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Electrifying Spokane 

by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Shock's Week Two loss to the Quad City Steamwheelers on April 7 wasn't nearly as close as the 60-45 score suggests. It was a Rust Belt drubbing. In front of a sold-out crowd of around 10,600 fans, including some 7,800 season ticket holders, the defense -- so vaunted in 2006 -- couldn't put together a stop to save its life. The offense, too, sputtered, despite the off-season acquisition of a points-minded head coach in Adam Shackleford.





The team was able to match pace for a while, but fell back decisively in the fourth quarter. By the time Shackleford pulled rookie quarterback Andrico Hines, the former Middle Tennessee State standout had thrown four balls directly to Quad City players and the Shock were behind for good. The young quarterback chastised himself for being selfish and trying to carry the team on his own shoulders. "I was pushing the envelope," Hines says, "[trying to] win it by myself instead of relying on my players. It was a hard lesson I'll never forget."





Even during that kind of loss, though, the appeal of the sport -- crowd participation -- is obvious. Early in the first quarter, Quad City kicker Kimo Naehu stood up on the bench and began hurling obscenities at a fan in the first row of section 116. The benches are situated hockey-style near midfield, so Naehu was shouting over Shock players and several dozen fans. The team seemed mostly unimpressed (remember, he's the kicker), as did the object of Naehu's wrath, who shot a few choice words back before flipping the kicker off and motioning for him to sit down.





Later, with a minute left in the half, a short five-yard out ended at the sideline leaving a Quad City receiver within arm's length of a fan. The man, owner of a truly wicked pepper-gray mullet, took the occasion to slap the receiver upside the head.





Talking trash is one thing; physical violence is another. Arena football, at least in the close environs of the Spokane Arena, offers plenty of opportunity for both.





As the fourth quarter wore down, the crowd thinned to a fifth its original size. Hines' replacement tossed three touchdowns in a span of six minutes. It was a gut check for both Hines and his team. Shackleford had already begun distancing himself from the starter he'd handpicked. He declared the quarterback position "wide open," telling me last week that the unique power he has as an AF2 coach is that, without multi-year contracts as in the NFL, he can hire and fire players at will.





"If your guys aren't taking care of the football, you have to go out and find guys that will," Shackleford says, "The hardest part of my job is cutting players, but guys make themselves very easy to replace when they don't do the right things."





Shackleford talks about the team as a business, and that's how Hines saw it as well. "This is a business," he says, "I know it wasn't personal. I know I'm not a bad player, but I had a bad game."





There was a clamor in the front office as well. "We were worried because we hadn't really lost," says Shock owner Brady Nelson. The worries weren't as immediate as they were for the young players, but they quickly compounded the next week, when the Shock traveled to Fort Wayne, Ind., and lost by seven to the bottom-dwelling Fusion.





"We need to win," says Nelson, who, at age 29, already owns his own sports franchise, along with Eric Enloe and Adam Nebeker, the team's general manager.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the NFL or the NBA, a down season is sometimes cause for aggressive trading and front-office shakeups. In AF2, a down season can -- and often does -- kill a teetering franchise. The 2006 expansion that saw the birth of the Shock came on the heels of four straight years of teams going under all over the country. In 2002, there were 34 teams playing Arena Football 2. In 2005, there were only 20. Even winning doesn't sustain teams in this league.





The Memphis Xplorers won the Arena Cup championship in 2005 and had a solid season in 2006, only to quit operations that off-season. That's certainly cause for concern. In those absurdly high ticket-sales numbers, though, the Shock have a revenue base that other teams only dream of.





Against Quad City, they'd played to a hometown crowd of 10,560. (In Fort Wayne the next week, the Fusion drew less than 4,500.) Crowds exceeding 10,000 helped the fledgling Shock franchise post a reported six-figure profit in its first year. That was back, though, when the team was winning more.





"We're sold out through the season, so it might not affect our bottom line this season, but it might next," says Nelson. "You gotta win to keep filling the building." And you gotta keep filling the building to maintain the sponsorships.





For Shock games, literally everything is branded. The padded sidelines are plastered with ads, looking like cushy hockey boards. The balls are branded with the Dishman Dodge logo, as are the first down markers. Information is found at the Black Book guest services booth. When a team gets a first down, it's again credited to Dishman Dodge. The turnovers come courtesy of the U.S. Border Patrol; the penalties courtesy of Spokane Federal Credit Union. Jumbotron replays are called "Recycled Plays," brought to us by Pacific Steel and Recycling. Even the public service announcements are branding opportunities. Incomplete passes ("dropped balls," commonly) remind us to conserve water, "every drop counts." Each of these sponsors is a revenue stream Nelson and team see as vital to preventing the Shock from going the way of the Xplorers. And though selling out the Arena is enough to attract sponsorship money, winning keeps it. "Sponsors let us know all the time that they want to be associated with someone who's winning."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter falling to a 1-2 record, then, the stakes got significantly higher. When the standings are announced, under the moniker, "The Idaho Title Hunt for the Title," the voice over the PA speeds through Spokane's place near the bottom of the standings. At least one advertiser, Slammers, the "ultimate milk of the Spokane Shock," present at the Quad City game, didn't seem to have made the jump to the next home try against the Lubbock Renegades.





