OWINGS MILLS – It’s 10:30 in the evening, and under the dreary fluorescent lights of a practice field near here, Alexander Austin, a real estate developer by day, huddles up with the other members of his indoor football team.
“One…two…three…Blackbirds!” comes the cadenced shout from 30 players as they break their huddle.
Austin, 28 years old, tall and athletic, fits right in with the players as he strolls casually around the field. But Austin doesn’t play on this team – he owns it.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen yet,” said the Prince George’s County native and former defense back for Towson University. “The plan wasn’t to do it at 28. The plan was to do it in the NFL, CFL, retire and then own a team.”
The American Indoor Football Association and the Baltimore Blackbirds are about as far away from the National Football League and the Canadian Football League as it is possible to get.
A professional indoor football league that began its inaugural season in February, football in the AIFA is played with 8 men on a side instead of 11 on an artificial surface that’s half as long and narrower than a 100-yard NFL field. The game is designed to be fast-paced and high-scoring, with, for example, the kicking teams potentially able to score on a kickoff.
The league is made up of 14 minor league teams along the East Coast and as far west as Ohio and Illinois, with names like the Danville (Ill.) Demolition and the Mississippi MudCats. Many of the players, who earn about $250 a game, are hoping to overcome huge odds and make it to the NFL – a dream shared by their owner and their coach.
“We all want to make it to the next level and keep moving up, that’s why we’re here,” said head coach Chris Simpson, who has coached in the Canadian Football League and professional arena football leagues for the better part of 14 years. His own pursuit of the dream has taken him all over the country – from California to Texas and now to Maryland.
“My wife understands,” he said of his spouse, who works for XM Radio. “She knows it’s what I want to do.”
The Blackbirds practice in a public-use sports complex about 18 minutes up the road from the state-of-the-art training facility of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. They play their homes games at 1st Mariner Arena in downtown Baltimore, less than a mile from the Ravens’ imposing M&T Bank Stadium. But there the similarities cease.
The Blackbirds played their first game on March 10 against the Reading Express in Pennsylvania and lost 78-6. The next weekend they traveled to Florida to play the Lakeland Thunderbolts and lost 69-14.
The team’s first home game on March 31 was their closest yet – a 38-25 loss to the Carolina Speed. Seven games into their 13-game season, the Blackbirds are winless and have the league’s worst record.
Austin is undeterred. He notes that the Blackbirds had less time to prepare for its season than the other teams, and they also changed players and personnel during the first few months before only recently settling down with their current staff.
Austin himself pursued playing professional football after graduating from Towson in 2001, but says he struggled to stay afloat financially. He had workouts with NFL teams and stints with other indoor football teams around the country, but the money he earned was not enough to pay the bills year-round.
“That’s why I got into real estate,” he said, citing the flexible hours and good income. He said he approached the real estate business the same way he took the field before a game – studious but aggressive.
“You’ve got to constantly educate yourself and that’s what I never want to stop doing,” Austin said, adding that he looks up to people like Donald Trump and U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill.
In 2004 he completed his first deal and one year later started his own company, Austin Development, LLC, located in Upper Marlboro. But football always was in the forefront. As recently as last fall he was working out with a start-up indoor team in Prince George’s County. Austin left the team, which folded shortly afterward, but the seed for the idea that would become the Baltimore Blackbirds had been planted.
“Sometime around that September, I said to myself, ‘I know if I had my own team I could put a good product on the field,'” he said.” I didn’t know what it all entailed but that’s kind of when the idea sparked.”
The AIFA was to begin its inaugural season in February and after Austin won approval from the league for a new team – which was granted in December – a scramble ensued to fill out a 30-man roster, hire coaches and staff, find a practice facility, design uniforms, sign sponsors and tend to thousands of other details.
“On December 1st, I can’t tell you how high that mountain looked,” Austin said. “The powers that be just looked out for us. We just knuckled up and did it.”
And through it all the team has remained optimistic. Austin said that surrounding himself with capable coaches and businessmen has alleviated some of the stress.
“It’s been a process,” said Simpson, a 20-year veteran coach. “The great thing about our organization is we learn from our mistakes. If we can’t do it this year, what can we do to make it happen next year?”
Simpson and Austin agree that there is a market for arena football in Baltimore and they say there is no reason an area this “sports-crazy” wouldn’t have room for just one more team.
According to Simpson, game attendance averages about 4,500, and he predicts they can boost that to about 8,000 or more next year. Although maybe not going as far as MudCats owner Todd Ellis, who has vowed to shave his head at the next home game if attendance breaks 7,000, Austin said the Blackbirds next three home games will all be theme nights, beginning with College Night on April 28.
Austin and others agree that one of the biggest frustrations they face is knowing that their players have talent and not seeing it reflected in the team’s record. Austin said he is still adjusting to the management aspect of football and watching the losses from the sidelines can be particularly difficult.
“It’s been tough sometimes – you still have the itch to play,” he said.
And despite his youth, Austin says he is in its for the long haul.
“I’m not in this for the money, I’m honestly not….I love the game of football,” he said. “You don’t have to pay me for it.”