A sitdown with Power brass
The Power have entered their fourth season in the Arena Football League hoping to wedge their way into the Western Pennsylvania sports landscape. So far, it's been a rough ride.
Only nine victories in the past 37 games have led to the firing of two coaches — Chris Siegfried (2012) and Derek Stingley (last week). Ownership hopes it finally got it right with the hiring of AFL veteran coach Ron James.
Co-owners Matt Shaner and Lynn Swann, along with president Peter Hill and director of corporate partnership Shane Conlan, sat down with the Tribune-Review to discuss the state of the franchise and hopes for the future.
Q: How did you get the idea in 2008 to start an Arena Football League franchise in Pittsburgh?
Shaner: I was watching “SportsCenter” at a restaurant in State College, and (rock star) Jon Bon Jovi was being interviewed and was talking about how much he enjoyed being a co-owner of the Philadelphia Soul. (Bon Jovi no longer is Soul co-owner). I gave Lynn (Swann) a call and said, “Would you have an interest in being a co-owner?” We wanted to bring instant credibility to this by having Lynn attached to it.
Q: How did the AFL bankruptcy in 2009 affect your attempts to start a franchise?
Swann: When you talk about the investment just on a monetary basis and creating equity, the Arena Football League has done that. There is a great upside. The old financial model says you buy low and sell high. It's sad that the league had its financial problems, but it created a bottom to the market, to the price of entry to this league, and we were able to come in at a very low point.
Shaner: At the time, franchises were selling in the tens of millions of dollars in the AFL. Tampa Bay sold for $17 million. I wasn't concerned because the price to get a franchise dramatically dropped compared to what we were talking about in '08 prior to the financial collapse. Prices dropped by 80 percent.
Q: Other than winning a championship, what are your goals for the franchise?
Hill: We believe there is a market for Arena Football here, and we want to make it the most affordable, family-friendly venue the people can go to. If you look at professional sports throughout the city and throughout the U.S. in general, those tickets are very expensive. We think to be in a premier facility like the Consol Energy Center for $15 a ticket (group price for sideline corner seats), that's very affordable.
Q: Have you received a lot of feedback from fans?
Hill: The majority of the people who bring their families to the games want to come back to see another one. We do a lot of shirt tosses, a lot of interaction with the fans. Fans have an opportunity to come on the field (after games) to get autographs. The level of access you have to the players and coaches is unprecedented in professional sports. That's what makes it a compelling sport to watch.
Q: What kind of ideas can you bring to the AFL from the NFL?
Swann: My role is more on the side of marketing and engaging people. Certainly, I talk to the team from time to time. I know these young players want to make an impact on their own. So (my role is) to encourage them and try to help them. In some ways, I help play a similar role to some of things the Rooneys did as owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to engage our players to be a part of the community and think of it as a long-term home.
Q: You have fallen short of original attendance projections (of 10,000 per game). Has it been a disappointment or do you believe the fan base is something that is still growing?
Shaner: Putting a 4-14 team out last year and — the year before in a labor town — having the labor strife we had (since resolved), union families are a huge part of our fan base. That was ugly, especially for us and for a number of teams, and we lost our base. We have police officers, firefighters, a lot of union families. Once you get into a fight like that, a labor fight, it turns a lot of people off, especially in this city.
Q: What's the biggest mistake you made in the first three seasons?
Shaner: The toughest thing we have gone through is 13 different quarterbacks have started. We suffered a lot of injuries in the past. We have done a lot better job of having the guys train prior to the season to prevent those injuries. We worked on conditioning a lot harder than in the past. Now that we are going into Season 4, we have learned how to run this franchise better each year. We went out and found the best quarterback in the league, Tommy Grady.
Q: Is one of the attractions to owning an arena team the fact that player salaries are controlled?
Shaner: (The league) is a single entity, and players aren't drafted, and we don't negotiate contracts like the NFL does, and everyone gets paid the same. They are all employees of the league.
Swann: The league is trying to do what the NFL has done well, which is a salary cap. What it does is create equality among all the teams. What we have created here is a fair and equitable chance for every team to have success.
Q: Can you understand how these players can't give up the dream of playing football?
Conlan: I can understand it. I don't think I'm one of them. They love the game of football. That's the one sport that when you're done, you're done. Say you play professional basketball. You can go out and play a pickup game of basketball. In football, you can't. So people get it in their blood and stick with it.
Q: Did players complain about salaries before and after the 2012 collective bargaining agreement called for a per-game increase from $400 to $830?
Swann: What you want are players who want to be the best, who want to be at the top of the pay scale, at the top of everything, be a champion. If athletes aren't complaining and saying we want more money and want to be recognized as the No. 1 guy, I'm not sure they are the right guys to be on your team. You always want them to be hungry and think they deserve more and go after it.
Q: Do you see the team staying in Pittsburgh beyond the next three seasons when the lease at Consol Energy Center is due to expire?
Shaner: Absolutely. When we start winning games, and we start putting those 10,000, 11,000, 12,000 people in there, it will far exceed our attendance marks we need (6,000 per game) for the next three years (to renew the lease). We think a six-year lease in our league is extremely long, a very long lease to have in what is the nicest arena of where anybody in this league plays.
Swann: Matt moved his family here. When you make that kind of move, you don't make it and say, “All right, I'll be here for three years, and I'll sell the team and kind of go off and do something else.” He has established a very good relationship with the Steelers, with (president) Art Rooney II talking to him about football, how to build a team, how to manage and run a team.
Editor's note: Trib Total Media is a minority investor in the Pittsburgh Power.