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Arena football league selects Springfield for first team

Squad plans to debut next year at Ozark Empire Fairgrounds’ $25 million arena

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A new indoor football league is set to begin play next year with the Queen City chosen to host its first team.

Officials with The Arena League held a news conference at Corwin Automotive Group on March 9 to announce Springfield’s selection as one of four teams that will debut for its inaugural season beginning June 2024. Springfield’s yet-to-be named team will play an eight-game regular season schedule with home games at the $25 million Wilson Logistics Arena, currently under construction at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds.

NFL Hall of Famer and NCAA Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown is commissioner of The Arena League, which announced last month that Springfield was among 10 finalists to join the venture. The league is running a vote on its website to determine the remaining team locations. Three additional teams are expected to be announced in the coming months.

“This city is excited about Arena League coming here. They’re excited about football, and how can you not be excited about football in this area?” Brown said at the news conference, referencing the Kansas City Chiefs as a “professional team playing incredible football right now.”

League adviser Tommy Benizio said after the news conference that Springfield has received roughly 2,500 votes while most of the other cities’ vote totals were averaging 700-800.

“It became clear that Springfield was a great place to start with our first team,” said Benizio, who also is president and CEO of Dallas-based consulting company Benizio Sports.

He said J.R. Bond, a political adviser in Kansas City with past arena football team ownership, leads a small group of people financing the league, noting the others are silent investors. None of the owners have Springfield roots, he said, adding investment costs were undisclosed.

“The Arena League is launching as what we refer to in our industry as a single entity. All the teams will be owned and operated by the league,” he said. “In every city we are committing to three-year leases, so we’re prepared to make sure that this is successfully run for three years.”

Other finalist cities for an Arena League team, in alphabetical order, are: Dubuque, Iowa; Duluth, Minnesota; Kansas City; Little Rock, Arkansas; Oklahoma City; Rochester, Minnesota; Rockford, Illinois; Waterloo, Iowa; and Wichita Falls, Texas.

“It was just a matter of picking a region and trying to find a handful of cities that were close enough together that this makes a lot of sense in terms of travel for the teams,” Benizio said, noting he visited Springfield three times in recent weeks.

While in town, he said he met with officials such as Aaron Owen, CEO of the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds and Event Center, and Vicki Pratt, senior vice president of economic development with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, to learn more about the city and pitch the league.

“We could have made phone calls to save time and money, but to do this correctly I really felt like I needed to be on-site and meet people to get a feeling to their reaction of what we want to do,” he said. “Collectively, that gave us a picture that this community might work better than others.”

In the Arena
Owen, who previously was general manager at the fairgrounds – a title now held by his son, Casey – said construction for the 99,000-square-foot arena “is going awesome,” noting all concrete work should be complete in the first week of April and steel is already on-site.

The fairgrounds broke ground in November on the building that plans to also serve as a youth agriculture education center. Ozark Empire Fairgrounds is serving as its own general contractor for the project designed by BRP Architects. Killian Construction Co. is the construction management company for the project, slated for completion by September. That would be in time for Ozark Fall Farmfest, which Owen said is scheduled for the facility Oct. 6-8.

Owen said over-the-road trucking company Wilson Logistics Inc. secured naming rights for the arena in April 2022. He declined to disclose the rate for the 20-year deal.

Fairgrounds officials quickly came to terms with The Arena League, but Benizio and Owen both declined to disclose the three-year lease rate. The arena will seat roughly 6,300 but the configuration for Arena League games will reduce capacity to around 4,500, according to officials.

“It’s designed to be for sports, trade shows, dirt events such as monster trucks, demo derbies, to be indoors,” Owen said of the arena. “We’ll have the equipment to take dirt in, take dirt out, put down turf. It’s very diversified.

“We’re hoping to have enough money left at the end to buy a professional stage that would be stored there all the time for concerts.”

The Springfield team is now accepting deposits – starting at $10 per seat – on season tickets which start at $90 a year, according to its website, ALSpringfield.com. Tickets to individual games begin at $15 for adults and $10 for ages 12 and younger.

Getting established
As for the team’s name, league officials say they’re seeking input from the Springfield community. A name-the-team contest is live on the team’s website, and submissions collected will be tallied through the end of the month, Benizio said. He said part of the goal in the infancy for the Springfield team, which is yet to hire any staff, was to have a local adviser.

“The first step was to just have a boots-on-the-ground person locally, who is well connected and well received. I don’t think there’s a better choice than Kirk Elmquist,” Benizio said.

Elmquist, who has decades of leadership, marketing, sales and public relations experience at tourism and sports organizations, is executive director of the Branson/Lakes Area Tourism Community Enhancement District. He said at the news conference that the Wilson Logistics Arena and the league can be “a revenue gamechanger,” noting its seating capacity is between the size of the O’Reilly Family Event Center at Drury University and the Great Southern Bank Arena at Missouri State University. O’Reilly seats roughly 3,600, while the Great Southern Bank Arena has an 11,000-seat capacity.

“It’s going to be a true gateway to 417-land,” he said.

Declining to say after the event whether he is a paid adviser, Elmquist said there’s no timeline for how long he’ll remain involved with the team.

“They asked me to be a connector for them,” he said. “My role in tourism is to connect our region together. This seemed like another natural addition for tourism, so they brought me on board to help advise how to get those relationships to begin.”

Benizio said plans call for unveiling the team’s name in May, followed by hiring a general manager in June. That person will be tasked with hiring a staff for the team. No timeline for selecting a team roster is in place but officials say that isn’t expected to happen until after a head coach is hired. Benizio said no corporate sponsorships are in place but they will be sought in the coming months.

The Arena League intends to offer opportunities to ex-NFL players using the league as a possible springboard, along with young players fresh out of college.

According to the league website, games will be played on a 50-yard indoor field with team rosters of 15 players for six-on-six matchups. Additionally, participants play both offense and defense, and games are designed to be fast paced with a quick play clock and no huddles.

“We know we’re not the NFL, but it’s going to be very high quality and very entertaining,” Benizio said.

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