division, which also features teams from Amarillo (Venom); Albuquerque (Duke City Gladiators); Frisco (Texas Revolution); Mesquite (Dallas Generals); Salina (Liberty), Kansas and Wichita (Force), Kansas.
Being able to play quality competition so close to Wichita Falls was a driving force behind Carnes wanting to leave the IFL and join the CIF. In the IFL, the Nighthawks were forced to travel as far as Tacoma, Washington to play games. Now they play multiple opponents who are within a four-hour drive of Wichita Falls. There wasn’t a team with that close a proximity to the Nighthawks in the IFL.
Carnes believes he’ll save around $40,000 on travel expenses alone, a considerable amount given that he’s estimated his losses at around $250,000 in each of the Nighthawks’ first two seasons as an indoor football team.
Carnes believes he’ll save at least $100,000 in total with the move from the IFL to the CIF without sacrificing on-field quality.
“I think our travel cost last year was $73,000 and that included one game last year where the team paid the travel cost for us,” Carnes said. “The schedule is a little bit reduced from what we play in the IFL. We play a 12-game season, but the playoff format is expanded. Eight teams in the CIF qualify for the playoffs. The odds of us hosting a playoff game are certainly a lot better than they were in the IFL.”
Carnes has never been overly concerned with turning a profit with the Nighthawks, but has always wanted to minimize his losses. He said Tuesday that if he could get to where he was only losing $50,000 a year he would keep the the Nighthawks “going out of perpetuity” because he’s seen all the good the franchise has done in the community.
One example is the Nighthawks raising around $25,000 for Special Olympics with a flag football game.
Still, the losses Carnes has suffered did have him consider moving the Nighthawks franchise from Wichita Falls to another city that might support the team.
Joining the CIF and agreeing in principle to a three-year contract with Spectre, the company which leases out Kay Yeager Coliseum, has Carnes feeling more secure keeping the team in Wichita Falls.
“My wife and I prayed a lot about this,” Carnes said. “We’ve seen the good this team can do in the community. We’re bringing in young professionals who end up forming careers outside of football in Wichita Falls. It’s been a good thing for the city and we want to keep it here.
Carnes said the Nighthawks would remain in Wichita Falls for the entire length of their contract with Spectre as long as no unforeseeable situations, such as the CIF folding, arises.
Bertz, who helped form the CIF in 2014 and currently owns a stake in the Salina Liberty, said the league is stable.
“We’re the only indoor football league in the country that is still growing,” Bertz said. “If you look at the others, they’re contracting and shrinking in size. Drew and his wife wanted to keep this team in Wichita Falls and they talked to a lot of people in Wichita Falls.
“I’m not going to say there wouldn’t be a team in Wichita Falls if the CIF didn’t exist, but I think Drew would agree, the likelihood of that diminishes astronomically if you look at the lack of options that might have been out there. Fortunately for us, it made a great mix.”
Player compensation also changes for the Nighthawks. In the IFL, players were paid a fixed salary of $250 a game. The CIF uses a salary cap with a maximum and minimum salary allowed.
“The overall compensation is the exact same as the IFL we just have a salary cap,” Bertz said. “You can pay a star player more than a guy who is a backup.”
The Nighthawks plan to retain a good deal of their roster from last season, although Back couldn’t commit to having former IFL Most Valuable Player Charles McCullum returning to play quarterback.
“That is yet to be seen,” Back said. “We’ll announce that at the proper time.”
The 2018 CIF season is set to begin the first weekend in March. The championship game will be played June 29.