The San Angelo Bandits and the Business of Arena Football
Minor league sports teams do not have a great reputation as winning business opportunities lately. San Angelo has seen a number of them come and go through the years, most recently the San Angelo Colts minor league baseball team, now defunct and its assets stuck in bankruptcy proceedings.
People involved in the minor league businesses are usually very passionate about the sport. The successful ones have the capital to support their scratch and claw pursuit of success, defeating the assumptions most have that it cannot last long.
In west Texas, it’s a pastime to sit on the porch and watch hardscrabble entrepreneurs fail so they’ll have a story to tell for the next 10 years or so about that poor soul and, like a backseat driver, why he failed. Perhaps it is the boom and bust cycle of the oil field or the up and down price of cotton that feeds this assumption towards failure that is so ingrained into the social fabric here.
Above: Randy Sanders, owner of the Bandits. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
San Angelo’s ability to view askance minor league teams isn’t unique to the region, though. There’s a website devoted to chronicling minor league dreams that have died all over the world at FunWhileItLasted.net.
Sanders isn’t a stranger to minor league sports, and he didn’t earn his fortune in it either. He moved here from Kingsland, a farming-turned-retirement community north of Marble Falls, closer to Austin than west Texas.
“I was in the high-tech junk business. I bought and sold semiconductors,” he said.
A suitor showed up on his doorstep one day and made an offer Sanders couldn’t refuse for his company that was doing $25 million in annual sales at the time. With the cash in hand, he dove into minor league sports, starting with hockey, the Austin Ice Bats, a feeder team for the Houston Aeros. Things didn’t work out in his attempt to move the Ice Bats to Cedar Park after the mayor there chose the Texas Stars, who fed the Dallas Stars major league hockey team over the Bats. Sanders was left with a team without an arena and folded.
Above: The Bandit Babes. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
Not deterred, Sanders ventured out across west Texas and found opportunity in hockey and arena football. His first foray was in Amarillo with hockey. Amarillo didn’t work out either, but his focus on west Texas brought into his view a struggling arena football league with teams in Abilene and San Angelo. Sanders bought into the Abilene team and all of the struggling San Angelo Stampede Express. Facing the bad odds, Randy Sanders decided that he liked what he saw in San Angelo and decided to not only make a run at building an arena football team here, but to move his family here as well.
Above: The team gave Sanders the game ball and signed it following the first win of the season on April 18, 2015. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
Darlene Jones, whose day job is owning and operating a successful pest extermination business in town called Bug Express, was then the owner of the Stampede Express.
“It was originally called the San Angelo Stampede, but I added ‘Express’ to the name for Bug Express,'” she said with a smile.
When Jones was starting out with the pest control business, she found value in courting clients by entertaining them with box seats at the local arena football games. Out of those successful engagements, she built her extermination business and developed a love for the sport at the same time.
But family duties of taking care of her ailing mother overwhelmed her at about the same time Sanders was buying up arena football teams in west Texas. Needing relief, she sold to Sanders but Sanders had her hang around. Today, Jones is the commissioner of the team’s league, the Champions Indoor Football League (CIF).
Renamed the San Angelo Bandits, this is the team’s third season under Sander’s ownership.
Thirty seconds is like an eternity for those people in those stands
Sanders chairs the pregame coordination meeting in the VIP room that starts at 4 p.m. on game day. While Twin Mountain Steak House assembles the catered meal for VIP season ticket holders and top sponsors, Sanders goes over the script with his small team.
Chris Austin of local radio stations KGKL and KKCN will be the evening’s announcer. “It’s easier announcing the Bandits than high school football on the radio. You don’t have to describe as much, because the people are seeing the same thing you are. I just get the names right, and make sure I make the sponsors happy,” he said.
Above: The pregame planning meenting. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
Making the sponsors happy is a two-pronged process of developing an audience and successfully promoting the sponsors, and the pre-game meeting is the key.
“Alright, after the first quarter, we’re taking a media break. I want to make sure we have the small fries ready at the west end. Play some kid’s music, like ‘SpongeBob’,” Sanders instructs. The local McDonald’s franchise is sponsoring the McDonald’s Small Fry Race, where under-10-year-olds will run around buckets acting as pylons dressed up in a costume resembling a container of McDonald’s French fries.