Though winning is the ultimate goal of all professional sports, establishing a winning tradition for an AF2 team is uniquely important. There are no huge salaries, no signing bonuses and no multi-year contracts. Everyone, quarterback to defensive line, is paid $200 a game, with a $50 bonus for winning. Every player is on a single-year contract, and at the end is free agency. In order to attract talent, then, teams have to recruit with less tangible things than money.





"We don't throw around money," says Coach Shackleford. "We throw around opportunity." He explains that, yeah, $250 a week isn't making anyone rich, but the team supplies housing, two meals daily, trip per diem and, most important, the chance of getting back on the bigger leagues' radar.





"They're not getting big contracts, but it's an environment to get film," Shackleford says. College film is worthless to a professional culture the coach describes as "What have you done lately?" Fresh films, then, are key for any player wanting "a shot at the NFL, or to be seen by the AFL or the CFL."





In Shackleford's four years in various capacities, he says good players inevitably get seen, but good players on good teams get seen faster, so it behooves players to accept jobs with teams that have a tradition of winning. Spokane isn't exactly there, in his estimation, but it's coming along.





"A lot of people are calling it a tradition of winning," he says. "I think it's a little quick to call it a tradition in a year and a half, but there's a standard set." That standard, in his estimation, is this: "You come to Spokane, you're going to be treated well, and this crowd and this town is going to get behind you."





Clearly, then, success builds upon itself as a tool for attracting top-level talent. It's important to Nelson and the front office, though, that Spokane be an attractive place for players regardless of the Shock's record. To that end, they're adding innovations and comforts that aren't even offered by most Arena Football teams, despite that major league's loftier status and ESPN contracts. They're the first AF2 team to have an indoor practice facility. Wide Receiver Antwone Savage, star of last year's team, who was signed to the Dallas Desperados after last season (though ultimately cut), says Spokane's facilities are a draw in themselves. "Dallas didn't even have an indoor to practice in. They share with the Cowboys."





Savage also noted that Orlando practices on a field outside the Citrus Bowl. The clamor was such that the AFL's Austin Wranglers came to take a look at the set-up -- the equivalent of the Mariners touring Avista Stadium for pointers.





Nelson hopes, with a little smug satisfaction, this will spark an amenities war among AF2 teams, driving up the quality of the league as people try to keep up with the Shockses.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & ll that would have been far from the team's mind, though, heading into the home stand against Lubbock. Despite the pressure and the admittedly intense disappointment of following a 3-0 start in 2006 by going 1-2, Nelson felt his club was where they wanted to be. They'd gambled on picking up young talent, so they had steeled themselves against early-season hiccups. "We know that makes us susceptible early in the year," Nelson admits, "to a veteran team full of guys who've been in the league a couple of years." The idea, though, is that if those AF2 veterans had talent to succeed at higher levels, they wouldn't be AF2 veterans. They'd have moved on. Shackleford, Nelson and crew instead try to cull the best young college players and try to acclimate them to the arena game as quickly as possible.





The acclimation process, says Nelson, is hardest for quarterbacks. Hines agrees: "Everything happens so fast," he says. The pace of college ball is such that a quarterback has time to handle as many as five progressions, looking to the primary receiver, then the secondary, then the third, then maybe even the tight end and, if nothing else a running back. "In arena," he says, "you've got two."





Though the learning curve is steepest for QBs, it confers the biggest advantage. "If your quarterback can pick it up," Nelson says, "that makes a huge, huge difference."





And Hines is picking it up, it seems. The rookie knuckled under after the disastrous Quad City performance and came out with five touchdowns in the losing effort at Fort Wayne. The next week, he turned in a similar effort with better results, thanks in part to the Shock defense locking in, holding Lubbock to a paltry 26 points on April 21. Hines' five-touchdown effort had been in vain, so he went out against the Renegades and threw six. The next week, at Stockton, he threw another three. Perhaps most significantly, though, he hasn't thrown an interception since the loss in Spokane. The front office and coaches don't seem surprised by this. "We could've gotten veteran [quarterbacks]," Nelson concludes, "but we think the upside is going to be way better in the long run."





Savage has noted a change in poise in the young QB. "Each game I see him getting better and better and better," the wide-out says. "If he gets better, we get better."





Hines just wants the opportunity to play. Though he played his full career at Middle Tennessee State, he characterizes himself as "a little injury-prone." The worst of his injuries, a hole in his patellar tendon, kept him out of the NFL combine. He wants to use his experiences with the Shock to get at least a shot at football's upper echelons.





Nelson's game plan for the Shock is right in line with that. "We're looking for guys that'll come in this year and be gone next," he says. The trick is staying focused on the obstacles in between -- like Bakersfield this Saturday.





The Spokane Shock put their 3-2 record on the line against Bakersfield on Saturday, May 12 at 5 pm, in the Spokane Arena. A small number of tickets remain. Call 325-SEAT. New for this home game: Tailgating in Arena Lot C at the corner of Boone and Howard, starting at noon, before this game and all remaining home games.

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