20 October 2009

If a Redwood falls in the forest...

Reader Mike Headley (a.k.a. LoneStranger) was one of the privileged 6,341 to see the inaugural home game for the UFL's California Redwoods franchise at AT&T Park. Below are his observations of the experience and my feedback (in italics). Enjoy.
Hey ML,

I went to the California Redwoods vs NY Sentinels UFL game at AT&T Park on Saturday, so I was doing a little reading up on the four teams. I noticed that the Florida Tuskers were owned by the Tampa Bay Rays. Could this be a way for them to get more muscle behind their new stadium plans? It would give them more guaranteed home dates, though admittedly just four-six more. The other issue this would bring up, if they do intend the Tuskers to play in the new stadium, is how that would change the design of the stadium. I find it a little weird that a baseball team would want to build a two-sport complex, but perhaps with the lower attendance rates than the NFL, the number of seats up against the field isn’t an issue. The field at AT&T ran along the 3B line and the end zone was right up against the outfield wall. I’m not sure how close it got to the dugouts on the other side. There was nothing on the opposite side of the field, except the fireworks mortars. The main TV camera was on a movable platform between the seats and the field. I didn’t see the game on TV, but I bet it didn’t look good showing the emptiness on the other side of the field. Or maybe it looked better than showing the empty stands.

As far as the Redwoods game went, it was fun. I’ve only ever been to one other football game (49ers vs Cin a couple years ago) and we had sat in the top deck. This game we sat in the lower area near the left field foul pole. While there were only a pitiful 6341 people in attendance (almost half of the next-highest game) it was neat to be able to get close to the field. I’ll probably go to another game in November. Their problem with attendance is probably fixed with better marketing. It seems like no one knows that they even exist. If it doesn’t get better, I wonder if they’d toy with the idea of playing some of their home games in San Jose, perhaps Spartan Stadium. The league wants to expand into Los Angeles next year, so I get the impression that the Redwoods will remain the Northern California franchise.

The Tuskers are meant to play their home games at the old Citrus Bowl in Orlando. They are splitting their home games between Orlando and Tampa. Tropicana Field has occasionally held bowl games so it sort of makes sense. I doubt that scheduling 2 or 3 games per season at the Trop will have any effect on future stadium talks. Having multiple homes is purely about exposure. The field orientation you describe is exactly the same as the one they use for the Emerald Bowl and the one season of the XFL. It sounds like you're saying that they aren't laying down the temporary stands in right field that they usually have for the bowl game. I'll have to check out one of the games later in the season.

I like that they're keeping costs low. They have a broadcast deal with Versus, a network that's always looking for new sports properties. They're even streaming the games live, which is refreshing. If they follow the pre-expansionist Arena Football League business model, they could keep costs manageable and stay afloat for a few years at least. Though I'm not so sure about having a fall schedule. There's just too much competition with ESPN broadcasting major college matchups on Thursday. And locally, there's a good reason why only 6,341 was the reported attendance. With two NFL teams and two major college teams in the Bay Area, we have more football here than any other market in the country. NY has no major [college] team. Chicago has bottom-feeding Northwestern, Notre Dame nearly 100 miles away, and Illinois even further away.

Yes, you are correct; the temporary bleachers were not put up. I agree, the lower cost of the games is what will help them survive. It was evident on Saturday. They didn’t open up the place until an hour before kickoff, the concession stands were only open on the 3B side and even then the non-essentials were closed. There were definitely less usher/security staff on hand. No one had any tickets checked by an usher that I saw. I get the feeling that the NFL is waiting to see how the whole thing goes down. If it fails, there is no financial loss for them. If it ends up successful, they’ve got a ‘minor league proving ground’ that they can either buy into or otherwise sign a deal with to get guys some playing time.
With the recently announced Arena Football 1 league being arranged with the original Arena League's ethos, UFL has a small opening from which it can gain a decent-sized niche audience. My guess is that the Redwoods were charged a minimal 4 or 6-hour facility rental fee for the game, which explains why the gates only opened an hour early.

What do you think? As poor as the initial attendance was, it's not like the NFL and NBA didn't have humble beginnings. Both leagues had to do their share of barnstorming and audience cultivation. Can UFL work?