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The crowd that's assembled in the Richmond Coliseum on April 16 for the Raiders' game against Fayetteville is miniscule. Before the night's done, the official attendance count will reach 2,866 — but there's a vast emptiness. More than three-fourths of the Coliseum's 11,000 seats are unfilled. The game is dedicated to the University of Richmond and VCU, for their recent success in the NCAA tournament, and the VCU pep band is blowing and swinging from a raised platform in the back of the end zone. Gov. Bob McDonnell is here, along with his wife, Maureen, dressed as an honorary Lady Raider — she's a former Washington Redskins cheerleader — in a black dress with a shimmering rope necklace that matches her silver boots.
The scene gives the Raiders' first meaningful game of the season — for first place in the Southern Indoor Football League's mid-Atlantic division — the feel of a pageant dress rehearsal: all the performers and glitz in front of empty seats.
This has always been the chief obstacle for arena football, especially in a midmarket town such as Richmond. The games usually are played in the spring and summer when most people are vacationing, or when their sporting attention has turned to baseball. Arena teams here have been short-lived — the Richmond Speed, the first arena team to play in Richmond in 2000, folded after three years. Another team, the Richmond Bandits, fizzled out after just two seasons in 2006.
The game itself is intense and fast-paced. The playing field is 50 yards, half the size of a normal football field. There are only eight offensive players and eight defensive players. One receiver is allowed to get a running start in the backfield, sprinting across the line of scrimmage as the ball is snapped. The short field means every possession can produce a potential touchdown. And a field goal is possible from just about anywhere. A padded wall, about waist high, surrounds the field, and the inner row wall-side seats give some fans intimate contact with players during the game. There's no out-of-bounds line, just the wall, which means plays often end with players smashing into it. It's loud, fast and at times painfully violent. Artificial turf covers the concrete floor, and the walls are padded, but there's almost nothing to absorb the shock of colliding 300-pound men.
A year after a tumultuous 2009 — the Arena Football League, the oldest and most prominent arena league, canceled its season and was forced into bankruptcy — Richmond saw something of a happenstance rebirth in arena football. Two teams, the Raiders and one based in Chesterfield County, the Richmond Revolution, launched in the spring of 2010. Having two teams in the market has made it difficult for either team to build a consistent fan base. The Revolution played its first season in the Arthur Ashe Center, on the Boulevard near The Diamond. This year, the team is playing outdoors, in the SportsQuest athletic complex in western Chesterfield, off Genito Road.
At the end of the 2010 season — the Revolution went 13-2, losing in the first round of the Indoor Football League playoffs — much of the team and its coaches defected to the Raiders. The Revolution is owned by SportsQuest, a sprawling company with several sports leagues and much broader mission, which has been dogged by questions regarding financial instability. The Raiders are owned by Michael Fraizer and his wife, Elizabeth, who have deeper pockets. Fraizer is chief executive of Genworth Financial, which reported $10 billion in revenue in 2010.
The Fraizers wanted to help bring football back to Richmond, bring some stability to Richmond sports. The city had just gone through a transition with baseball, losing the Richmond Braves and gaining a new franchise in the Flying Squirrels. And baseball is played outside the city center, off the Boulevard. The arena teams, as well as hockey, had been the chief anchors of the downtown Coliseum during the last 15 years.
Marketing football in the spring is the toughest part. While there wasn't much advertising in 2010, this year the Raiders have multiple sponsors and are promoting games as events, such as the April 16 game commemorating VCU and UR basketball. While overall attendance is down slightly — through four games, the Raiders are averaging 2,400 fans; in 2009, the Raiders averaged 2,600 fans at their seven home games — paid attendance (excluding comp tickets) is actually up. But the team likely needs to average between 5,000 and 7,000 fans to become profitable.
In the meantime, the Fraizers are doing all the little things. The team hired the Criswells — Steve, a longtime coach and now consultant for the team; and Gary, the business manager. The Criswells were with the Speed, the Bandits and last year's Revolution team that went 13-2. The Fraizers also hired former St. Louis Rams cheerleader Laura Eilers to coordinate the Lady Raiders Dance Team, and lured respected arena coach James Fuller, a 13-year veteran, as head coach.
Many of the team's staff members, including the personal trainers and the equipment manager, have worked together for years and interact like a long-lost family. There's defensive end Lawrence "The Law" Lewis, 38, who's played for the Speed, Bandits, Revolution and now the Raiders, still barking in the locker room, the team's emotional leader. On game days the team massage therapist, Herman Heard, limbers up tendons and sore muscles, and Dr. Geoff Higgs, former head trainer for the New England Patriots and the Boston Bruins, shows up as an extra hand. The traveling husband-and-wife team of Dave and Dana Sparrow — Dave is logistics manager and Dana manages equipment — makes the hallways on game days feel like a family dinner. Except everyone seems genuinely happy to be here.
"I just love having all of these sons," Dana says, standing in the mostly empty locker room two hours before the Raiders kick off their home opener on March 19. When defensive back Larry Williams walks in, she instantly starts doting.
"Hey sweetheart," she coos, inquiring about his pre-game meal. "Did you get something to eat?" Elizabeth Fraizer even bakes brownies (actually more like a mound of caramel-infused fudge) for the players, which she brings in a Martin's grocery bag after the team's first victory, against the Trenton Steel. She distributes the brownies only after the team wins, leaving them in the car just in case.
"I told my kids: 'You're the ninth man,'" Fraizer says. "To me it's all about supporting the players."
So much so that Elizabeth Fraizer refuses to even talk about financials. The team most likely is losing money, and she acknowledges she should be more concerned about the "number" — that magic number of tickets that can get the Raiders into the black. With a winning streak at the right time, Fraizer is convinced Richmond will become addicted. If they can just get people to that first game, she says, they'll be hooked: "We know they'll come back."