Lewis Buchanan of Biddeford is excited about Portland’s newest professional sports team, the Maine Mammoths. He bought a season-ticket package with a buddy for $99 for two seats to see eight indoor football games at Cross Insurance Arena.
Buchanan, 25, attended arena football games as a kid in Louisiana, watching the Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings of the now-defunct af2 league.
“It was a blast to watch,” Buchanan said. “You can expect a lot of Top 10 ‘Sports Center’-like plays.”
Indoor football will debut in Maine on April 14 when the Mammoths, an expansion team in the National Arena League, take on another first-year team, the Carolina Cobras. The Mammoths will play their first game on Saturday in Worcester, Massachusetts, against yet another NAL expansion team.
Why so many new franchises? The NAL is coming off a shaky inaugural season in 2017, with five of its eight teams failing to survive to this year.
It’s not the only professional indoor football league to struggle. Eighteen have folded in the past two decades. Today, there are five leagues in North America – six if you include a women’s-only entity formerly known as the Lingerie Football League.
The question is: Can the sport succeed here?
“Right now, indoor football is at that kind of circling-the-drain stage,” said Troy Kirby, a Seattle-based sports business consultant who runs a website called Tao of Sports.
“I tell you, if they last a year, I’ll be shocked.”
Still, anticipation for the new indoor football team seems to be high in southern Maine. The Mammoths have a three-year lease with Cross arena and have reached a deal to broadcast their home games on a local television station (WPXT). More than 30 men attended an open tryout in Topsham three weeks ago – paying up to $80 each – in hopes of landing a spot on the team’s roster.
The payoff? Players on the Mammoths will earn $150 per game, with a $50 bonus if the team wins.
“They kept reminding us it was professional football, that this isn’t just a pick-up league,” John Hardy, a graduate of Deering High School and the University of Maine, said of his participation in the open tryout. “This is the real deal. They’ve signed guys who have been on NFL practice squads.”
Promoters promise high-scoring games with fans close to the action. Footballs that sail into the stands remain with fans as souvenirs.
Arena football typically uses a field 50 yards long, half the distance of a traditional football field. Each team fields eight players on offense and defense, with four offensive players on the line of scrimmage before each snap.
Rebound nets are located on either side of the goalposts to allow missed field goals to bounce back onto the field, where the ball can be played live. Punting is not allowed.
“It’s a fast, exciting game in an intimate atmosphere,” said NAL commissioner Chris Siegfried, noting that kids in the stands can high-five players between plays. “It’s a rock concert. It’s family-friendly. It’s right there in your face.”
Single game tickets range from $11 to $70. The Mammoths say they have sold 1,200 season tickets so far, more than the league’s other two expansion teams.
“We’re disappointed, honestly. We thought we would have 2,000 season tickets sold by now,” said Jeff Bouchy, a part owner of the Mammoths. “It’s cheaper than the movies. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be at the Mammoths on Saturday night. I think people just don’t understand what’s going to happen when they see a game.”
LEAGUE SPLINTERED EARLY ON
The National Arena League got off to a rough start before its first season ever started. Three of its announced franchises never played a down. One of them switched to another league.
Another of the NAL’s original teams – the Dayton Wolfpack – was actually based out of Atlanta because a lease agreement was never signed with the Nutter Center in suburban Fairborn, Ohio. The Wolfpack wound up playing only seven of 12 scheduled games, all on the road. Five games were canceled.
“Dayton” didn’t win a game, nor did another original NAL franchise, the Corpus Christi (Texas) Rage, whose operations were taken over by the league after only four games. Of the other two teams with losing records, the Georgia Firebirds (2-9) folded after the season and the High Country (Boone, North Carolina) Grizzlies (3-7) moved to the brand new America Arena League after the NAL ruled that the team owed former NFL wide receiver Dexter Jackson $9,500. In January he sued the franchise for non-payment. The team responded with a countersuit.
This year, the NAL has pared down to six franchises. A seventh, an expansion team to be based in Trenton, New Jersey, could not meet the league’s financial requirements (NAL owners are required to establish a $100,000 line of credit, according to Siegfried) and instead joined the America Arena League.
The NAL’s three expansion franchises this year will be joined by holdovers in Jacksonville (Florida), Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) and Columbus (Georgia).
Sam Surprise, chairman of the Cross Insurance Arena board of trustees, knows of arena football’s shaky financial past, but he isn’t concerned.
“When you’re trying to generate a new (league) like this, there’s going to be some that make it, some that don’t,” he said. “We have eight committed dates and I’m excited to see it catch.”
The Mammoths’ ownership group consists of Bouchy, Rob Storm, Steve Curran and Richard Maslia – all of whom live in Florida or Georgia – as an entity called National Sports Ventures. The same group also owns the NAL’s expansion Carolina Cobras.
