Tommy Benizio: from IFL Hall of Fame to CIF Champion

IFL co-founder and inaugural Hall of Fame entrant Tommy Benizio


30 June 2017

“Here’s a secret I’ll let you in on, I don’t watch the game.”
Tommy Benizio CEO of the CIF Champion Texas Revolution

Exactly one week ago today, the Texas Revolution won the CIF Championship game. Going into the playoffs, they were the #2 seed in the Southern Conference, and as such they could host their first game. They defeated Dodge City Law. Tommy Benizio, the CEO of the Revolution said, “We started the playoffs hosting Dodge City, a great team. We seem to always beat them at home and lose on the road so for us to be able to play them here at home was tremendous, and we squeaked out of that game with a last minute thrilling victory” That victory put them on the road against the Amarillo Venom. The Venom were coming off of a convincing home victory against The Duke City Gladiators and were ready to face the Revs. The teams played three times prior to this meeting with each team taking one at home and Texas winning the last game in Amarillo. They knew they could go in and win, but all three games were close, including a 96-95 shootout win for the Revolution at home in the Allen Event Center in Allen Texas. Beating the same team three times in one season is always hard to do, but beating them in the playoffs on the road when they feel like they’ve got something to prove is an uphill climb all the way.  

The Revolution came out strong and Amarillo fell to the league’s best offense with a final score of 77-71. Benizio says, “We had a massive watch party; 50-60 people crowded into this really nice sports bar, and everyone had a great time watching the game. It was another closegame that could have gone either way right down to the end so it was a lot of fun for our fans.” By that point, the Omaha Beef had already defeated the Sioux City Bandits, who were the number-one seed in the Northern Conference. With a better overall record the honor of hosting the Champions Bowl went to the Revs. The problem was the short turnaround. Benizio said, “We came off of a Monday night Conference Final and unfortunately our arena availability would only allow us to play on Friday. So the team got off of a bus on Tuesday and immediately began preparing for the game. We simply couldn’t have a normal practice routine in a two-day practice week.” Not only that, but on the business side of things, he said, “We only had four days to put on a show which is unusual, right? We had fun with every minute of it, setting up the confetti cannons, and the halftime act.” However, he adds, “ Usually, you plan these things six months out, but in four days we were just 300 tickets away from a sellout. I think everyone did a really good job which meant a lot to me and the company.”  

When he talks about the Revs as a company, you begin to get a sense there’s more to the sport than just what the fans see. He described the organization as a sales company. He said, “A lot of people get into this, smart people who are excellent in other lines of business, lawyers and doctors and successful business people who get into this business and assume it’s going to be easy, kind of a fun side job or a hobby. Then after a pretty short time you realize that you have to run it like a real business.” When asked how that works he said, “More than half, close to ⅔ of your revenue is generated from corporate sponsorships. Our number-one priority is to figure out how we can be a blessing to local businesses, so they’re happy to invest in some of the program ads, the tickets, the signage, all that becomes crucial. Being a sales organization and focusing on that is what makes a team a success.” Of course, the problem is you can only do that for your home games. Most leagues do not revenue share, which means, “The kind of flip side of that is you’re going to have a matching road game for every revenue generating home game you play.”  

Benizio cut his teeth in arena/indoor football in 2003. Up to that point, he had been involved with professional hockey. He laughed and said, “I was a hockey player who got cut from the worst team in the league. I fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming a professional hockey player, but the reality was it was an absolutely failed effort.” After that, “ I ended up getting a job with the team which was a great experience. I really fell in love with running teams as opposed to playing with them.” He continues, “there was a young man who worked for me in El Paso Texas who pointed out to me in 2003 that this arena football thing was everywhere coast to coast in every state except Texas. We approached the Arena Football League and found out that Jerry Jones the owner of the Dallas Cowboys owned the AFL rights to every city with an arena in the entire state, so we couldn’t start a team.” Realizing the AFL wasn’t an option yet still fascinated with the sport, He says, “ At that point, we decided to start our own league.” That league was the IFL and in order to avoid legal conflict with the Arena Football League, which owns a patent on their game, they changed the rules of play to create a unique product. He said, “There are just a couple of rules that change arena football into indoor football and a lot of it has to do with having a LB within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.” Additionally, on offense there can be two motion men at the same time, and the indoor game eliminated the Uno. Without the possibility of the long kickoff through the uprights for a point, teams are forced to kick off and return. Even as the NFL tries to make the kickoff less dangerous for players, it remains one of the most anticipated plays during the game. The possibility of a long run, maybe even for a touchdown, adds excitement to the indoor game that was eliminated by the arena game. Benizio says, “ people will ask you if you play indoor football rules, or arena football rules? I don’t think there’s any formality to those terms. It’s not like there is an arena football bible and an indoor football bible. Almost everything about the businesses are identical. However, One of the things we’re proud of is that if you are a traditional football fan, and you are exposed to the indoor/arena variety for the first time, when you come to one of our games the rules are as similar to the outdoor game as they can be” Which makes it easier for the fans in the stands to adapt to a game with 3 fewer players and ¾ less playing surface.

