A man stands behind a podium during a press conference
Tim Brown, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Heisman Trophy winner, announces Springfield as a charter member of The Arena League March 9 at a press conference at Corwin Dodge. Brown serves as commissioner for the new league, which will kick off in the summer of 2024. (Photo: Shannon Cay)

Springfield’s professional sports community is growing with the official announcement on Thursday that the city will be a charter member of The Arena League, a new indoor football league.

The Springfield team — which will be named in fan voting over the next few weeks — will play its home games in the new Wilson Logistics Arena at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds. The Arena League is scheduled to begin play in the summer of 2024 with four teams, with each playing an eight-game schedule.

Lending credibility to the venture is the man named league commissioner. Tim Brown, Pro Football Hall of Famer and Heisman Trophy winner, said the league will announce the other three cities for the initial season over the next few weeks.

Brown said the goal is for The Arena League to expand to eight teams by year two and eventually 16 teams.

Springfield lead voting by ‘a wide margin’

Brown, who attended a news conference on Thursday at Corwin Dodge in east Springfield to announce the Springfield team, said he was overwhelmed by voting over the last several weeks from fans asked to choose from a list of cities for an Arena League team.

“Not only did the people of Springfield lead the voting by a wide margin, but the reception we received from Aaron Owen and his staff at the Fairgrounds, the leaders at the (Chamber of Commerce) and other city officials was outstanding,” Brown said in a news release. 

“I think that it shows this area loves football and having a team in their backyard will be an exciting thing.”

Other cities listed in voting for an AFL franchise were: Kansas City; Waterloo, Iowa; Rochester, Minnesota; Little Rock, Arkansas; Rockford, Illinois; Dubuque, Iowa; Oklahoma City; Duluth, Minnesota, and Wichita Falls, Texas.

The Arena League is designed to entertain fans with a play clock of 20 seconds on the 50-yard field and with 15 players on a roster, meaning that some players will be required to play offense and defense. Only six players will be on the field, for each team, at one time.

The Arena League will offer opportunities to former NFL players, young players fresh out of college

Following the news conference, Brown said the goal is to make each franchise something that the hosting city will be proud of. He hopes to work with the Canadian Football League, and the new XFL and United States Football Leagues to supplement the rosters.

The Arena League will offer opportunities to former NFL players using the league to try and work their way back to the highest level of pro football, along with talented young players fresh out of college. Asked about an age range, Brown brought up 25 as a possible top-end.

The original Arena Football League from back in the 1990s produced several notable players who went on to NFL success, the most famous being quarterback Kurt Warner with the St. Louis Rams. Warner went on to lead the Rams to a Super Bowl title in 2000 and eventually was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

There’s no telling if another Warner story is in the offing, but Brown said that’s always a possibility when players are given opportunities to pursue their dreams. 

“People slip through the cracks,” Brown said. “That does happen. Really, all you need is that opportunity and if kids can come here and show that they have the ability, I can get them in the door. That’s the one thing I can promise you. What you do when you get there is totally up to you.

“It’s not going to be 100 players out of this league. It might be three or four that we say ‘let’s call and see if we can do something with these kids.’” 

League looking to add local owners

While the team will be owned and operated by the league office, Brown is hopeful that local people will have interest in becoming part owners.

“While the league is prepared to own and operate the team, we feel that it will grow stronger roots in Springfield if the team were owned, at least in part, by local leaders who want to invest in something designed to be good for their hometown,” Brown said. “I want to speak with interested people personally about being part of this team with us.”

Owen, the Director of the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds, said the under-construction new arena will offer great sight lines with convenient parking outside. There will be just over 6,000 seats.

Key personnel involved for team operations, in addition to Brown,  include Tommy Benizio of Benizio Sports (talent advisor), local businessman Kirk Elmquist (advisor) and Ryan Foose (talent logo/graphic advisor).

Elmquist, who has past experience working in management for the Springfield Cardinals and for PGA Tour-sanctioned events in Springfield and Branson, said while the team is based in Springfield it’s really a regional entity. 

“This team is going to be a gateway to the 417,” Elmquist said. “This is a tourism movement for our region, putting dates in an arena that in size is in between (Drury’s) O’Reilly Family Events Center and (Missouri State’s) Great Southern Bank Arena.”

Benizio said one of the league’s pace of play and innovation will appeal to players and fans. A cell phone app will allow fans in attendance to listen in on communication between coaches and players. After the game, fans can rate the two officials working the game – one on the field to spot the ball and the other sitting atop the grandstands to call penalties.

Artist's rendering of the inside of the new arena at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds
Wilson Logistics Arena, now under construction at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds, will host professional football. The Arena League announced March 9 that Springfield has been selected as a charter member. The Arena League plans to kick off in the summer of 2024 (Photo: Ozark Empire Fair)

Team is accepting season ticket deposits

The team is accepting deposits, starting at $10 per seat, on season tickets which will start at $90. Tickets to individual games are $15 for adults and $10 for ages 12 and under. The under-construction Wilson Logistics Arena will have 100,000 total square feet with upper-level seating for 6,300 according to OzarkEmpireFair.com. 

A name-the-team contest is scheduled to commence soon with the name announced in May and the team logo unveiling in June, along with a general manager. A timeline released by the team said it hopes to announce the head coach in August.

Beniziio joked about Springfield’s great cobra scare of the early 1950s and Springfield cashew chicken as possible team teams.

For more information on the team and how to vote for a team nickname and team colors, visit www.ALspringfield.com or call (214) 412-6889.

Asked why the Arena League opportunity appealed to him, Brown said he and Benizio had owned an arena team before.

“I know the excitement that this can bring to a city,” Brown said. “From that standpoint, when they asked me to be commissioner, I thought it was right up my alley. We’re not just talking about one team, but teams all over the country, eventually.”

League’s commissioner is Heisman Trophy winner, Pro Football Hall of Famer

Brown was a two-time All-American at Notre Dame and became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 1987. He had 990 total scrimmage yards during his senior season, adding four touchdowns including a kick and punt returner throughout his time at Notre Dame where he earned the nickname “Touchdown Timmy.” 

Brown finished his college career with 22 scores, 2,935 scrimmage yards and a school-record 5,024 all-purpose yards.

He was the No. 6 overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, selected by the then-Los Angeles Raiders. Brown made the Pro Bowl each season from 1993 to 1997 and again in 1999 and 2001. He started every game the Raiders played over his remarkable 10-year stretch from 1993 to 2002.

He retired in 2005 with 14,934 receiving yards and 1,094 catches, both of which rank seventh all-time in NFL history. He also finished with 100 receiving touchdowns, tied for the ninth-best mark in league history. The nine-time Pro Bowl selection also added over 4,500 combined kick and punt return yards with an additional five special teams touchdowns during his pro career. 

Brown was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.  

Brown, when introduced to the crowd of about 100 at the news conference, joked that he “doesn’t remember getting applause in Missouri before.” The Raiders, of course, as a long-time rival of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

“This city is excited about The Arena League coming here and they’re excited about football,” Brown said. “How can you not be excited about football in this area? You have a professional team playing incredible football (in Kansas City). I think this is going to be great for this great city.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton