Turf Guys Don’t Dance

As the New York CityHawks, unheralded players of a largely unknown game, head into their second season of arena football on May 4, they will do so with the painful knowledge that last time around, in terms of both publicity and performance, they were upstaged by a bunch of girls.

The CityHawks owe their existence, in large part, to Cablevision’s 1994 acquisition of Madison Square Garden. To make the most of the cable giant’s investment, Dave Checketts – the Garden’s newly installed president – announced plans to turn the arena into a year-round sports-and-entertainment powerhouse. But it wasn’t easy. The Knicks and Rangers are generally idle from the second round of the playoffs all the way through the summer, and by then, the Ice Capades aren’t much of an option, either. Last year, the NBA launched its women’s league, the WNBA, but New York’s wildly successful Liberty team had only fifteen regular-season home games. So MSG executives turned to an idea that had been tried but quickly abandoned back in 1988: buying a franchise in the Arena Football League, which now, in its twelfth year, has fourteen teams.

Arena football – an eight-man indoor game that’s been described as human pinball – has never been taken all that seriously by sports fans, a fact that might account for the lack of careful planning that went into building the team. MSG officials did manage to land one of the league’s best players, quarterback Mike Perez, but the rest of the team members came with considerably less distinguished records. Their first season playing together, they won just two of fourteen games; the low turnout (an average of just 6,400 fans showed up for each game) started to seem like a blessing.

For this season, MSG hired a new general manager, John Hall, and a new coach, arena-league veteran Chuck Shelton, and replaced half of the players. Perez is still onboard, and so now is Brian Reeves, the league’s first draft pick, as well as Ron Carpenter, a former Jet who once led the NFL in average kickoff-return yardage. He’s eager to get into the game – but first he has to learn it. “I’m still not sure of all the different little rules,” he admits.

Win or lose, the CityHawks themselves – many of whom failed to make the big time and were nearing the end of their careers – are just happy for the salary (roughly $15,000 a year for most) and the chance to play. “The average NFL career is 3.6 years,” says Wayne Morris, a 28-year-old linebacker-wide receiver who signed on with the CityHawks after failing to make the final cut for the NFL. “So what do you do when you’re 26 and you still want to play? If you’re lucky, you can get here.”

And if MSG is lucky, it can get the fans there, too. While other clubs, like the Milwaukee Mustangs, attract crowds exceeding 16,000, arena football is a tough sell in a city that’s got plenty of pro sports. Realizing that it may never appeal to seasoned sports fans, MSG is targeting families and kids with tickets starting at $10 and offering discounts at Great Adventure to anyone who buys a CityHawks season pass. “We realize that we’re at the bottom of the food chain,” says Hall.

But Shelton is confident that the team’s improving record will be more powerful than any such incentives. “We need fans,” he says gruffly, “and winning is the main way we’ll get them.”

New wide receiver-defensive back Eugene Napoleon agrees: “I don’t care if you’re a professional marble player,” he says. “If you become a champion in something, the people will follow you.”

Turf Guys Don’t Dance