There will be no Mid-Missouri Outlaws football in 2014.
The 2013 season, the Outlaws first in the newly formed Champions Professional Indoor Football League, saw declining attendance and an 0-12 record. In the end, co-owners Chad Jackson and Ethan Henson simply couldn’t continue, officially keeping the team in the CPIFL but leaving them dormant at least for 2014.
“The quality of player that we were getting wasn’t going to compete and we weren’t making enough money to maximize their pay,” Jackson said. “The writing was on the wall. We probably could have contributed money into the deal to keep us going another year, but we were staring down the wall that we knew that we weren’t going to generate enough money to pay these guys top dollar.”
After the 2013 season, Jackson said the Outlaws were looking at another season of losing money.
“It’s simple economics,” Henson said. “It cost $250,000 to put the team on the field and we were only bringing in $190,000. It’s done that for two years. We had some great sponsors, but ticket sales weren’t there to pick up the slack.”
The Outlaws began their life in the outdoor Central Plains Football League. In 2010, they moved indoors and moved to the American Professional Football League. Poor management of that league caused the Outlaws and several other teams to leave following the 2012 season to form the CPIFL. Henson took on a major role in putting the CPIFL together and from the start, the league was designed to attract a higher quality of talent than other indoor leagues.
“We just couldn’t keep up,” Henson said. “(The league) went exactly in the direction we wanted it to go in, we just couldn’t find the talent or keep the talent in Sedalia.”
$220 per game
Unlike the NFL, or even the Arena Football League, players in the CPIFL aren’t getting rich playing football. League rules limit a game check to $220, so players have to get another job to have food and a roof over their head.
“We’re still in a recession here and these guys needed to make more than we were paying them,” Jackson said. “It was a tough situation. We spent a lot of money keeping the guys we had happy.”
To help out, the owners allowed some players to stay at the team’s downtown Sedalia offices.
“We both put them to work at our houses, just so they would have spending money,” Jackson said.
When you can’t offer a player more money than the other teams, you have to offer him something else.
“Players in our league pick a team for a variety of reasons,” said CPIFL commissioner James Bain. “One of those reasons is if they can get a job in that city. The reasons beyond just that are maybe they have a wife and kids and their wife can get a job in that city or maybe they went to college in that area or they got a coaching job. There’s so many reasons why a player picks a city and since they don’t make that much, a job is high on that list.”
Bain has stressed to other owners in the league the importance of building relationships with businesses in town who might be able to hire those players, which in turn would let the player put down roots there.
“Outside of a player getting to the next level, that’s what we want,” Bain said.
Henson and Jackson say they tried to help the players find jobs, but the economy was working against them and often those jobs weren’t there to be found.
For years, the Outlaws had players who already had local ties, like Seth and Micah Brimer and Kyle Middleton. The roster was filled with local athletes that fans already knew, which served as a good marketing tool.
But in the new league, the owners say last year was the first time they really had to hit the recruiting trail and they hit it hard, but it was still a hard sell.
“Let’s face it, the night life in Sedalia is not the greatest,” Henson said. “It’s easier in a town like Omaha or Sioux City.”
Those issues really popped up last season with the Outlaws quarterbacking situation.
“We knew that if Kyle went down, we were in trouble,” Jackson said. “I went out and got a kid out of Florida who played two plays and went down. Then I brought in another one the next week that had been cut by the Kansas City team and then he went down and so the next week I found a guy in San Diego. It was a lot of stress. There was a lot more to keeping this thing going than anyone could imagine.”
Bain said the CPIFL had no concerns when the 2013 season began about the viability of the Outlaws.
“We’ve known Chad and Ethan for years,” Bain said. “They’ve been around and they know the business. That was definitely never a concern. We know that they’re stand-up guys and there have never been accusations of them leaving bills unpaid or players unpaid or anything like that. Even in shutting down the team, they did things in a classy way.”
In fact, Jackson said, there were teams that had it worse. Once such team was the Kansas City Renegades, which folded soon after the season ended. The CPIFL added a team in Dodge City, Kan. this season to enter season two with nine teams.
“Our big thing is travel and keeping this a regional league,” Bain said. “We’re very happy with the markets we’re in. There are opportunities in other markets that we would love to be in looking forward, but for now we are very happy and excited for the season.”
The business of indoor football
One year ago when the CPIFL kicked off its first season, the Outlaws hosted Lincoln in front of 1,824 people. There were 1,122 in the seats when the Outlaws hosted the Kansas Koyotes a few weeks later.
“We might have had 2,000 people in years past, but a majority of those are free tickets,” Jackson said.
Henson estimates that often two-thirds of the crowd was there for free between the various promotions the Outlaws and other groups had. Ticket prices had gone up, but were still available for $10 at the door or $8 if they were purchased ahead of time.
“I think that support is there,” Henson said. “Sedalia wants a $5 ticket. We could sell out the Mathewson Center at $5 a ticket and not cover our insurance costs.”
“We were successful when we were outdoors and everybody thought we just went indoors,” Jackson said. “No. We went into a professional market where players had to be paid, where we had to have insurance, we had to have Workman’s comp insurance.”
The insurance started out a $22,000 but with a handful of knee injuries, that jumped to $32,000. On top of that, the team needed to carry a $2 million liability insurance.
And limiting injuries becomes more difficult in a league where cracking down on head-first hits can be dicey.
“If we fine a kid, that kid’s done,” Jackson said. “At the NFL level, there’s money there. If we try to fine a guy for misbehaving or saying something, he’s not going to pay his fine, he’s just going to say ‘oh, I’m going to go play for somebody else.’ It’s kind of hard to manage.”
