Rossford officials look for additional teams at new arena

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Hockey pucks might not be the only things flying around the planned Rossford arena.

If city officials get their wish, they could be joined by soccer balls, basketballs or even the occasional football.

Arena proponents have been in talks with minor league basketball, football and soccer league officials in attempts to get another tenant for their new arena.

“It would be great to have something other than hockey to draw fans,” said Rossford Mayor Mark Zuchowski.

Rossford officials announced on Tuesday that they have reached an agreement with the Ilitch family of Detroit that will bring the Detroit Red Wings’ top minor league affiliate in the American Hockey League to the new arena in 2000.

But a hockey team fills an arena for only about 40 nights a year, plus a few preseason and playoff games. For an arena to succeed, it has to be much busier than that.

One way to fill that gap is by attracting another sport to the arena to complement hockey’s winter schedule. Rossford officials have talked with at least three leagues about expansion: the Continental Basketball Association, the National Professional Soccer League and the Arena Football League.

The leagues have expressed vary ing degrees of interest, with soccer and arena football seeming most likely.

“There’s no doubt about it in my mind, we’d definitely want Toledo in our plans,” said Steve Paxos, commissioner of the NPSL. “It’s a perfect location for what we’re doing.”

Throughout the 1990s, minor league sports have become cash cows, mostly by going into markets without major league professional sports but with a strong sports fan base. Hockey, in particular, has exploded, with new teams and leagues appearing every year – many in markets that haven’t seen snow in 20 years, much less hockey.

Owners of major league teams in many sports have started to invest in the minors, knowing they can often get a devoted fan base, high game attendance and low player salaries.

The Rossford arena, if built, will be able to attract some other events, from ice shows to concerts. But another sports team would add a large number of guaranteed dates and another reason for people to go to the arena.

Among the candidates:

* The Arena Football League, the biggest success story of “emerging sports,” is looking to create a developmental league. Arena football is played with eight players to a side, a 50-yard field, barrier walls on the sidelines and no punting. The result is a faster-paced, higher-scoring version of outdoor football, played from April to August, and appealing to a younger audience.

It’s become extremely popular in recent years, with attendance averaging well over 10,000 a game and almost 1.5 million per season. But the league has had trouble developing players, and has embarked on a plan to reach cities like Toledo with new teams.

“We want to bring football into communities where the NFL can’t reach,” said David Cooper, vice president of media relations and a native of Maumee.

The new league, to be called Arena Football 2 or AF2, would kick off next spring, with 12 to 16 teams.

Cooper said the Toledo area would be a good match for the league.

“I would be thrilled to have a team in Toledo,” he said. “I know that during the summertime kids are always looking for something to go to. It would be a complement for a city built of football fans, and maybe a fix for Ohio State fans during the summer.”

* Of all the leagues, the CBA probably features the most familiar names to sports fans. Every year, college stars who aren’t quite ready for the NBA settle for its minor league, which features nine teams across the country. The nearest to Toledo is in Fort Wayne.

The Arizona-based league is looking to expand, and has held discussions with Rossford officials. “We thought that Toledo would be an outstanding market,” commissioner Gary Hunter said. “We hear a lot of good things about it, and at first blush Toledo would make a good candidate for the CBA.”

Hunter said he hopes the league can expand to 12 to 16 teams within the next six or seven years. The league is looking at about 15 cities as potential sites, and Rossford is among them.

“We know that Toledo has a good solid program at the college level,” he said, “and we believe good basketball begets good basketball.”

* The NPSL, the country’s top indoor soccer league, is planning to start its own minor league to develop interest in the sport and provide a place for referees and players to train before reaching the big league.

The new league, named Soccer Leagues of America, could start an abbreviated schedule later this year, and plans its first full season for 2000, Paxos said. It will likely start in the Midwest with about six to eight teams, he said.

Eventually, separate winter and summer leagues will be formed, he said, to allow busy arenas to choose when they needed to fill empty dates.

Paxos said the Toledo area would be an ideal spot for minor league indoor soccer; the size of the market is perfect, he said, and its location could key into several regional rivalries.

The effort already has Ohio ties. The NPSL is based in Canton; Soccer Leagues of America’s headquarters are in Dayton.

One important factor in Rossford’s favor for any of these leagues is the arena’s manager, Olympia Entertainment. Olympia is owned by Mike Ilitch, the pizza magnate who has had previous success with minor league sports.

Ilitch has heavy ties to the AFL and the NPSL. He owns the Detroit Rockers, an NPSL franchise, and league officials said that a Toledo minor-league team could be affiliated with the Rockers.

From 1988 to 1993 he also owned the Arena Football League’s Detroit Drive, which has since relocated to Grand Rapids. “They were the most successful team in our league,” Cooper said. “He wanted to concentrate more on the Red Wings, so he sold the team. But Mike was always very gracious, and I think he’s always been a real advocate of Arena football.”

Mark Cory, group vice president of Olympia, said that his company “would look at other teams” as potential tenants, but said that no discussions have yet taken place.

Each potential new sport would offer different advantages to the arena. The CBA would fill up the most dates – about 28 a year – and likely generate the most income.

An Arthur Anderson marketing study estimated that a CBA team could generate about $469,000 a year for the arena within five years.

But its seasons would also overlap with the hockey team’s, causing potential scheduling conflicts and not helping the summer scheduling problem.

Arena football would use only eight dates a year, but it also would likely generate more dollars per event than any other sport – a total of about $286,000 a year, according to the Arthur Anderson study. It would also bring one of America’s fastest growing sports to the Toledo area.

And the soccer league could play off of the phenomenal success that the sport has had among Toledo-area children in recent years, as well as filling 14 empty dates on the arena’s calendar.