Bouchy has been involved in indoor football since 1998, and he’s led the ownership group of the Jacksonville Sharks, a former Arena Football League team, since its inception in 2010. He said the goal is to establish the new teams in Maine and North Carolina, sell them to local investors, “and then go and do more teams and build our league through expansion that way.”
Godfrey Wood, who has a vast background as a sports entrepreneur and executive, is encouraged for the Mammoths. Wood was one of the founders of the New England Whalers (later the Hartford Whalers) hockey team in 1970s and general manager of the Portland Pirates at their inception in 1993.
“I love their marketing,” Wood said. “I think they’re doing a great job. I think they’re going to do well. It’s going to be exciting, they’ll be right in your face. It’s good football and it will be competitive.”
Kirby, the sports business consultant from Seattle, isn’t so optimistic. He said a solid business plan for a new arena football team would need more than a year of lead-in, including using a mascot to promote the team and build community support.
The NAL announced its plans to place a team in Portland 4½ months ago. The Mammoths do not have a team mascot, though Bouchy said one could be unveiled by season’s end.
The team has yet to market any merchandise, but Bouchy said he hopes to have some on sale at Cross arena in the week leading up to the home opener. By comparison, the Maine Mariners – a pro hockey team scheduled to debut at Cross arena in October – already sells apparel bearing the team’s logo on its website.
NATURAL SPRINGBOARD TO NFL
Despite the open tryouts in Topsham, the vast majority of players at the Mammoths training camp in March were signed by the team earlier in the winter. The typical arena football player has played for college and/or semi-pro teams.
So why would anyone agree to punish his body for the National Arena League’s $150 per-game pay scale?
“It’s professional football,” said Warren Smith, a former University of Maine quarterback and the NAL’s Most Valuable Player last season. “You’ll be surprised how many people from all over the place will come play.”
In 2011, Smith led UMaine to a 9-4 record and set a school record for passing yards. Since then, he’s played in three different indoor football leagues.
Now 27, Smith teaches at his old high school in New Jersey. In the spring, after the school day ends, he drives two hours to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to practice with the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks.
“We don’t make millions of dollars doing it,” he said. “We do it because it’s fun.”
Smith will return to Maine when the Steelhawks travel to Portland for a June 16 game against the Mammoths.
Each team will have a roster of 24, with 21 players suited up on game nights. NAL franchises provide housing, health insurance and two meals per day to players during the season. The Mammoths have rented apartments for their players in South Portland’s Redbank Village neighborhood.
Patrick Carney, a 25-year-old lineman from Hampton, New Hampshire, played for indoor teams in Kansas and South Carolina last year. He signed a Mammoths contract in January.
“I’m assuming a four-player apartment,” Carney said of his housing situation. “You can work (another job) if you want to, but I’m local, so I’ll probably be able to keep the job I have now.”
Carney works at a gym in Salisbury, Massachusetts, as well as at another training facility in Seabrook, New Hampshire. He played one year at Plymouth State, another at a community college in California and several other with a variety of semi-pro teams.
“I’m interested in moving forward to the NFL,” Carney said. “I’ve gotten some advice from scouts who say, ‘Go find a good arena team to play for and keep your film (up to date).’ There’s thousands of kids out there fighting for one or two spots.”
Eamon White, a 2010 graduate of Portland High, won’t need housing if he makes the squad. White played center at Merrimack College after three years at the University of Maine, where he was on the team but did not see game action.
White, who lives in Buxton, has played semi-pro ball with the Southern Maine Raging Bulls. He signed with the Mammoths in December.
“It’s not a lot of money,” White said, “but you get to play again, and in a professional atmosphere.”
Nikolas Sierra, 26, a Mammoths linebacker from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, is entering his fourth season of indoor football. He played college ball at Sacred Heart University.
“It’s not something you can make a living off, but it’s definitely interesting,” Sierra said. “The goal is to try to move up, get fresh film and get opportunities at a higher level.”
Smith, the former UMaine quarterback, continued to play after leaving Orono with the dream of advancing to the NFL. As he ages, however, his odds grow longer.
“You can do it, but going from a smaller field to a bigger field, scouts are always wondering if your arm strength is there,” Smith said. “If you’re a defensive back, an offensive lineman, a defensive lineman, it’s a good league for getting film. In my years I’ve seen about 20 kids get called up to the NFL.”
The lure of professional football isn’t limited to the players alone. Fans, like Buchanan from Biddeford, are excited about indoor football coming to Portland.
“It’s definitely a family-friendly environment,” he said. “They’re playing against padded walls so the players are a lot more willing to take big leaps and make big plays for the fans.”
Buchanan and a co-worker, Anthony Vo, 30, of Portland, plan to attend games decked out in Mammoth-themed body paint and costumes.
“We want to be ‘those guys,’ ” Vo said. “So yeah, I’m painting my arms ivory white and getting a pool noodle for the trunk.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe contributed to this report.