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Arena football in Fargo? Good luck with that

by Mike McFeely

Fargo tried arena football on a previous occasion and it didn't work so well. The Fargo Freeze breezed into town in the spring of 2000, played a season in the Fargodome and mercifully disappeared into the black hole of failed bush-league sports franchises.

The Freeze played in the Indoor Football League, though it is not to be confused with the current incarnation of the Indoor Football League that is sniffing around the region looking for cities in which to plant franchises. A representative from the current IFL stopped in Fargo this week and spoke with officials from Scheels Arena.

The IFL's Chris Kokalis and Scheels Arena general manager Jon Kram agreed on one thing: Local ownership would need to step to the plate. Start-up funds range from $75,000 to $150,000, Kokalis said at a press conference.

My response: Good luck with that.

Not that I'm trying to discourage a local money-bags from dumping cash into the IFL. This is capitalism. People can do what they want with their money in an attempt to make more money. And it would be a good thing for Scheels Arena, which has had its share of cash-flow problems.

But the history of minor-league sports in Fargo-Moorhead is not good. We've touched on the ill-fated Freeze, which rhymed with Beez, which was a low-level basketball franchise that lasted a few years.

An aside: In my former life as a columnist at The Forum, I regularly opined about the bush-leagueiness of the Beez. This caused one of the team's owners to call and accuse me of trying to drive the Beez out of existence. It was not true, I was simply offering my observations about the team. But, in perhaps not one of my better attempts at being witty, I told the owner that if my legacy was driving the F-M Beez out of town, I could live with that. He did not laugh, which was my first clue the joke fell flat. The second clue was the yelling and swearing.

There have been other franchises that showed up and left in the blink of an eye, including a handful of junior hockey teams and a couple of semi-pro football teams.

The only two with any measure of longevity have been the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks baseball team and the current main tenant of Scheels Arena, the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League. The RedHawks are a solid franchise, benefiting from a nice stadium, competent ownership/management and the fact Fargo-Moorhead is a frozen tundra about seven months per year and people are dying to spend time outdoors. Beer is optional, and appreciated. I've always contended a RedHawks game is much more a social event than a sporting event. The Force draw well at Scheels Arena, where beer is also an important option. The Force, too, benefit from a top-notch venue in addition to a hockey vacuum. It didn't hurt that the boondoggle that is the arena was smoothed over by banks working with investors and owners to make sure the building didn't go under.

I just don't see anybody stepping to the plate in Fargo to finance an arena football team. A couple of reasons why:

  • The IFL season runs from February to June in an attempt to avoid the busy winter sports season and the warmer summer months. Good idea, but I still don't envision 3,000-5,000 people buying tickets to watch indoor football. The Force will still be in full swing. Winter high school and college tournaments are going strong in February and March (and, at the end of the day, this is still a high school and college town). And there might be a little winter-sports burnout. Why I might be wrong: The IFL has a strong franchise in Sioux Falls, which is a market similar to Fargo in many ways.
  • Fargo-Moorhead is, indeed, a football town and that is a good thing for the IFL. But it is a Bison football town, a Cobber football town and a high school football town. Granted, the IFL is appealing to a different demographic than those levels of football (think NASCAR instead of the increasingly white-wine-and-cheese crowd that is showing up at NDSU games, for example). I simply don't believe interest in traditional football carries over to great interest in arena football. Why I might be wrong: Beer. They sell beer at Scheels Arena. That can be the great equalizer.

One advantage this version of the IFL owns over the previous IFL: This league doesn't appear to be selling itself as a blood-and-guts league trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The old IFL pitched the potential of injury as a draw, in the vein of professional wrestling. It was sad and dangerous. Some of the old league's marketing slogans included "The teams of the IFL give their heart and soul to each and every game ... not to mention their flesh and blood!" 

Still, it'd be a surprise if an IFL team found its way to Fargo and it'd be a bigger surprise if an IFL team found success in Fargo. 

The the new-and-improved IFL will have one thing going for it that the late-and-not-so-great IFL didn't: The Forum no longer employs a cynical sports columnist to rip them for being bush-league.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)