The DeSoto County Civic Center hosts the Mid-South Memphis Xplorers, an expansion team in the Arena Football2 league. The team has 18 players, many of whom played for local colleges and high schools. The Flyer
talked recently with the Xplorers general manager, Robbie Nichols.
Tell me about your season so far
NICHOLS: Its been tough. Its been tough starting 0-3 [now 0-4 after last weekend's loss]. Its been tough with the AF2 and the schedule they gave us with Tennessee first and then Quad City, the two championship teams. Last week was a really good game. We just lost in the last play of the game. We thought it was pretty good.
How was attendance for the first game?
NICHOLS: We did ok. We had a late start on everything. I took over three weeks before the home opener, so it was kind of busy. We didnt have a whole lot done. But things have come around pretty good. We had an okay attendance for the first game and we have been busy selling to a lot of groups and we want people to come out and see the product and see what they think about it.
How has the DeSoto County Civic Center been working out for your?
NICHOLS: Its great. Its a great building to play in. People that have never been to the Civic Center, we ask them to come and check it out because its a gorgeous facility.
Is it the Memphis Xplorers or the Mid-South Xplorers or both?
NICHOLS: Its a little combination of both. Were officially, I guess, the Memphis Xplorers. But we sort of added Mid-South in there. So Memphis Mid-South Xplorers or Mid-South Memphis Xplorers, however you want to put it. We want to be Memphis team but we want to be the Mid-Souths team too. We dont want to leave anyone out.
Tell me about the Arena2 league. A lot of people know about the Arena league but people wonder about the Arena2 league and where it fits in.
NICHOLS: They [the league] are saying that [AF2 is] for purposes of buildings of 10,000 [attendance] and smaller. Thats the market they try to get to. A lot of teams do extremely well with attendance. There are a few weak sisters like all leagues. As a league its growing and its supposed to be expanding. The NFL has an option, I guess, to pick up 49 percent of the league which a lot of people think they will do and get involved in this. A lot of players from here are going on and signing NFL contracts.
Why not an Arena team here in Memphis? What happened to the Pharaohs that will necessarily mean that Arena2 will succeed in a different arena?
NICHOLS: Im new to the area. I cant really say what the problems with the Pharaohs were. I have heard rumors so I have second-hand information that the owner didnt want to put a lot of money into it. The first year I guess they did and they had a great attendance. The second year they went 0-16 I believe and had a tough season. Don Frease is our color [commentary] guy who coached the Pharaohs. Bud Schroeppel, who did the play-by-play for them, is doing our play-by-play for our games. So we have brought over some of their people and they think it can work. If the first game here was any indication, it was exciting and I think that people enjoyed it.
Why not the Pyramid? Is it just too big for AF2?
NICHOLS: I think its a combination about being too big [and] our franchise is owned by Horn Chen who owns our company and also owns the RiverKings. Were all just one company. It would be kind of silly ... you know we run both teams out of the same office. The people that bring you Xplorers football are the exact same people that bring your RiverKings hockey.
What I am trying to get at, I think, is the tension of what are the Memphis teams and which are not. There are some people who are not interested in coming out to the DeSoto County Civic Center versus going downtown to a Redbirds game or a Tigers game or something like that. And a lot of people are wondering why not the DeSoto County Xplorers or why not just the Mid-South Xplorers?
NICHOLS: I think that since we are so close to Memphis. I dont know how many miles it is to the state line, but we are so close to Memphis and Memphis being the big city, I think that is why the tag [is Memphis]. They really were the Memphis RiverKings before so you dont want to change your name when you move a few miles. I guess we dont see it as a big thing. Thats sort of where we are. I tell people I live in Memphis.
About going downtown to games, if you talk to a lot of people, a lot of people are scared of going downtown to games. They talk about the NBA being downtown, its kind of scary. I think there are two different ideas of downtown.
There are two different perceptions of this area as well. One is that its a great place to come and the other is that its in the middle of nowhere and not worth the drive. How are you guys handling that issue?
NICHOLS: I havent seen a whole lot of problems. Its easy to come to. For all intents and purposes, were right on the highway. Once you cut off on Church, were a minute away. I think thats a tough tag, people saying we are so far out there. In a lot of cases we are easier to get in than a lot of buildings downtown.
