A whole new ball game

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Mar 232008
 
Authors: Jeff Dillon

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series taking a look at semi-professional sports teams and their attempts to become successful in northern Colorado.

On a windy March day in Windsor, the Northern Colorado Wolfpack practiced for several hours in front of only a handful of onlookers.

Despite the lack of fanfare, the squad, which plays in the semi-professional Colorado Football Conference, is made up of 20-some serious football players.

One player took a strong hit to his facemask, blood immediately gushing out of his mouth. Saying he’d nearly bit through his bottom lip, the coach cringed and made an instant medical assessment.

“Yeah, you’re going to need stitches,” he said.

“Nah, I’ve done a lot worse than this,” the player replied.

All of this effort for a semi-pro football team? Could it really be worth it?

“In no way is this a rec. team,” said team owner and linebacker Jeremy Galles. “We don’t have guys that are out of shape — beer drinkers. This is legit football; you come out and half-ass it, you’re gonna get hurt.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this kind of competition is taking place in northern Colorado. The region has become a hotbed for minor league and semi-professional sports, most notably with the arrivals of the Central Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles and the United Indoor Football league’s Colorado Ice in the last five years.

But often overshadowed by these more well-known regional teams are a slew of sports squads attempting to thrive in what has already been proven to be a successful market for sports.

One of those teams is the Wolfpack, which Galles brought to the area in 2002.

“I wanted to basically set up something to give people a chance to play,” Galles said. “I wanted to give the opportunity for northern Colorado to have a football team.”

Galles said it takes somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 per year to keep a team going in the CFC, a ten-team league created in 1987. Individual players pay a $100 to $250 fee for the right to play each year, based on experience. Because the team does not sell tickets to their games, Galles and a handful of sponsors pay the remainder of the expenses — money Galles says is well worth it.

“(The CFC) used to be sandlot football, 20 years ago,” he said. “When I came in, it was getting better every year. Now it’s a legit league. This is the longest-lasting semi-pro league in America.”

Anyone can try out for the Wolfpack, who will play their first game June 7 at the Loveland Sports Park. Galles said the team has players from various backgrounds — some with football experience from high school, college, other semi-pro leagues, or no organized experience at all. Their youngest player is 18, their oldest is 38.

But the talent is undeniable. Third-year wide receiver Anthony Rankin, a CFC All-Star in 2007, has used his experience with the team to land several workouts with professional teams.

“You play for love of the game, but you want to climb higher and get to the next level,” Rankin said.

Rankin and some of his teammates said they have found out it is difficult to get to that next level.

“There’s a lot of politics involved at the pro level,” said third-year running back John Willhoite. “Wherever we’re trying to get to, this is a good stepping stone. It’s a harder road than most people take, but it’s possible.”

“This is taking the backdoor in, for sure,” Rankin said.

For some players without any plans for a future in the game, the Wolfpack simply provide challenging but rewarding football.

“It’s the experience,” said wide receiver and kicker Brian Hamilton, who currently works a 40-hour workweek at CSU, still finding time to commit to the Wolfpack. “It’s like a 36-hour high, probably, after every practice or game.”

But Hamilton said he sees the motivation in his teammates looking to continue the pursuit of a dream.

“I think for all these guys, it’s in the back of your head that you’ve been written off,” he said.

Other teams are in the process of building a successful sports model based on the commitment of local athletes.

One of those teams is the Colorado Chill, a professional women’s basketball team that is currently seeking entry into the WNBA.

Owner Dave King brought the Chill to Loveland in 2004, entering into the National Women’s Basketball League. King’s focus was to recruit local players who would bring in local fans — specifically former CSU athletes.

“It started with (CSU alum) Becky Hammon,” King said. “Once we had her on board, we began to walk ourselves through the franchise process of that league, and we had the new building (the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland) being built in the area. So, all three of these things came together.”

The team enjoyed success on the court — winning two NWBL championships — and was one of the league’s top draws at the box office.

But, unfortunately for the Chill, the NWBL folded after the 2006 season. King said the problem was a lack of solid ownership around the league, where a minimum of $5 million dollars is required to start a franchise.

“There simply was not a strong enough economic model to go through with it and succeed,” he said.

But King believes the team could thrive in the WNBA with a solid group of local, committed players.

Other local pro teams include the Fort Collins Foxes, a member of a summer collegiate baseball league that arrived in 2005, and the Fort Collins Force, a women’s professional soccer team in the United Soccer Leagues since 1997.

Like the Wolfpack, these teams have yet to draw huge crowds for games, but they have shown that even less revenue-centered teams can still bring plenty of local talent to the field.

But Wolfpack head coach Darren Koretko admits it would be nice to start bringing in the local sports fans teams like the Eagles have shown to exist.

“Usually, at games it’s just family and friends,” Koretko said. “We would definitely like to see more.”

To do that, it will take increased marketing and sponsorships, something the team is working on.

“Money — that’s this whole league’s biggest problem,” Willhoite said. “Everybody I know loves football. A lot of people just don’t know we’re out here. But if people come check out a game, they’re fans.”

Teams like the Colorado Eagles have proven that minor-league and semi-pro sports can thrive in northern Colorado.

Teams like the Wolfpack have shown that there are plenty of talented — and tough — athletes willing to commit to the process.

Owners like Jeremy Galles and Dave King have the plans in place.

All that’s left is a little support from the sidelines.

Sports writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

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