AFL: Utah Blaze have blueprint for franchise's longevity
Following every home win, the fans clamor for their coach, begging for the energetic football mind to jump into the stands and celebrate.
It's been a while since Ron James has been able to do that, because it's been a while since the Utah Blaze have won a game inside EnergySolutions Arena.
But Saturday night's season finale against the Cleveland Gladiators poses more than just potential momentum going into 2014 or a final opportunity for a roster stocked with rookies to state a case for inclusion going forward.
How do the Blaze move past one of their most tumultuous seasons?
A year ago they were a minute away from the Arena Football League title game.
Fast-forward nearly 12 months and Utah is limping to the finish line. The Blaze had to endure a season in which their AFL MVP quarterback was benched, their star wide receiver left the franchise to pursue an Olympic rugby career, injuries forced defensive backs to play on offense and the future was put on hold when the team was temporarily evicted from ESA for lack of rental payments.
It's been an exhausting season.
"In arena football, I've been through some difficult seasons, but I've never had a combination of events or a perfect storm, if you will, hit us like this," said James.
For first-year majority owner Kim Brown, the future is all about a blueprint. She envisions the team competing with Real Salt Lake as a potential No. 2 behind the Jazz.
Brown had to navigate the franchise through squalls after they were evicted on June 20. She needed to put more of her marketing imprint on the franchise than previously imagined.
"Now I can wrap my arms around this whole animal," she said.
First things first. Brown said too many folks within the organization were trying to do too many different things at once in recent years, often leaving tasks incomplete or not up to snuff.
Thanks to an important fiscal infusion by a new investor in early July, the Blaze, as Brown says, have an opportunity to better cater to their market, to scour for sponsorships and find better ways to resonate with the fervent fan base. There will be a hire to head up sponsorships as well as a general manager position in the front office to deal with, among other responsibilities, player personnel.
"We are going to need structures and procedures in place and have people who are responsible for certain amounts of budgets for people to hit," she said. "There hasn't been that set in place before."
And, starting in 2014, the plan is to break even on the budget.
"We're putting everything into place," Brown said. "Then years on out, we want to make money. Our sponsorships have just been anemic, our ticket sales need to be punched into gear more and we need to fill seats."
The franchise already has a deal with EnergySolutions Arena set in place for the 2014 campaign, as the Blaze and the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, have a plan to avoid the midseason hurdle both encountered in June.
Brown wouldn't divulge specifics regarding the deal, but said that the two sides have continued working well together.
"The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies is very familiar with the challenges of operating sports franchises and has been working closely with the Utah Blaze in order to come to a mutually agreeable solution to contractual obligations," said Linda Luchetti, executive vice president of communications for the LHM Group in a statement. "We recognize the tremendous value of the Blaze to the community and are pleased to see them succeed."
The Blaze have a unique grip on the professional sports scene in the Beehive State and the goal is to not let it slip once again. As Brown said, "the foundation is set," but now that the cash infusion has been delivered, the next step is preparing to monetize the structures set in place.
Management discourse aside, James said it's crucial to find a way to win Saturday for the fans, who have ridden shotgun along this turbulent season.
"They're the reason why we play, they're the reason why the games exist, so we have to give them a good game in this our last home game to show them that we're behind them as much as they're behind us," he said.
Safety David Hyland said he's still getting used to not prepping for the postseason. He's never been in this position of simply waiting for the season to end. He holds himself and the franchise to a high standard and wants to make it a point to not have to endure a peaks-and-valleys season like the Blaze have in 2013.
"We've got to give them something to look forward to next year," he said, "to show them that we won't give up and neither should they."
Cleveland Gladiators at Utah Blaze
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Kickoff • Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV • KJZZ
Radio • 97.5 FM
Records • Cleveland 4-13; Utah 6-11
Last meeting • Utah 57, Cleveland 40 (April 27)
About the Gladiators • Cleveland QB Chris Dieker took over the starting job midseason and has thrown for 2,277 yards and 41 touchdowns since. â¦ Receiver Dominick Goodman ranks third in the AFL in receptions with 143. â¦ Wideout Thyron Lewis has hauled in 91 catches for 1,319 yards and 22 touchdowns. â¦ The Gladiators are coming off a 65-62 nail-biter over Orlando last weekend.
About the Blaze • 2012 AFL MVP Tommy Grady will once again get the starting nod after struggling with turnovers early in the season and becoming the backup for four outings. â¦ The Blaze rank third in the AFL in passing yards per game with 277.7. â¦ Receiver Chase Deadder rushed for two touchdowns in last week's road victory over Iowa. â¦ The Blaze defense had five defensive stops last week against the Barnstormers.