You mentioned the NBA, how do you think that will affect the Xplorers?
NICHOLS: Yeah. There is no chance that the NBA will come to Memphis. This hype and stuff going around about the NBA coming to Memphis, I have been doing some research on different areas. The NBA does their homework too well. I cant see the NBA coming to Memphis. I dont know how many families can afford $8,000 worth of season tickets, you know $2,000 a ticket times four. There may be corporate dollars to sale the boxes but I dont know who is going to attend the games.
So you dont think the NBA will be a factor.
NICHOLS: Were not worried about the NBA coming.
Lets shift gears a little bit. What kind of players make up an AF2 team?
NICHOLS: A lot of these guys are players who have in the back of their minds that they want to play in the NFL. They still want to play pro ball. This is a chance to play at home. Some guys have real jobs and this is sort of a side job for them and they have a small gleam of hope in their eye that they can have a good season here and go on play pro ball somewhere. A few of them have been playing really well and will get a chance to.
They have to be committed to playing and thats what you want, guys with a slim chance of playing in the NFL. There are some guys sacrificing, taking Fridays off work in some cases, so they can go out and work hard. I watch the practices, they work hard through the practices. If you think its a Rec. league or a part-time gig, youre not going to stay around here.
Whats the difference between AF1 and AF2 as far as the players are concerned?
NICHOLS: A little bit of it is the salary cap. Players are allowed to get more money in that league. A lot of players, they say in Arena2 can play in Arena1 and vice versa. It has more to do with the building size and there is a little bit more money up there to pay the players.
So far, how have your season ticket sales been?
NICHOLS: Its just been okay. Its obviously not where we want it to be, getting a late start on this. We think its going to grow throughout the season. We have an okay base of season tickets but we need more season tickets, we need more corporate dollars, we need more people coming to the games. I think thats going to take a little time and the word to get out that the team is here. Some people dont even know that a Arena2 football team is over here. We have to get out that the team is here and playing an exciting game.
The AF2 is going to be expanding soon to 42 teams. Thats a lot of teams. Do you think its going to dilute the market?
NICHOLS: I think that if it is going well in the city its a good thing. As long as you arent expanding for expansion sake. You have to make sure that when you are adding a team, maybe you should be getting rid of one of the weak sisters. If they there is a market for it, I say expand. The number of resumes and calls that came in here of players to play football for us is enormous. There is no problem filling that many teams. And there are a lot of guys looking for jobs. The player pool is fine. You just want to make sure the city is doing well before you expand.
Tell me about Horn Chen. Hes a big player in Memphis sports but not many people know about him.
NICHOLS: I think thats the way he likes to keep it. Hes very private and he places people to run his companies for him. Hes out of Chicago and he owns both these teams. He owns many baseball teams. He owns other hockey teams. He owns part of an NHL team. Hes a big player and well respected in the sports industry. Hes put a lot of money into sports franchises here in Memphis, for the people. Hopefully well repay him someday.
If a new arena is built, would there be any talk of you guys switching over?
NICHOLS: Were happy with the Civic Center. Theyre good partners. In the past I have heard a little bit about went on downtown and we were more like a tenant for them and paying their bills for them. [Here] were a partner with these guys. They take responsibility of getting people in here. Its a good partnership. Were really happy with the situation here.
What kind of TV/Radio coverage are you getting right now?
NICHOLS The Buzz :[94.1 FM] is partnered up with us right now, theyre sponsors of ours. All the road games are broadcast. Thats about it. The game of the week is on TNN.
What are the stability of the teams. You have mentioned weak sisters twice. If Memphis doesnt keep up, what will happen? The Houn Dawgs, apparently only lasted one year.
NICHOLS: Horns committed to this area and to Arena Football, too. I think the least you can sign is 3 years. Hes committed for 3 years for this and he wants it to go well. Hes sinking a lot of money into it right now to try to get off the ground to go well. Hopefully it will when people come out and see the product. Its sort of like hockey, once you see it youre hooked. We had one game here with an ok crowd, but people were really excited. No one left early, the stayed to the final play when we lost, but it was a very exciting game.