An interview with the owner of the Wichita Falls Nighthawks
by Jay Luster
On July 25, 2017, I spoke with the owner of the Wichita Falls Nighthawks, Drew Carnes. I asked him, specifically at that time if the team was leaving the IFL for the CIF? Rumors had been swirling around the team, and the Sioux Falls Storm, for weeks, and he said the decision had not yet been made. About a month later, Sioux Falls announced their departure from the IFL and a couple of weeks after that the Nighthawks joined them in the CIF. For the Nighthawks, it was a matter of lowering their expenses. Carnes had said, “With my closest playing partner more than 580 miles away, My travel expenses were probably $50k more than anyone else in the IFL.” This isn’t an unfamiliar issue to arenafootballinsider.com readers because we’ve reported teams having difficulties with travel times, and expenses, many times in the past. What made this different was the contentiousness that immediately arose between the leagues and the teams. The same day the Nighthawks announced they had followed the Sioux Falls Storm from the IFL into the CIF, two teams defected from the CIF for the IFL, and lawsuits soon followed.
When I spoke with Mr. Carnes again on October 23rd, he had already announced the team would not be playing anywhere in 2018. The IFL claimed the Wichita Falls team did not provide correct legal notice of their intention to leave the league. Carnes said, “The bylaws they quoted on the IFL league affiliation contract I signed are not the bylaws they claim we’re playing under. One of the key areas says we had 15 days after the United Bowl to announce (our intentions of playing in the IFL or leaving for the 2018 season). They stopped including me in league meetings and proceedings within that 15-day period so to me that said they knew we were leaving. We knew we had until around Sept. 30th to have all the paperwork done, and we’d still be within their time frame.”
When the CIF affiliation announcement was made, things quickly went awry. Carnes continued, “We announced at the press conference, we were going to the CIF and later that same day two teams (The Bloomington Edge and the West Michigan Ironmen) we thought we’re solidified in the CIF for 2018, left and went to the IFL. That was the first time I thought there’s something strange going on here. A few days later, I got notice from the IFL saying they considered my departure involuntary according to the bylaws. I started thinking okay; they were holding us hostage, and they’re making some sort of trade, and things are going to work out.” The IFL, before the return of Bloomington and West Michigan, were down to only five teams, and they had no intention of letting two of their winningest franchises bolt for a rival league. The CIF was upset because both the Edge, and the Ironmen had committed to them and after just one season in the league, chose to return to the IFL. Both leagues wanted the Sioux Falls Storm and the Nighthawks, and it was at this point things really began to fall apart.
With dueling law suits now a reality, Carnes said, “The CIF said, Drew you’re not going to play unless you absolve us from risk. The IFL was holding their ground saying I was in the wrong, and the CIF said if you want to play you’re going to have to indemnify us from any lawsuits. They said we would have to pay a $50k cash down payment and provide them with a $100k letter of credit.” This meant if an opponent missed a home date, the Nighthawks would bear full financial responsibility. Carnes continued, “We couldn’t take that risk. On top of the $50k in cash, we were already late in the off-season, and it was damaging sales locally.” Going back to the IFL for 2018 would have cost $150k and with $150k in fee’s and added risk, the CIF also became a non-option. He said, “I feel like the IFL took us hostage (put a gun to our head), and the CIF said, go ahead and shoot.” With both sides at an impasse the Wichita Falls Nighthawks were left for dead.
Sioux Falls, being an older and more well established franchise could better weather the financial storm that was drowning Carnes and Wichita Falls. They made the decision to return to the IFL and though it will cost them more money in the short term, it won’t sink them, and may even benefit them in the long run. With the return of the Storm and the addition of both Bloomington and West Michigan, the IFL went from a five team league to an eight-team league. While a league can play with only five teams, it hurts fan interest and a team’s finances over the long haul. Since the Standoff at the Indoor Coral, the IFL has lowered their player salary requirements making it easier for teams on the lower end of the economic scale to compete. Whether by design or attrition, the IFL is now a regional league. While many of the teams are still a 10-hour bus ride from each other, except for the 2017 United Bowl Champion Arizona Rattlers, all the teams are located in the upper Midwest and will rarely have to use airplanes for away games, which lowered travel expenses significantly. This off season has been somewhat tumultuous for the CIF. Aside from losing both the Edge and the Ironmen, the Centex Cavalry folded, which has left the league with 11 teams. While they are still one of the biggest leagues in the nation, failing to land the Storm and the Nighthawks is a significant embarrassment which could have ripple effects well into the future.
As for the Nighthawks, this situation has left them without a league to call home for 2018, which jeopardizes, and likely forecloses their future as a business entity and as a trusted community partner. Carnes said, “We tried everything we could think of to bridge the gap between our revenue and the expenses of operating in the IFL. We realized we weren’t going to be able to make it without some long-term growth, so we had to do something more short-term. That’s when we made the decision to join the CIF.” In situations like this, most entrepreneurs are pretty close mouthed about the financial inner workings of their business, but with thousands of disappointed fans in the Wichita Falls region, Mr. Carnes allowed us a glimpse inside. He said, “I’ve been pretty transparent about my finances. I was forecasting, even with the reductions in cost, a $75k loss to play in 2018. When you throw the additional losses (from league fee’s) on top of that, I just can’t do that to my family. My wife and I prayed, and eventually we realized it wasn’t a matter of if we could do this it was coming to understand that we can’t.”
I cannot see how either the CIF or IFL benefits from killing the Nighthawks. While it is always incumbent upon ownership to ensure their business operates in the black, an indoor/arena football league is only as good as the quality of their playing partners. Over the last two seasons, Wichita Falls has posted a 23-7 record and had begun cultivating fans in every IFL city, placing them among the sports elite franchises. Carnes did say his team would, under all circumstances, lose a lot of money this year, which places the onus squarely on his shoulders. However, as a playing partner the Nighthawks, despite their losses, had never missed an away game, missed paying their employees, or failed to put a high-quality product on the field. The IFL, and the CIF have a significant rivalry with strong feelings on both sides. What isn’t understandable is how two successful leagues, which put a very similar product on the field would rather destroy a team, drive away potential sponsors, and poison the Wichita Falls well rather than find a way to keep a winning team and a productive member of the community on the field and in the sport. Neither the IFL nor CIF has returned phone calls at this time about this matter.