Above: Getting ready for the McDonald's Small Fry Race. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
It’s not the sport, Sanders said. It’s the entertainment. Everything has to be choreographed to keep the crowd engaged, and that’s what the Bandits do during every break in the football action: games; contests; and The Bandit Babes, San Angelo’s small town answer to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
“Thirty seconds is like an eternity for those folks in the stands,” he said. If the music dies and there’s nothing to see, then people may leave their seats and then never come back."
Above: Big Mike Levesque working the stands. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
Sanders has to assume the role of P.T. Barnum and orchestrate a great show for three hours in order to develop an audience large enough to keep the sponsors happy. At the bottom of each game’s script is the admonishment, “We have to be the best show in town!” Season ticket sales have doubled from 900 in 2013 to over 1800 today, Sanders said.
Advertiser mentions throughout the game are a part of the entertainment. Big Mike Levesque roams the stands looking for contestants who will make the best pig call for free meal at Dickey’s Barbeque or to crow like a Rooster for a gift card to Rooster’s Chicken Restaurant. On the field, when there’s a break, Tim White organizes the audience participation contests, like a short soccer match using bubble balls, or a field goal kicking contest, all of them tagged with sponsors.
Above: A fan attempts to kick a field goal for a prize. On-the-field entertainment coordinator Tim White bravely holds the ball. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The Bandits are working towards branding everything, including the Medical Arts Pharmacy Injury Timeout, and the Bes-Tex first downs. The field is renamed the Select Energy Services field, and Papa Murphy’s pizza gives discounts based upon how much the Bandits score.
Making it work
Saturday’s game was the first win for the season, and it was a nail-biter until the end. Facing the Allen-based Texas Revolution, this game had an interesting twist. The Bandits’ new coach was playing his first Bandits game, and the game was against his former team. After the 42-38 win, Coach Wendall Davis gave Sanders a long hug. It was emotional.
Above: The winning game hug, Coach Wendall Davis and team owner Randy Sanders. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The crowd was small, but it never thinned from the start to the end of the game. That means that the entertainment value was there. Sanders just needs to convince more people to come out to the games and double his audience again.
“See that couple over there? They want to get season tickets,” a runner said to Sanders as he stood behind the wall at the west end zone. Sanders sent a rep over to close the deal. That’s how it has been going, Sanders said. “Win fans one at a time.”
After the game, the entertainment team and Sanders meet to debrief the performance. Time lags and flubbed contests are rehashed and ideas are considered on how to make them better, or to scrap the promotion altogether. To Sanders, every game is a chance to improve.
The interactive aspect of the sponsorships is where Sanders wants to take the game. There isn’t a sponsor for the touchdowns this year. But as the audience grows, Sanders expects his sponsors to grow too. Currently, the Bandits have 185 sponsors; Sanders wants 225. The visiting team doesn’t earn a dime, so all of the money has to be made at the home games. Sanders said it costs $385,000 per year to operate the team and average player makes about $160 per game.
Above: Bumper ball soccer during a game break. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
To the City of San Angelo, the Bandits are needed customers. The city’s Civic Events Department makes money on the venue rental of the coliseum and concessions sales. Sanders said the city has been very helpful.
Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer said she doesn’t miss a game and was there Saturday celebrating her birthday. “First, I want to support what Randy’s doing here, but I also want to make sure the city is doing it right, too. I look to see if the coliseum is clean. I look at the ceiling tiles and make sure they’re in good shape,” she said.
To help grow the audience, the city is forfeiting its take on the concessions sales to help finance $1 hotdogs and $2 beers during two games a year.
Developing the fan base and the audience is moving along, and while Sanders is getting the city’s help he needs to succeed, it’s a long process. Eventually, when the Bandits can consistently attract 1,500-2,500 fans per game, their audience will be comparable to a local radio station and a formidable opportunity for local advertisers. In minor league sports, approximately 80 percent of the revenue comes from local business sponsorships. The rest is individual and season ticket sales.
The last two home games of the 2015 season are May 2 and May 25 at 7:05 p.m. against New Mexico’s Duke City Gladiators. Tickets are $12 per person and kids are half price. Visit the San Angelo Bandits online.