Wild times for Alaska indoor football team

Posted: Friday, May 14, 2010

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The Alaska Wild's head coach is AWOL, the team still doesn't have an owner, it owes money to both the arena it plays in and the arena it practices in, the general manager job is open, the Indoor Football League is worried that the team may not have enough players for Sunday's home game and the league commissioner compared the franchise's turmoil to a chicken with its head cut off.

In other words, it's business as usual for the Alaska Wild, a semipro indoor football team that's been in tumult since its 2007 inception.

The Wild are scheduled to play the Billings Outlaws on Sunday, a game that will be the Wild's first home appearance since April 1.

"As of right now, the team is alive and kicking, but we need to take some significant strides forward," league commissioner Tommy Benizio said Wednesday from league headquarters in Virginia.

The search goes on for an ownership group, he said. The endeavor began two months ago when, citing financial instability, the IFL took over operations from first-year owner Charles Matthews, the club's third owner in four seasons.

"We're doing all we can to keep the team going as we search for a new ownership group," Benizio said. "We've had a lot of verbal commitments, but we're having trouble getting them to commit (officially).

"You can only go without an owner for so long. Otherwise it's like a chicken without a head. It's not gonna go in the direction you want it to."

Benizio said first-year coach Darnell Lee - who helped the team snap an 18-game losing streak in the season's second game and is 2-7 with three one-point losses - isn't in Anchorage. He said he isn't sure if Lee is still the head coach.

"As of Saturday he was still the coach, but quite frankly, I can't verify or deny that right now," Benizio said. "Darnell's not (in Anchorage) right now, which gives me an uneasy feeling."

Gone for sure is Abe Hernandez, the former general manager who has been with the team in one capacity or another since the beginning - which is saying something, given the many owners and coaches the team has gone through in its brief history.

Hernandez said in an e-mail Wednesday that he is no longer responsible for day-to-day operations and that he has gone from being general manager to consultant. He referred all questions, including those about Lee, to league headquarters.

Benizio said an assistant coach named Calvin Knighton has taken over as interim general manager. He said Knighton has assured him the Wild will be able to field a team for Sunday's game, despite reports that some of the players have left town.

"I asked Calvin if he can have a team with 20 guys this week, because I've heard the same rumors," Benizio said. "I'm sorry I don't have all the answers."

The Billings Outlaws have airplane tickets for Anchorage and are scheduled to leave Montana on Saturday morning, said Ryan Minch, the beat writer for billingsoutlaws.com.

Benizio confirmed that, but he also said that the Wild have not provided information on hotel accommodations for the Outlaws. Home teams are responsible for providing accommodations for visiting teams in the IFL, a 25-team league that also includes the Fairbanks Grizzlies.

While the Grizzlies appear to be in good financial health, the Wild are struggling and in debt.

The general managers at Sullivan Arena, where the Wild are scheduled to play at 7 p.m. Sunday, and the Subway Sports Centre, where the Wild practice, both said the team owes money for use of those facilities.

Joe Wooden, the regional general manager for SMG, which runs Sullivan Arena, said the team owes $6,000 in rent, which doesn't include the cost of renting the arena for Sunday's game.

The team had accumulated a $11,000 debt, he said, but has paid it down to $6,000, with an additional payment expected this week. Rent for this weekend will be either a flat fee of $2,500 or 10 percent of ticket revenues, whichever is higher.

"It'll probably be the $2,500 flat fee, because they haven't been selling enough tickets to get above $2,500," Wooden said.

John Stenehjem of the Subway Sports Centre said the Wild owes rent money there too. Wooden and Stenehjem both said they're willing to give the Wild time to pay their debts, because they don't want to see the team fold.

Besides the turmoil caused by frequent coaching and ownership changes and an on-field performance that kept the team winless on the road through its first three seasons, poor attendance has plagued the Wild. A former spokesman said that attendance last season slipped to an average of 2,200 a game, down by about 1,000 from the 2008 season.

Attendance this season slipped to about 1,200 to 1,500 per game, and a number of spectators aren't paying full price for tickets. Postings on an Alaska Wild Facebook page said all military, active or retired, will get 2-for-1 tickets and all kids under 12 will get in free for the team's remaining three home game.

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