With a winning field goal lined up, the Columbus Lions fumbled the snap. It was the first and only time last season they had bumbled the play. It cost the team its first-round playoff game against the Mississippi Mudcats — but saved it $35,000.
“I didn’t want to lose that game, and I felt just sick about it,” Lions co-owner John Hargrove said. “Then my wife told me, ‘John, that just saved the team thousands of dollars.’“
Had the Lions won that game, won the next week at Wyoming and reached the title game in Florence, S.C., the team might not be here this season to defend a championship.
Without a chance to profit from a home playoff game and instead burdened with the cost of traveling, reaching the postseason was becoming something of a curse in the American Indoor Football Association. Even last year’s winners and title-game hosts, the Florence Phantoms, reportedly still are having financial trouble rooted in money lost in last season’s playoffs, according to Hargrove.
“It might have been close for us, too, had we won,” Hargrove said. “If you look at the Mississippi team that won that game, they went dark. They’re not a team this season. They just couldn’t afford it. Florence is having problems right now. A big part of that might have been the money they lost in the playoffs. You can’t replace that money.”
This year, for the first time in the AIFA’s history, the teams have entered into an agreement that will give teams a chance — just an opportunity, not a guarantee — to break even if they reached the postseason. It’s a refreshing change for owners and one they readily supported when it was proposed at preseason meetings.
“It’s nice for once not to worry about the cost of being in the playoffs,” said Hargrove, whose Lions host Fayetteville on Monday night at the Columbus Civic Center. “It’s something that you’re always looking at all season, and you hope to make the playoffs, but you don’t want to have to lose so much money.”
The pact required each of the league’s 14 teams to deposit half of their annual dues, a total of about $110,000, into an escrow account. The league would have used much of that money for recruiting new teams. Instead, the money sat in that account until this week, when six of the league’s teams finally will see some of it again, according to the terms of the deal.
The agreement provides host teams with $1,000 to pay for the visiting team’s hotel arrangements (maximum two nights) through the first two rounds of the playoffs and $2,000 for visiting team hotel (maximum three nights). Visiting teams will be provided with $5,000 (or $6,000 if they win) for travel and as much as $15 per diem for as many as 25 people through the postseason. The champion receives $7,500 for rings.
Hargrove has modest goals for the Lions. He would like to win; he would love to make some money; but he would be content if he just broke even.
“As an owner, I’d just be happy if we just broke even and provided what we thought was something of value to the community,” Hargrove said.
The AIFA’s playoff package fits that goal — it’s just enough to meet the teams’ needs.
The Lions are in the AIFA’s South Division, comprising four South Carolina teams and the Lions. Most of the division travel can be done overnight, but each team also treks to the North Division counterparts, which means two-day trips to places such as Washington and Baltimore. Even with a skeleton staff, an average trip can cost $6,000, according to Hargrove.
“Traveling has always been our biggest expense,” Wyoming Cavalry owner Argerie Layton said. “We travel to Utah, New Mexico and we used to travel to Texas when we were in a different league. From Day 1, we’ve had that problem, and we finally have something that addresses that.”
With the winner of the North-South playoff series headed to either Wyoming or Utah for the AIFA title game, the new allotment may not cover the bill for travel. But it’s better than some of the cost-cutting measures implemented in the past, Layton said.
“There have been seasons where we’ve had to pay the visiting team $10,000 just to come out here for a playoff game,” she said. “Now, at least the AIFA is giving the teams $5,000 to travel with, and that helps a lot.”
The new package is particularly helpful in tough economic times. Similar minor league football organizations have folded, but the AIFA has seen modest growth this season, according to owners. In Columbus, the Lions have seen more seats filled at the Civic Center.
Season-ticket sales in Columbus were up 30 percent from last year, which means about 180 more people purchased tickets for each of the team’s seven home games. And walk-up sales are up 12 percent from last season, which amounts to about 50 more fans at each game. In total, it brought an estimated $90,000 to the Lions, according to Hargrove.
There just seems to be no getting ahead, however.
“All it’s really done this year is pick up the shortfall we’ve had in sponsorships,” Hargrove said. “We’ve had some major sponsors back out on us this year. I guess that’s just the way the economy is right now. We came up with this plan so teams could worry about that and not how much money they could lose in the playoffs.
“Now, you don’t have to feel bad about winning.”
ContactChris White at 706-571-8571