ROANOKE, Va. – The chairman of the National Gridiron League came to Roanoke this week to reassure city leaders that the league is still on track, but there are still many questions to be answered. The Virginia Iron Horses are supposed to launch next month in the Star City, but even after the meeting many still question if arena football will actually make its comeback.
League chairman Joe McClendon spoke exclusively with 10 News while he was in town. He said the meeting went well and the league is still coming to town. Last week, it announced a delay to the season last week and has since updated its team schedules and website to reflect the changes. There are still some major boxes left to be checked, but McClendon said not to worry.
Last summer the message was broadcast loud and clear, arena football was coming back to Roanoke. But we're coming up on almost a year since that announcement and there hasn't been much to see.
"The city should know and the community should know we're working hard to put the best possible product on the field," McClendon said.
The inaugural season was supposed to launch at the end of March, but it now will launch at the end of April. McClendon said there wasn't enough time to market the league because it was held up by bureaucratic red tape. In news reports in other cities, McClendon is quoted as saying it was some other city's delay and not the one in that specific city, just like he told 10 News about Roanoke.
"How certain are you that football will start in April and that we'll be ready to go?" 10 News reporter Shayne Dwyer asked.
"I wouldn't be sitting in this seat if I wasn't 100 percent," McClendon replied.
But not everyone is as confident as McClendon, especially in the Star City. McClendon had a meeting with Mayor Sherman Lea and others this week to talk about it all after the mayor and other city leaders questioned what was going on.
"It's apparent that he still wants to have the league and to play, I'm not sure that financially it can all come together," Lea said.
At the end of the day, an arena football league needs serious cash. The city has not offered the team any sort of incentives to come. The team would play at the Berglund Center, but the league still hasn't paid them yet and McClendon was not straight about when it would happen.
"So when will you be cutting a check to the Berglund Center for the rent there?" Dwyer asked.
"We've got a few things we're working on, I think the most important thing before even the check is the medical portion that we're working on," McClendon replied.
McClendon said making sure players are cared for is most important but on a podcast two months ago hosted by the league it was again about the money and the first half of the show was a complete mess. A caller on the show was identified by the host as an assistant coach for the Mississippi Mudcats. McClendon said his host was actually unaware that the man she identified as a coach wasn't actually a coach at all. McClendon said the name he gave wasn't even a name on the coaching roster.
"The problem is we were supposed to start getting paid the first week of November and I haven't gotten a paycheck yet," the caller said. " Not only that but our arena down here, we don't even have a lease with, so I don't know what the f**k these guys are doing but they owe me a couple of grand already and most of the coaches like Hemmel and some of these other guys, we haven't been paid yet."
10 News asked McClendon if his coaches have been paid yet.
"Yes, our coaches have been compensated," McClendon said.
We reached out to the 11 other cities that are set to host teams and skepticism was a common thread. Even after this meeting with the league, Mayor Lea said there are obvious roadblocks, but they want to give it a chance.
"We want to see arena football playing, but it just doesn't seem like financially things are falling in place," Lea said.
McClendon wouldn't say how much the league is worth or where the money is coming from, or how many tickets the Iron Horses have sold. With a month to go, there's still a lack of any marketing around a lot of questions to be answered.
"Are you willing to admit at this point based on just the surface level facts things don't look super great? Dwyer asked.
"I'm willing to admit it may not happen in the time period everyone else wants, I know the work we've put in, that's what's most important to me," McClendon said.
He said if football doesn't happen those who bought tickets would get their money back, but added people won't need refunds because football is happening. He added that day he announced in Roanoke he certainly thought things would go smoother, but he'd rather take his time than rush a bad product.
"What can you say to the folks here in Roanoke that the team is coming and that they should be excited about this?" Dwyer asked.
"I don't want to say nothing, I really don't , I want them to see we put in the work," McClendon said. "To win people over with words is not my approach."
Many people have also questioned team logos and the league logos. The league logo is a copy of the Ultimate Football League, a former arena league, just with a different color scheme. Many of the team names and logos are exact copies of former arena teams in different leagues too. McClendon said those trademarks have expired and it makes good business sense to recycle them in an attempt to capture the already existing fanbases.
McClendon said players are excpected to arrive in town in the next week or two.