Recently On The Record featured an interview with Wichita Falls Nighthawks owner Drew Carnes. He had announced his team would go dark for 2018 and in our interview, he inferred it was unlikely the team would return in 2019, or ever. The article was entitled Shootout at the Indoor Corral, and it described, from Carnes perspective, the events leading up to his team folding. At the end of the article, I indicated that neither the CIF nor the IFL had responded to my queries. After the article broke I was contacted almost immediately by CIF interim Commissioner Ricky Bertz, who said he had not received any messages from me. He was correct; I did send an email inquiry to him but what I did not realize was I misspelled the address, and it was returned to me by the “mailer daemon” as an unknown address. For that I apologize to Mr. Bertz, and to you, the audience. Having said that, I am pleased to say he went On The Record about the situation, and I think you’ll find his perspective quite interesting.
Before we get to the interview, it would be helpful to recap the events which got us here to begin with. At the end of last season, it appeared as if the CIF had pretty much taken over the leadership of the indoor football world. While a couple of their franchise’s had folded when the season concluded a new team started up, and two of the most winning teams in the IFL joined their league. The IFL, on the other hand, had been shrinking for quite awhile. Many of the teams in the CIF were IFL refugees, and once the 2017 season ended, several IFL teams folded or declared their intent to leave. The teams from Colorado, Salt Lake, and Spokane ceased operations, while the Wichita Falls Nighthawks, and Sioux Falls Storm decided to partner with the CIF. This left the IFL with just five teams and lots of questions about their future as a viable league. The day Wichita Falls was announced as the newest member of the CIF, two of that leagues teams announced they were defecting to the IFL. The West Michigan Ironmen had played in the AIF in 2016 before joining the CIF for the 2017 season, while the Bloomington Edge had been members of the CIF since joining in 2016. There are rumors that lots of money changed hands to make this happen but arenafootballinsider.com cannot confirm it at this time.
Carnes insisted he had followed the proper steps to leave the IFL, as had the Sioux Falls Storm, but when lawyers became involved the Storm decided to return. Carnes, on the other hand, found himself caught between the two leagues without the resources to continue. In their press release, the Storm made some provocative statements about the CIF, but also said some interesting things about the IFL. For many years, the chief complaints of IFL member teams were player salary’s and travel distances. Sioux Falls press release said, “the IFL has made multiple adjustments to its business plan” and they were now satisfied with moving forward. Unfortunately, return to the IFL wasn’t an option for the Nighthawks. Carnes said the amount of money required for affiliation, and operations were beyond his means. For him, it was CIF or bust. With projected losses of at least $75k already forecast, CIF affiliation fees due, and lawyer’s bills waiting in the wings, the Carnes family decided to cut their losses. For fans, there is nothing more disheartening than losing a team, and the Wichita Falls team which had gone 23-7 over the last two seasons.
Shootout at the Indoor Corral: Part 2
Ricky Bertz: Interim Commissioner Champions Indoor Football League
“An affiliation contract with a league is similar to a marriage. You can’t just decide to go marry someone else without first divorcing your wife. There is a legal process for that to happen.”
The Wichita Falls Nighthawks disintegration came about when owner Drew Carnes made the fateful decision to leave the IFL and join the CIF. After accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses over their three-year affiliation with the Indoor Football League, he knew the only way to keep his team financially afloat was to swap leagues. Certain he had followed the correct procedures to withdraw from the IFL, he signed an affiliation contract with the CIF. Carnes was joined by CIF Interim Commissioner Ricky Bertz at the press conference, and together they made the announcement of their new partnership. For the CIF, finding a playing partner with the on-field success of Wichita Falls was a coup. The CIF, already boasting great teams in Texas, were now adding a team with a .766 winning percentage. This development promised to raise the entertainment value for fans all over the Southern Conference. Almost immediately things started slipping sideways. That same day both the Bloomington Edge and the West Michigan Ironmen announced their intention to play in the IFL in 2018. Ricky Bertz said, “What was perplexing about the situation is that both West Michigan and Bloomington had already signed their CIF affiliation agreements for the 2018 season.”
