April 28, 2013

Trying to get on solid ground

Rampage face challenges of any small business in tough economy

Devin Golden

— When the Georgia Rampage moved to Dalton, Kacee Smith knew it would be tough.

Smith, the Rampage’s co-owner and general manager, even called the move a “risk” for the Ultimate Indoor Football League franchise.

“Everyone knew it was high unemployment, bad economy, small town and a small arena,” said Smith, who last summer announced the Rampage would call Dalton’s trade center home when the 2013 season kicked off in March.

The Rampage spent their inaugural season as a travel team, practicing in Calhoun but having no home arena and therefore no home games. Despite the potential drawbacks, when it came to the 2013 season for Smith and the team, Dalton was it.

With the season nearing completion, Smith and the Rampage are planning for what’s to come. However, he hopes for better results financially because the team hasn’t pulled in as much ticket revenue or sponsorship money as he would like. The team is spending more money than it’s making.

But considering the Rampage were in a new home this season and had to build a fan base, struggling in the first year isn’t an absolute indicator for the ones to follow. If the team can return for another season — and Smith promises the Rampage will — Smith believes there are better expectations when it comes to finances.

Increasing numbers

Because this was its first season with a home arena, the organization had some one-time expenses. The wall pads surrounding the field cost $8,000.

Then there are the per-game expenses. Smith said the payroll for the team’s four coaches is $500 per game, equaling $4,500 for the nine-game season, while the 24-player payroll is $2,400 per game.

The Rampage lease the arena at the trade center, which is under split ownership and management between the city of Dalton and Whitfield County, for home games.

For each of its six home games, the team pays $2,500 to the trade center for arena use and $800 to the league for officials.

The team got new uniforms after the second game of the season, and Smith said this cost around $3,000.

Then there are miscellaneous costs such as an on-site trainer, seven cheerleaders for home games, advertisement sales associates, website domain ownership and graphic design for the site. Smith estimated this cost at about $3,000.

The Rampage have roughly 40 people on staff.

He approximates each home game “has roughly broke even,” but the figures he gave The Daily Citizen during an interview puts the Rampage at about a $21,000 loss from the time the first game took place in late February to today. Travel costs of about $6,000 per trip — gas, food and lodging — for three away games during the regular season don’t help.

“A good break even would be, if you’re going to break even with travel mixed in, then 800 (tickets sold per home game) would be a good number,” he said. “I’m surprised we haven’t hit 1,000.”

“But the thing is, we haven’t recouped any of those expenses from before,” he said.

When the team joined the UIFL, there was a $25,000 “league territory fee,” Smith said. Each year includes about $8,000 in membership fees.

Smith admitted the team “can’t really afford too many more seasons like this” from a financial standpoint. So far, he and the team’s co-owner and Smith’s financial partner, Amer Awad, have been funding the project.

“You only have so much money on one side of the bird,” he added. “You can’t just shake it off the tree. We’re already making plans for year two.

“We certainly can’t continue to support this out of our bank accounts.”

The Missouri Monsters, who the Rampage played Saturday night in St. Charles, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, are in their inaugural season. Their owner is Andrew Haines, who also is the UIFL’s co-founder and a good friend to Smith. Haines said his team had 1,000 season ticket holders and 60 sponsors. The Rampage didn’t reach the 100 mark for season tickets when the season began.

“We’re doing OK,” Haines told The Daily Citizen in a phone interview this past week. “I think we’ll have a loss this year, but we’ll be close to breaking even, though. In the first year, you have all the expenses, though.”

Declining numbers

As the season has progressed, attendance has dropped. Smith said the team sold 700 tickets for its first regular season game, at home versus the Lakeland (Fla.) Raiders on March 4. For the team’s most recent home game, against the Corpus Christi (Texas) Fury on April, the number of tickets sold was close to 400, and Smith admitted the organization lost money.

“I always prepare for the worst, and I always get on everybody’s nerves with that,” Smith said. “People always get mad and say I’m too (pessimistic). I’m like, ‘No, I always shoot for the worst.’ ... But it’s always tough. I will say the attendance is lower than I thought and the business support as far as advertising and sponsorship is lower than I thought.”

The average number of tickets sold through the five home games so far is about 600, said Smith, who expressed surprise that the number hasn’t reached 1,000 yet.