The team also had to spend money on legal help. The logo of a man wearing a cowboy hat drew the attention of Oakley Sunglasses. That resulted in a shared use agreement. Then a team popped up in Oklahoma with a similar logo and the Outlaws had to contact both that team and Oakley. Lawyers were needed to do all of those things, and lawyers cost money.
The owners were the ones tasked with finding sponsorship deals. There were no major multi-national corporations to help out, just local companies who could only do so much. The Outlaws branched out, finding sponsorships in Knob Noster and Warrensburg. Even then, they say, the Outlaws would have had to get every business in Sedalia to help with sponsorships just to break even, and even then they would have to set ticket prices at $10.
“We couldn’t go to a sponsor and say your price is going to double this year, it wasn’t going to happen,” Jackson said. “As I went to renew sponsorship deals, I could see it was a strain on the sponsors that we had. I could sense the writing was on the wall that we weren’t going to be able to maximize what we had.”
The owners put as much as they could into the team. When dollars needed to be spent, they weren’t afraid to put in their own.
“If it had been poor management, the team would have been gone three years ago,” Henson said.
Henson and Jackson never took a paycheck for the work they put into the team. Even the staff was made up of volunteers.
“We’re the only organization (in the CPIFL) that has a non-paid staff,” Jackson said. “Other organizations were paying quite well. If we did that, we would be in a half-a-million bucks.”
The only people drawing a paycheck were the players. The PR work was done by an intern from the University of Central Missouri. Coaches were volunteers. Even the game-day staff, from the Lifehouse Church running security to the guys from
Pittsburgh Corning running the down and distance markers, were volunteers.
More than just owners
Henson and Jackson themselves put in long hours. Jackson said there were days he would work his regular job until 5 p.m. then work on Outlaws-related things until midnight. It was the owners who dealt with everything from lining up sponsors to making sure the field was ready.
“If we had made money, we could have gone to a contractor in town and had them do that for us,” Jackson said. “It would have been a huge lift off our backs.”
Though Bain said it is common for CPIFL owners to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the team in some way, Henson and Jackson were doing just about everything, even buying groceries for the players staying at the team offices.
“We’re owners and we did the general managing of the team as well,” Jackson said. “We see it and we talked about it, at some point if this was going to make it we would have to have someone that’s full time and selling advertising for us, that’s selling the Outlaws and bringing in those deals. We probably needed to focus more on the Outlaws than we could.”
“If you could take every business major studying at SFCC and stick them into sports marketing for one season, they might change their major,” Henson said.
The city that came calling
Salina, Kan. is a city of 48,000 people with an arena that seats 7,500.
Salina also nearly became the home of the Outlaws.
When the CPIFL was still in the planning stages, the city of Salina courted Henson and Jackson to move the team. Lincoln, Neb. was interested as well. In the end the Outlaws owners helped other ownership groups set up franchises in those cities while keeping the Outlaws in Sedalia.
While the Outlaws struggled both at the box office and in the standings, the Salina Bombers flourished.
“When we go into that arena and it was sold out and we were the team that was supposed to play there, they were courting us, that was a hard pill to swallow,” Henson said. “They were selling $25 tickets and selling 5000 of them. They netted more in one night that we did in four years.”
The Bombers had more than 5,000 fans for their home opener against Wichita last season and more than 3,000 for their other home games at the Bicentennial Center.
The head coach of the Bombers is Bob Frey, who has been the defensive coordinator at nearby Kansas Wesleyan since 2010 and on Thursday was named the school’s interim head coach.
“I think that was a big piece of the puzzle,” Bain said. “That local college coach is in tune to the players that are in that area and the players know him.”
Off the field, Bain said the Bombers simply put together a good staff.
“They found people that just got after it and did a lot of sponsorship sales and they hired people that were great at media and PR,” he said. “They just did a great job getting people excited about it. Everything they did worked. Their colors (neon green and black) are phenomenal. Nobody has those colors in indoor football. That’s one thing that’s a piece of the puzzle, as little as it sounds, it was just something that people gravitated toward.”
Watching it all unfold, both in Salina and league-wide, were two owners in Sedalia who helped make it happen.
“There’s a lot of things we did right in setting up the league,” Henson said. “The CPIFL was designed to succeed because we’d all been part of leagues that hadn’t. We went in with a set of ‘this is what we know doesn’t work, we also know that this plan does.’”
Neither Jackson not Henson lost their passion for the game. Jackson is helping with his son’s youth team. Henson is an assistant coach on Ben Lyles’ staff at Sacred Heart.
If ever the chance came for them to re-launch the Outlaws, or run another team, Bain said he would like to see it.
“We definitely would welcome those guys back or if there are other partners brought in or if there’s other things done financially, we would welcome those guys back in Sedalia,” Bain said. “If there’s a different city they want to look at, that’s fine too. We trust their business judgement. They’ve been doing this a long time.”
Jackson said they have had opportunities to come back in the league in a different location and Henson added that with the right combination of things, the Outlaws could come back, either in Sedalia or elsewhere, but if it’s elsewhere, it would be a tough choice.
“I’m not leaving Sedalia,” Henson said. “I moved back here. It’s got to be the right deal.”
Though they are dormant, the Outlaws are still legally a part of the CPIFL, which means they cannot go back to the outdoor game and the CPFL.
“I have offered anything that we have in terms of pads and helmets,” Jackson said. “I asked the coaching staff if they wanted to. We were asked if we wanted to go back to the CPFL. I told them I didn’t want to do that, personally, but if they wanted to do that, if some players wanted to do it, we’d be more than helpful in doing it, but no one has really.”
Jackson said there are people who have called about buying the Outlaws and a deal could happen at some point, but for now the Outlaws will sit on the sidelines.