A Cease and Desist order was issued to both Sioux Falls and Wichita Falls, as well as the CIF by the IFL. Unlike The Edge and the Ironmen, the Storm and the Nighthawks had not signed a contract to play in the IFL in 2018. Bertz said, “Unfortunately, the IFL position is that even without 2018 affiliation agreement contracts neither the SF Storm nor WF Nighthawks had the right to withdraw.” More confusingly the IFL is contending that, despite having legal and binding affiliation contracts with the CIF, both Bloomington and West Michigan had the right to withdraw from the CIF to move to the IFL. Very quickly the CIF issued their own Cease and Desist orders to the teams and the league. Continuing, Bertz said, “This is a critical point for minor-league sports. If Bloomington and West Michigan are allowed to leave, then what does an affiliation contract with any league mean?” The likely outcome is the Edge, and the Ironmen may not be allowed to play in the IFL or anywhere in 2018. To make matters worse for those teams, the CIF has already posted its schedule for next season and due to the timing of their departure, neither team was included. At this late date, even if they wanted to come back, it’s nearly impossible. Creating schedules for professional teams is always tricky business. Events like concerts, Circue de Soleil, the Harlem Globetrotters, or other teams calling that venue home may already be booked into the arena making it unavailable to the CIF that night. Multiply that by 11 teams and you begin to see how complex it can get. Without the ability to return to the CIF or the legal right to play in the IFL, both the Bloomington Edge and West Michigan Ironmen are the second and third casualties of this dispute. Unlike the Nighthawks, the wounds suffered by the Edge and the Ironmen appear to be self-inflicted.
If the Internet rumors are true and the IFL, or any of its associated team owners, paid money to induce Bloomington and West Michigan to defect it would be a very serious legal matter. There is a principle in law called Tortious Interference. If someone intentionally interferes with another’s’ contractual relations, it could be a criminal offense. When asked directly if the IFL had broken the law Ricky Bertz flatly refused to comment. He confirmed there were no current pending lawsuits between the leagues then said, “Unfortunately, I would say there is a possibility that will happen sometime in the future.” Before these events took place the CIF, and the IFL were in negotiations to merge their leagues. Bertz said, “The talks broke down in the middle of August because there were philosophical differences on business plans and business models.” Asked if he believed the talks might begin again at some point in the future he said, “While I am hopeful and optimistic they could come to some kind of resolution, I am not confident that it will happen anytime soon.”
Considering it looks like the leagues will eventually square off in court, it’s little wonder merger talks failed. Realistically, even if the league hopping teams never tried to jump, the merger would have been difficult to accomplish. The big difference between the CIF and IFL is their respective business models. The CIF is based upon regional rivalries while the IFL has always sought a national presence. The primary reason Drew Carnes was considering a move to the CIF in the first place was the promise of cost savings from lowered travel expenses. Within a 2-7 hour driving distance, the Nighthawks would have had seven different opponents. In the IFL, there was just one. Even Sioux Falls, the only true 8 on 8 football dynasty, were moving because of the promised cost savings. This confluence of circumstances led the IFL to cut their salary cap as well as the number of games they’d play in 2018. Those modifications (and the alleged illegal under-the-table inducements), led directly to both Bloomington and West Michigan making their unfortunate choices. Three teams will be likely lost forever, and merger talks are on hold indefinitely. The Edge and the Ironmen made bad choices by signing their affiliation agreement with the CIF before deciding to leave for the IFL. Bertz contention that this case will probably set a precedent in minor-league sports is spot on. He said, “An affiliation contract with a league is similar to a marriage. You can’t just decide to go marry someone else without first divorcing your wife. There is a legal process for that to happen.” If it is decided the contract, both the Edge and the Ironmen signed with the CIF means nothing, then what’s to stop any team from any league deciding to drop out and move on whenever they feel like it. What happens to the league if a team signed their affiliation contract, then decided it didn’t like its schedule and chose to seek a more friendly environment? As for the Wichita Falls Nighthawks, Bertz concludes, “I feel bad for Drew, and the fans. They lost everything.”
The CIF feel they’ve been backed into a corner by the IFL and are responding in the only manner possible. The IFL, facing a disastrous contraction from ten teams to five took steps they believed were in the best interest of their league. The legal and ethical questions this affair has raised should be deeply troubling to every fan of arena/indoor football. In just a couple of months we’ve gone from potentially the greatest merger in minor-league football history to one team folding, the future of two others clouded, and an even more divided sport. This messy business threatens the very existence of teams and by extension leagues. While the legal questions at the heart of this dispute are vitally important to the game, we mustn’t forget it’s the fans of the three teams who are the true victims of The Shootout at the Indoor Corral.