So why leave the IFL to join the CIF? Tommy says, “The teams in the IFL have such great ownership groups. People that love the sport and are willing to do whatever it takes, including continuous investment in their teams to keep it going. I wish I could tell you that we’re financially well off, that I was a wealthy guy, but that’s just not the case.” He continued, “Me and my partner, Charlie Hildbold, took a real leap of faith to start a pro-football team here in Texas without a dime in our pocket. Despite my passion for the IFL, this was the best move for us.” Unlike the IFL, the CIF has four teams in Texas, which means travel costs, one of every team’s major expenses, is whittled down from airplane rides to bus rides. He said, “Making a flight to Washington for an IFL game was a $40k road trip whereas now my entire cost for all of my CIF road games is $7k. Essentially I went from losing money to making money for our team with the decision to switch leagues.”  

The CIF is a regional league located near the center of the country but has a national following. If you drew a line on the map of the USA from Dallas, Texas to Bismark, North Dakota, it would pass within 200 miles of 10 of the 14 CIF cities. Every game is broadcast over the Internet and most of the team’s average several thousand fans per game. The idea of regional leagues is not new to the sport, but the CIF seems to have hit on a business model that is working for them. Benizio said, “The league is split into Northern and Southern Conferences, and we play almost exclusively in our own conference. This makes travel affordable but we also have enough opponents that we’re not playing anybody to many times. The fans get to enjoy the variety, and at the same time we get to enjoy the cost savings.We’re blessed that we have a lot of playing partners in reasonable proximity to us.” It also helps that many of the teams in the league have either been in existence a long time, like the Omaha Beef, who’ve been around for 18 years, or are operated by football experienced business people like the Texas Revolution. However, there’s no guarantee that all the teams currently in the league will become and/or remain successful because indoor/arena football has been sometimes known to sow chaos in its wake, which tends to suppress fan and sponsorship enthusiasm. Just this past season, in a different league, a team suddenly decide it wasn’t in their financial interest to travel, which left the home team and the league office to find an opponent in less than 24 hours. They succeeded, but the fans knew what happened and that is not good for the long-term health of a spectator sport which relies on the community to open their hearts and wallets.

Putting together a winning organization also requires a team that wins on the field. After taking their “leap of faith” the Texas Revolution have put together three winning season in a row and this year took home the Champions Bowl Trophy, but it hasn’t been all champagnes and roses. Benizio said, “We had Robert Kent, who’s a really great QB to start the season. He was league MVP last season. He’s a local school teacher, and a good man, and we lost him during training camp.” He continued, “When you lose your starting QB literally just days before your first regular-season game, what are you going to do? We asked ourselves who could we go after? Every good QB is already playing. They’re already signed somewhere. They’re all in training camp, or they’ve already started their regular season, so there was really no one to bring in.” Anyone who remembers what happened to the Indianapolis Colts when Peyton Manning went down will feel for the position the Revolution found themselves in. He continued, “We asked ourselves, who recently retired? IFL Hall of Famer Chris Dixon and I have known each other for years. We weren’t necessarily close, until now, but we at least had a little bit of a relationship. We reached out to him, and it turned out, he had been itching to come back and play for another year, maybe two.” Dixon came out of retirement and immediately reignited the chemistry he had with Clinton Solomon, the great wide receiver he had thrown to before with the Sioux Falls Storm, who was already in Allen. Benizio said, “We couldn’t have asked for a better man to come in and lead this team. Just his performance on the field was great. But he’s just a good guy, smart. He’s a leader, Him and our coach fit together really well and that led to the results we got in the end, winning a championship.” Interestingly the game itself hinged on a couple of Omaha turnovers as much as it did on Dixon’s 6 TD passes, 3 to Solomon, and his 2 rushing TDs. Benizio just laughed and said, “You know. I didn’t see those plays.”