Doug Phipps, the trade center’s general manager, thinks the first year’s numbers show promise.

“We were happy with the 600s or 700s for the first year ... In the second year, I think that number will go up and the level of talent will go up,” Phipps said.

In addition to money from people or organizations leasing or renting space there, the trade center takes most of its revenue from concession sales and a small amount of merchandise sales, Smith said. The Rampage received 5 percent of concessions sales — and it bumps to 10 percent when attendance reaches 1,500 — and that equals about $200 per home game. Smith said the team made $540 off merchandise sales at its most recent home game and the team averages around $500, which is $3,000 for the year. However, there is a cost to make the apparel and items, and Smith believes the profit is about $1,500 for the year.

Prior to the season, Smith said the Rampage spent $1,000 per month from August through December in print advertising. He said the team also spent $1,500 per month in radio ads from January through April. However, he doesn’t believe he’s seen much of a return from those marketing avenues. Instead, he favors “guerrilla marketing,” which Smith defined as “feet on pavement, shaking hands and handing out fliers.” For instances, the Rampage held two meet-the-players events at Oakwood Cafe and Academy Sports and Outdoors just days before their February preseason game. Smith said it costs less and allows for a more personable interaction with the market audience.

“With anything we’ve done and all the money we’ve wasted, I think guerrilla marketing has the best return,” Smith said.

He also hasn’t been thrilled with advertising and sponsorship reception from local businesses. The bulk of the team’s revenue comes from ticket sales and sponsorships. Smith said the average fan spends $12 per ticket — with single-game prices ranging from $8 to $25 and season-ticket packages from $40 to $125. Smith estimates ticket sales equal to about $7,200 per home game. Ads on the wall pads and sponsors add an extra $28,000 in revenue for the whole season, Smith said, noting most UIFL teams make $20,00 from one sponsor.

“In the future, we hope more businesses will take a chance on us,” Smith said. “Sponsorships and advertisers is really what runs the program. ... It was a lot lower (than I expected).”

The team does not bring in any revenue from road games, Smith said.

Monday night wars

One of the things Smith is hoping for — aside from more advertisers and sponsors — is better dates for games. All of the Rampage’s home games during the regular season have been on Monday nights. He believes attendance is affected.

“I think maybe that has affected people coming out and trying it that one time,” he said. “Maybe if we had some Fridays or Saturdays, then people will come out and try it and enjoy it.”

Haines said Tuesday is the worst night for games and Monday follows. Both Haines and Smith said that if a weekend date is unavailable, then Thursday is the best night.

“If you really look at it, people aren’t drawing more fans on a Monday night,” Haines said. “People work. People have school. There’s less people that go out. We played a Monday night game in Missouri and it was our worst-attended game.”

The Monsters’ first game, played on a weekend, had 4,097 in attendance. Their second game was on a Monday and attracted some 1,600 people.

“We’ve played a few Friday nights, a few Saturday nights, one Sunday and one Monday,” he said. “Our goal next year is to get all Fridays and Saturdays.”

However, booking home games is a two-way street. The trade center is part of the process.

“I’m hoping they work with us and give us some weekend spots,” Smith said, noting he wants it “without a significant increase in rent.

“That would be nice. I’m sure it will be some. We’ve reached out to them for that, so we’ll see what happens.”

Phipps said it comes down to availability for those weekend slots.

“From the financial side, I think maybe a few weekend dates along with a different weekday is what makes sense,” he said. “Saturdays are a premium day, but at this point we’re looking at purely availability.”

Haines said the relationship with the home arena is one of the most important parts of an indoor football team’s success.

“They really have to be in a building that wants them and want to be in a deal that wants a win-win for both, not just one-sided,” he said. “We have it in St. Charles, which is why I’m there, but it’s tough to find. They’re all in it for themselves and want the money.”

Not one-and-done

Smith admitted coming to Dalton was a tough sell and people around the league were “really nervous” about it. If anything, that just made him appreciate the challenge more.

“But I just knew it was such a big football market,” Smith said. “That’s why I said, ‘Give it some time. We’ll build it here.’

“I see good potential, and in a weird way I like the competition of making it work. Whenever we first started getting into it and people were saying, ‘No, Dalton won’t work,’ I was like, ‘Well, watch.’”

