Forty-one Tucson professional sports franchises have failed since baseball’s Tucson Waddies went bust in 1928. Every American town of similar size probably has a list to match it.
In Tucson, the Tiburons (soccer), the Scorch (hockey), the Gunners (basketball), the Heat (softball) and many more went belly up. Why? They ran out of money. It’s an American sports tradition.
On Sunday, our 42nd start-up sports franchise opened the doors and 5,198 paid to get inside the Tucson Arena, loud and proud as the Tucson Sugar Skulls beat the Bismarck Bucks 62-42.
The Bucks stopped here.
You may have a few questions about the Indoor Football League and the future of the Sugar Skulls, now undefeated, 2-0, and tied for the IFL lead with teams from Sioux Falls (Storm) to Des Moines (Barnstormers) to downtown Phoenix (Rattlers).
Can I get home from a Sugar Skulls game before midnight?
A: Sunday’s game required 2 hours and 49 minutes. That’s about 30 minutes shy of a college football game. There were 98 offensive plays, far short of a college average of close to 150, and — most fan-friendly of all — the clock doesn’t stop for TV replays, incomplete passes or first downs. This ain’t the Pac-12’s Larry Scott calling the shots.
Is there any fan interaction?
A: After Sugar Skulls receiver Shaq Curenton caught a touchdown pass to give Tucson a 21-7 lead, Curenton took a knee in the end zone, pulled a pen from his shoe, signed the ball and handed it to Jon Volpe, corporate sponsor of the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Smart guy. After the game, about 750 fans lined up under the north bleachers to get a crack at walking onto the all-gray artificial turf to mingle with the Sugar Skulls.
And if a football bounces of flies into the bleachers, you get to keep it.
What’s the demographic of the Tucson Arena IFL crowd?
A: It’s the opposite of the sedate PGA Champions Tour’s Cologuard Classic. The key is having a valid driver’s license to prove you are 21, because, in my unofficial count, there are 21 beer stations on the concourse at the Tucson Arena.
Are the Sugar Skulls getting rich?
A: The average Skull — is that a permissible term to use? — is paid for lodging and meals during the four-month season. A good paycheck is about $300 per week. This isn’t the NFL. The Sugar Skulls roster is loaded with players from Bethune-Cookman, Pima College, Dixie State, Tennessee-Martin and Winston-Salem State who are still playing football for (mostly) the fun of it.
Was Sunday’s robust opening day crowd of 5,198 due as much to one-time curiosity or was it genuine interest?
A: Sugar Skulls owner Kevin Guy isn’t in this business to fail. He coaches the Arizona Rattlers — I know, it’s complicated — and in last week’s opener in Phoenix the Rattlers drew an IFL-high 14,470 fans. (Low: 1,117 by the Cedar Rapids River Kings). He knows how it works.
The wisest thing the IFL did was limit the schedule to seven home games per franchise.
The Sugar Skulls never have more than two home games in a month, which means, unlike minor-league baseball, you don’t get bored or overloaded by too many games.
“We’re in a space where Tucson needed some entertainment during the spring and summer months,” said Guy, who admitted on Sunday that the rush to be part of the 2019 season didn’t give time (yet) for all the bells and whistles to be up and running.
“We’ll get there,” he said. “You can feel the energy in the arena.”
Will the Sugar Skulls score 50 or 60 points every week?
A: In the first 12 games of the IFL season, the average winning score was 58. The Rattlers scored 81. If you don’t average 50, you’re not going to be in the hunt for the coveted United Bowl championship on July 12.
Do the Sugar Skulls have any famous players?
A: The Arizona Daily Star’s 2011 all-star high school team included two Skulls — linebacker Robert Metz of Canyon del Oro, who went to Dixie State, and tackle Antonio Rosales of Tucson High, who went to San Diego State. How good is that? Making the 2011 all-city team required exceptional talent. CDO’s Blake Martinez went to Stanford; Sabino’s Andrew Mike played at Florida; Tucson’s Levi Wallace started for national champion Alabama; Ironwood Ridge’s Jake Matthews became a starting linebacker at Arizona; Sabino tight end Matt Bushman is an all-level player at BYU; and Cienega’s Edgar Poe and Daniel Gonzales started in the Army-Navy game. These guys are good.
Will I be confused by the rules?
A: It’s fully uncomplicated because the field is so compact — 50 yards long and 28 yards wide — that it’s all in front of you. There’s not a bad seat in the arena.
Remember this: instead of 11 players on each side, there are eight. You can’t run out-of-bounds to stop the clock, because there is no out-of-bounds. There is a 3-inch thick rubber padding that keeps you safe. And if you get tackled for a safety, it’s only one point. On Sunday, on the first play of the Sugar Skulls history at the Tucson Arena, a Skull was tackled in the end zone. They trailed 1-0. Pretty funny.
How long can we expect the Sugar Skulls to be in business?
A: The Arizona Rattlers are in their 27th year. They survived a change in ownership, the 2009 suspension of play in the old Arena Football League and last season won the 300th game in franchise history.
With the same good fortune and Tucson’s support, the Sugar Skulls, bless ’em, can get to No. 300 sometime in the mid-2040s.