27 seasons and counting: Despite competition for sports entertainment dollar, Arizona Rattlers endure

With the Rattlers having played in Arizona for 27 seasons, fandom is often passed down from parent to child. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)

The start of an Arizona Rattlers game is always a spectacle, with music, motorcycles and fireworks. Here defensive lineman Lance McDowdell runs onto the field before a June contest. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Despite a sports market with little elbow room, limited media coverage and obstacles including a canceled season, the Arizona Rattlers have stiff-armed adversity and remain a player in the Arizona sports scene.

Proof? They just completed their 27th season.

Among the Valley’s professional teams, that’s longer than Major League Baseball’s Diamondbacks, the NHL’s Coyotes, the WNBA’s Mercury and the USL Championship’s Phoenix Rising. Only the NFL’s Cardinals and the NBA’s Suns have stronger footholds.

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“You have to find a way and a niche to stay and become relevant and for us it’s price point,” said former Rattlers team president Chris Presson, who Wednesday was named president and CEO of the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos. “A lot of the people who can’t afford to go to the four major league sports with regularity, they can afford to come to our games every single night.”

The team’s longevity suggests a winning formula of affordability, entertainment and success, including six titles and postseason trips in 23 of 27 seasons. This year’s team, which advanced to the United Bowl Championship against the Sioux Falls Storm, averaged 13,684 fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

It’s not always a smooth ride. Its residence in the Arena Football League from 1992-2016 was interrupted in 2009 when the AFL canceled the season because of economic woes.

Most players hold other jobs because pay is low. Practice facilities in the Indoor Football League look like nothing of those belonging to their NFL counterparts. But for players who hope to get noticed by the NFL – Super Bowl and former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner played three seasons of indoor football – or aren’t ready to stop competing in the sport they love, the league serves an important purpose.

Fan friendly

Affordability has been a key selling point for the Rattlers. During the 2019 season, single-game tickets were available starting at $10 and season tickets at $80. The average single-game ticket price for NFL teams in 2017, for example, ranged from $107 (Buffalo Bills) to $530 (New England Patriots, according to a study by vividseats.com. The Cardinals’ average was $129.

The games are about far more than football, fans say, with fireworks, motorcycles and loud music serving as accompaniments.

The game is unique, too, in indoor football. Fields are 50 yards long, not 100. Eight players are on the field, not 11. And punting? It’s illegal.

With a field of only 50 yards, it’s not unusual to see Arizona Rattlers wide receiver Jarrod Harrington return a kickoff for a touchdown. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)

Butch Neuber was introduced to the Rattlers by a family member nine years ago. He quickly became a fan of the unique style of football.

“My son was a fan since 1997 and then he got me involved,” Neuber said. “He’s no longer with us but we stayed on as a Rattler faithful and we travel.”

Players say home field advantage is a real thing as the organization promotes its games like its promoting a rock concert. Fireworks explode after every touchdown and the music is loud and continuous to encourage fans to support their team.

“I know the passion of the fanbase here and I know the passion of the organization,” IFL Commissioner Michael Allshouse said. “They are going to put out a great show and a good high quality professional product no matter where the game is played and I would expect nothing else from them.”

Strength in familiarity

The organization’s rich history dates back nearly three decades when Jerry Colangelo was awarded the expansion team on September 11th, 1991.

The Rattlers’ first coach, former Arizona State and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White, stayed 13 years. Their most recent one, Kevin Guy, just completed his 11th season.

He has taken the Rattlers franchise to the playoffs all of those seasons, winning three straight Arena Bowls and the team’s first United Bowl in 2017.

Arizona Rattlers coach Kevin Guy has been with the team since 2008. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)

“Kevin Guy is the face of the team … and as long as he stays here, he will be the face of the team,” Presson said before he left. “He has built himself a good game and a good brand and people associate that with the Rattlers as well, who also have a good name and a good brand. He’s our focal point and we try not to focus on players and we try to focus on him.”

In the sports world, when success comes, so, typically, do fans. In the team’s inaugural home game at America West Arena (now Talking Stick Resort Arena), the arena sold out with 15,505 fans. Many were hooked.

The Rattlers have continued to stay relevant in a sports town that has representatives from all four major professional leagues and many other highly populated sporting events, like the NFL’s Super Bowl, the NCAA’s Final Four and the PGA’s Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament.

More than 14,000 attended the United Bowl Championship at Gila River Arena. Typically, the title game would be played at the team’s home field but scheduling issues with Talking Stick Resort Arena for the conference championship and title game forced the move. The Native American Basketball Invitational and the Nazarene Youth Conference were taking place during those times.

“Unfortunately, after being in our building for 27 years, the Rattlers do not get first priority for playoff dates,” Guy told azcentral.com. “My understanding is that other events took precedence.”

He added that the organization embraced the opportunity to play at Gila River Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes, and that the opportunity “‘will give us the ability to expand our fan base and potential sponsorships. The Rattlers will play anyone, anywhere, anytime, and the Rattlers faithful will follow.”

Adapting to change

The team will play there in the 2020 season with an option for 2021 as Talking Stick Resort Arena undergoes renovations.

“Its farther for me, I live in the far East Valley but the accommodations that are here far exceed Talking Stick,” Neuber said.

When an Arizona Rattlers player scores a touchdown, as running back Jabre Lolley did during a recent game, fans after often just yards away. (Photo by Kynan Marlin/Cronkite News)

The Rattlers have adjusted well to change before. When they moved in 2017 to the Indoor Football League, which has 10 teams but could expand, they continued to win. They have won a minimum of 11 games each season since.

“There’s interest, number one,” Presson said about the organization’s success. “We have been in business 27 years, number two, and we understand price point, number three.”

While the Rattlers were in the Arena Football League, they had an average attendance of 12,263 fans, reports arenafan.com, and regularly led the league. Their attendance numbers continue to be strong.

“When we were bringing the Rattlers in three years ago, we thought we knew how great the organization was from top to bottom,” Allshouse said. “They have exceeded our expectations ever since being in. There’s a reason they have been named our franchise of the year three straight years and they have received the best fanbase award for three straight years.”

Quickly leaving their bite on the league, the Rattlers won the United Bowl in 2017 for their first world title outside of the Arena Football League.

Allshouse credited the front office, saying, “They just are a real treat to have and there’s no question that the Snake Pit (fan base) provides a pretty good home field advantage for them.”

After the team’s Intense Conference Championship win over the Nebraska Danger, Guy cited the crowd’s presence as a big reason the Rattlers came away with the victory.

“Great support here on the west side, great crowd, a lot of energy in the building tonight, the sound system is awesome here,” Guy said. “Can’t say enough about it.”

As players come and go for the Rattlers, one who enjoys the spotlight is 2018 IFL MVP quarterback Drew Powell. He joined the Rattlers this season and helped lead the team to the playoffs with an unbeaten record.

“This is where I feel the most comfortable, when there are 20,000 people in the stands,” Powell said. “I feel at home.

“That’s just where I’m supposed to be.”

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