The UIFL was founded in 2011 with six teams — the Canton (Ohio) Cougars, Eastern Kentucky Drillers, Huntington (W. Va.) Hammer, Johnstown (Pa.) Generals, Northern Kentucky River Monsters and Saginaw (Mich.) Sting — but none of them currently are in the league. Four of the teams — the Cougars, Hammer, River Monsters and Sting — either folded or left the league after one season. The Drillers and Generals left after last season.

The Rampage joined for the 2012 season as a travel team, practicing in Calhoun but not playing any home games. The Miami Sting, Florida Tarpons, Raiders and Mississippi Hound Dogs also debuted last season. Like the Sting, the Hound Dogs also are no longer in the league.

This season’s league started with seven teams but has since dropped to six. Miami’s team folded before the season began. The Sarasota (Fla.) Thunder has had trouble making road games. They had one scheduled with the Fury and Rampage but Smith said financial difficulties prevented them from happening.

The Rampage are 2-4 this season with little to no chance of making the UIFL’s playoffs. Atop the standings are the Lakeland Raiders and Corpus Christi Fury. Smith said these are the two teams with the most money and biggest payrolls, and that effects wins and losses since there is no league-determined salary cap.

“Who wins the championship is who gets the most money,” Smith said. “Anyone can put together a roster. It’s who can put together the best roster with the most money. And when it’s all said and done, it’ll come down to Lakeland and Corpus Christi this year.”

A manager of General Nutritions Centers in Calhoun, Smith is a 2005 Gordon Central High School graduate and played football at the school. The team’s other owner and Smith’s financial partner, Amer Awad, is a graduate of Canyon Springs High School in Moreno, Calif. Awad and Smith met when the former was doing the latter’s taxes and Awad, a 27-year-old tax consultant for Liberty Tax, expressed interest in owning a minor league professional sports franchise.

Smith was already the owner of a semi-pro outdoor team based in Calhoun, the North Georgia Bulldogs, and had been held that title for six seasons prior to the current one with the Rampage.

He said he has put the Bulldogs “on hold” to focus all his attention and resources toward the Rampage.

The team graduated a player, wide receiver Dallas Walker, to the NFL. He signed with the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago and is evidence that the pipe dream of making it from the UIFL to the biggest level is possible. Rampage kicker Jay Tyroff is one player who hopes to use the Rampage as a launching pad to get back to the NFL. He went to training camp with the Atlanta Falcons in 2009 and Dallas Cowboys in 2010 and has since played for numerous indoor football teams throughout the Southeast.

“It’s every football player’s dream, especially in arena ball, to play in the NFL,” he said in a past interview with The Daily Citizen. “I’ve made it to the NFL, and the politics side of it, it’s all about who you know, as in anything.”

However, many of the players don’t even consider the possibility. They just want to play the game.

“I just really love playing football,” running back Clarence Goines said in a past interview. “It’s my life.”

Smith, 26, can relate to them.

“I’m not too far removed from these guys,” he said. “They’re not too much younger than me. I used to be a player myself. So I kind of know how they have it. ... There are some teams with owners who don’t travel to games. Some don’t even know the players. The players hardly know each other.

“They call my dad (Mike Smith) ‘Pops,’ and I think they’ve adopted him as their dad. They love my son. ... But there’s a fine line there. ... I love them all to death and brought them here for a reason. One thing as an owner is I hand pick players more than anyone else. But there’s a fine line, because I have to let some go.”

From Smith’s observation, the first year is the toughest. If you can survive the first season “it becomes a lot more stable and gets better.”

He also thinks the product is catching on with people who have watched. It’s a slow and gradual process, he said, but it’s a process that Smith believes is far beyond where it was two months ago when the season was beginning.

“I’ve gotten more hugs from people that I don’t know,” Smith said of people’s feedback. “Some of these fans are funny. They’ll tell me thanks and that they enjoyed it.

“After games, it’s really encouraging. I had one where I had 10 emails just telling me how much they enjoyed it.”

If the Rampage don’t make the playoffs, the last game of the season will be May 13 at home versus the Chattahoochee Valley Vipers, a non-UIFL foe. Smith is already looking ahead to next season, and he is optimistic about a successful second year, saying there are no plans to move the Rampage out of Dalton. A Calhoun resident, Smith said he “wants to be here and make this work.”