Stephanie Tucker, Amarillo Venom Owner and GM

10/05/2017

“Sometimes I’m like come on Nate, throw a couple of more touchdown passes!”

Stephanie Tucker

The Champions Indoor Football League came about as a merger between the Champions Professional Indoor Football League and the Lone Star Football League. One of the CIF’s founding members is a good-natured and strong-willed woman by the name of Stephanie Tucker. Her team, the Amarillo Venom, was initially founded by Randy Sanders. The Venom began life as the Amarillo Dusters in 2003, and played with the Intense Football League. Putting together a 13-3 record, they won their league championship in 2004. The next season the Dusters joined AF2 and against the higher-level, competition finished 8-8. They made the playoffs but then lost in the semi-finals to the eventual Arena Cup winning Memphis Xplorers. After AF2 fell apart, the fans of the Dusters urged the team to join the Indoor Football League instead of AF1. Because the AFL owned the Dusters nickname, the team decided to call itself the Venom. After two seasons in the IFL Sanders sold the team to Tucker, who became one of the founding members of the Lone Star Football League. The team, co-owned by her husband Toby and coached by Julian Reese, compiled a 22-16 record and won the league championship twice. After the 2014 season Tucker, along with Ricky Bertz and Darlene Jones, merged the LSFL with the Champions Indoor Football League to form  the CIF. Since then, the Venom has put together a record of 24-12 and made the playoffs each year. Though they haven’t won their championship yet, their W/L record has improved each season. While it isn’t unprecedented for a woman to own an indoor/arena football team, it is still a bit unusual. Even more unusual is to have the kind of stunning on-field success her team has had. Since becoming the owner seven years ago the team has had only one losing season. Counting their time in the LSFL, their overall record after seven seasons is 46-28. During that span, they’ve made the playoffs six times, made it to the championship game three times, and won it twice. Their 7-3 playoff record along with their overall .621 winning percentage places them among the elite of indoor/arena football . Only the IFL’s Sioux Falls Storm can boast a better record over a longer period of time than the Venom. When asked about her team’s success, she said, “You know what? We’ve been very blessed. I’m not going to lie. It’s been a nice ride.”  

As the owner and GM, her responsibilities are endless. Whether it’s signing players, filling the stands with fans, negotiating with sponsors and city managers, or keeping everyone on the same page and rowing in the same direction, Tucker seems to fill each role seamlessly. She said, “My parents said I was always a strong-willed girl” which means taking no for an answer isn’t in her nature. She continued, “A lot of people were wanting me to fail. I truly believe that.” When asked to explain further she said, “ Arena football is known for, how would you say it, uncertainty of the future? Some of the city officials here in Amarillo probably giggled a bit and were like “yeah, we’ve heard this before, and OK we’ll see how long this one lasts.” She continued, “Luckily with us winning championships and the longevity of Toby and I staying in ownership we’ve had a lot of success on and off the field.”  

She is right, stability in arena/indoor football does seem to be a fleeting thing. Since the founding of the Iowa Barnstormers way back in 1987, the sport has searched for the secret formula which would lead to stability and long-term success. The model Tucker believes provides the best chance lies in the idea of regional leagues with playing partners within a reasonable driving distance. She said, “One of the things making the CIF strong is geographic stability. Traveling is a major expense, but it isn’t an investment. It’s just kind of money you throw away. You have to minimize that.”

The Southern Division of the CIF currently includes three teams in Texas, one team in Albuquerque, and two teams in Kansas all of whom are not more than a seven-hour bus ride away. When the team was in AF2 and the IFL, they would have to travel to places like Spokane, and Fresno. For the cost of one team-sized round-trip plane ride to Fairbanks, Alaska, the Venom can pay for their entire CIF travel budget for a season. Even with that expense under control she said, “It is a hard business to be in. I met with a sponsor today. On my card, it says owner, and they’re like “wow,” but I’m not Jerry Jones; I don’t have millions.” Laughing, she said, “I think it’s a great year when we’re able to pay our bills.” Few owners in the sport are making millions of dollars, so why do it? “I think indoor football is the most exciting sport you can be involved in, but it’s a lot of hard work for the minimum amount of money you get out of it so you have to love it.”

Many people get into the game thinking it’s going to be fun to own a team. It doesn’t take long before, as Stephanie pointed out, they realize it’s a lot of work. While saying for the love of the game is a cliche, it’s a cliche that has merit. Tucker said, “Football is entertainment, and you have to put finance over football. When you make that a priority, and you’re financially stable then the football and everything else will come along with it.” When you drill down into what “selling football” means, you realize it isn’t just about corporate sponsors, putting butts in seats, and minimizing expenses. All of those things are important, but to Stephanie Tucker, the way to do that is through community outreach and taking care of the players. Players do not make a lot of money per game, so most of them want to stay close to home. However, most communities do not have enough great players just hanging around waiting for their local GM to give them a call which means they must go looking for work. Tucker realized early on if you can make a player a part of the community, they are more likely to want to remain with the team. She said, “We run our organization a bit differently than probably a lot of teams do. Of course any player we sign has to have talent, but do they have the same work and life standards?” She continued, “We move at least five players here every year. We’ll help them get a job, and maybe they’ll meet someone and start a family. Whether they play for us next year or not that’s just fine because they’re now a part of the community. That’s really is one of the nicest parts of this.”

With a stable league, and a well-earned fanbase, Tucker has the team in fine shape heading into next year. Last season ended in the second round of the playoffs when they lost to the Texas Revolution. The Revs jumped out to an early lead and held off the Venom’s desperation come back. The biggest problem facing Amarillo that night was their inability to stop the Texas offense. Led by IFL Hall of Fame QB Chris Dixon, the team from Allen, TX scored on every possession. When asked about the defense she laughed and said, “Well let’s just talk about it, thank you for bringing that up.” She continued, “A year ago, we lost the championship by 3, then last year we lost the postseason championship by 6, so you know we are looking forward to adding some personnel.” Looking back to the 2016 post season she said, “After that game, I didn’t sleep for three days. It was heartbreaking for us and our players. In 2017 when we came back they said Miss Stephanie, we’re going to get you a ring.” Their W/L record earned the team home-field advantage. She said, “We all thought we were going to have the championship in the bag and then boom; they came in and did that. I guess it just wasn’t our time to win, but it does get tiresome.” While she does acknowledge the defense, she added, “We’re going to go over everything, and we think we can do a little bit better. We do have some personnel changes that we’ve thought about, but it’s not all defense and not all offense. I mean we’ve got to score more points.” The team scored 70 points in their last game, so it seems unlikely they can be much stronger than that on offense. At that suggestion, Tucker laughed and said, “Sometimes I’m like come on Nate (QB Nate Davis), throw a couple of more touchdown passes!”