SALT LAKE CITY — This past week, the Utah Blaze became the second Arena Football League franchise to be evicted from its designated home during the 2013 season.
The Blaze were removed from EnergySolutions Arena last Thursday for failure to address financial obligations. The franchise owes $120,000 in rent from six previous home games in Salt Lake City this season. As of Saturday afternoon, the franchise remained an inactive tenant, but Blaze owner Kim Brown said that discussions are ongoing with the Larry H. Miller Group to negotiate a down payment to return before this Saturday's game against San Jose.
She said it could potentially get done as early as Tuesday.
As part of the process, the Blaze, according to Brown, are close to finalizing a contract with a real estate developer in Chicago for an investment of a "sizable amount" that would help get the Blaze back inside their home.
"He has signed off on the contract itself except for these separate stipulations that we just basically all agreed last night," Brown said. "We're coming up with an addendum that he will sign and then we'll get it done hopefully this weekend."
Brown says she understands the actions of her team's landlord.
"(The Larry H. Miller Group) had to have a procedure happen of possibly evicting us. I understand this is all business and we had to get on or off the pot kind of thing," Brown said. "It actually created a sense of urgency of the investor realizing that we have a great foundation. Yes, there's some past that we have to clean up, but we need you to jump onboard now or we won't have this. It was unfortunate, but in the end this investor is extremely impressed with the game plan."
Considering the franchise didn't have other viable contingency plans, the undisclosed investor wanted certain assurances to feel comfortable with the partnership, Brown said.
"He wanted us to put a little bit more money into or find investors from his standpoint there," Brown said. "It's hard to find people in a sports investment in a community in Chicago that don't know our market. He was having some resistance understanding that sports investment teams are a whole different ball game.
"We had to give a commitment that if in fact we can't raise it from other avenues, that if we did hit another (problem) — where we need the cash — that we would have to try and find it ourselves. He wanted to have assurances."
Brown suggested involving the community to raise greater awareness and support for the franchise.
"We're doing the best we can, bringing in our own money, but we really need to have the community help rally as well," Brown said. "It takes the community to support this team. When they feel ownership of, 'This is our team' and they can be supported like (the) Green Bay Packers as part of our ownership."
However, an ever-increasing concern is attendance. Blaze ticket sales have decreased substantially this year compared to last season. According to ArenaFan.com, average attendance has dropped from 8,800 in 2012 to 6,100 in 2013.
"I think a lot of it is going to be the social marketing side of it. If you look at our Facebook fans, we have 18,000 Facebook fans," Brown said when asked how the franchise plans to generate interest to stay afloat. "Apparently we're not doing enough to resonate with those people to get them out to games. I know Larry Miller went through this when there was a chance the Jazz were going to be leaving our market. The fans made a huge difference in coming and supporting their team."
The Blaze are the second franchise this season to be evicted as tenants. The Chicago Rush were ousted from Allstate Arena in early May after previous owner David Staral Jr.'s $50,000 check bounced. The AFL proceeded to temporarily move the Rush to the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford, Ill., while taking control of the franchise.
When asked why the investor elected to provide financial support to the Blaze instead of the hometown Rush franchise, Brown said the process in Chicago moved faster than he wanted.
"He had tried to come to the Chicago deal, but they were wanting someone to move really quickly," Brown said. "At that point he couldn't. He does a lot of due diligence."
Though the franchise owes $120,000 in rent, players and coaches have been compensated fully this season. Brown, who inherited majority ownership in January, says that the breach of contractual payments extended into the debt left behind from the previous ownership.
She claims she didn't know how bad it was when she took over.
"To be honest, when I came on I knew there was a loss last year, but I was not aware of the hundreds of thousands of dollars of the losses that had not been paid," Brown said. "We started moving forward and realized that we were not going to be able to fund this whole thing all the way through. We realized that we had to get other investors onboard. We communicated very honestly with the commissioner about investors that would like to partner with us."
With three of the team's final five regular season games scheduled in Salt Lake City, Brown said she's "99.9 percent" confident the Blaze will be back inside EnergySolutions Arena before Saturday.
"I'm so convinced," Brown said. "I don't know if I ever give anything 100 percent because an act of God and we could have an earthquake. But, I know that we have the league that's going to help us. We've got the investor that's going to help us. Baring an earthquake, I see us playing."
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