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Published: Monday, 9/22/2008

Toledo football franchise to join Walleyes in downtown arena

BY ZACH SILKA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

A new species will soon be joining the Walleye in the fish tank.

The formation of a new arenafootball2 franchise that will begin play at the new downtown sports arena in April, 2010, is expected to be announced today at an 11 a.m. news conference.

The Toledo Walleye the city's minor league hockey franchise and the other sports team committed to play at the downtown arena will begin play in October, 2009.

Joe Napoli, general manager of the Mud Hens and Toledo Arena Sports Inc., a not-for-profit organization created by the Hens to own Toledo's hockey and af2 organizations, said the arena football team's nickname won't be chosen until Thanksgiving at the earliest.

'We plan to have some fun with the name, though,' Mr. Napoli said. 'We've been spending a considerable amount of time, energy, and effort researching the name.

We're very hopeful we can duplicate the success of the Toledo Walleye nickname. We've actually sold more Walleye mer chandise in the last eight months than the Storm did in their best season.'

Arena football a modified version of the outdoor game was created in the 1980s. It is played on a smaller field, resulting in a faster-paced and higher-scoring game. Each team has eight players on the field at all times.

Arenafootball2 president Jerry Kurz has been familiar with Toledo for some time now. He and former Toledo Storm co-owner Barry Soskin became friends while Mr. Kurz's son participated in Storm youth camps for a number of years.

Mr. Kurz always envisioned the day when Toledo could become the arena league's newest expansion team.

'We've looked at Toledo for a while,' Mr. Kurz said. 'Toledo easily and readily met what we wanted from a market. It just lacked the building.

'With the addition of that new facility, I can't think of a market that I'm more excited about being in. It fits your demographic. Ohio is a hotbed of football.'

The other af2 franchise in Ohio, the Mahoning Valley Thunder based in Youngstown, joined the league in 2007.

Founded in 1999, af2 serves as the minor league to the Arena Football League. It has 29 teams from cities similar in size to Toledo with similar-sized venues from coast-to-coast.

The league's 16-game regular season lasts from April until July, and playoffs are held in August.

'With our teams, you have to make it economically viable [so] a family doesn't have to take out a mortgage to be able to go to a game,' Mr. Kurz said. 'Unfortunately in some other professional sports leagues and the NFL, it's an expensive ticket, so we're in a position to help with that.'

Mr. Napoli and other officials from Toledo Arena Sports spent the last several months visiting af2 franchises across the country to research the pros and cons of arena football.

'We really took the position that we had to be sold on the concept,' Mr. Napoli said, 'and the folks from arena football did a great job in that regard. First and foremost, we wanted to make sure that it was a good fit for our community.

'When you take a look at the schedule, the number of games, and the fact that it will be a wonderful complement to all the other activities at the arena, we said we're going to go ahead and do this.'

Mr. Napoli said plans to bring an NBA developmental-league franchise to Toledo have been shelved for the time being because of scheduling conflicts with the Walleye.

'What you need to have happen with your sports teams is a high percentage of the dates need to fall on weekends,' Mr. Napoli said. 'What we've learned as we looked around the country, either the basketball team or the hockey team needs to take priority for those weekend dates. With the dedication to hockey in this community, you would lean toward hockey.'

Mr. Napoli said the issue of naming rights for the arena has been put on the back burner because of the recent turmoil in the financial markets.

'It's steady. The conversations are being had,' Mr. Napoli said. 'Anyone that we have talked to about naming rights clearly sees the benefits and merits of doing a deal.

[But] they all have to answer to stockholders, so the timing is not the best.'

Contact Zach Silka at: zsilka@theblade.com.



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