By Jay Luster, special to Fifty Yarder
After three years in arena football, in what he describes as an amicable split, Richmond/West Virginia Roughriders Director of Operations, Marketing, Sales, Jesse Heninger is leaving the Roughriders. He says, “while it’s time for me to move in a new direction, I hope and believe I’m leaving the team in good shape moving forward.”
In both Richmond and Wheeling, Heninger, and owner Gregg Fornario, found themselves learning how to build and run an arena football team from the ground up. Jesse says, “While it was something new for us, we both have a disposition for taking risks. Gregg and I have built brands separately and together before. With the love for football in both our blood, it seemed to be a natural progression.”
“I want people to be proud of what the Roughriders have done.”
– West Virginia Roughriders Former Operations Manager, Sales, Marketing Jesse Heninger
Fornario’s background includes running a large nightclub in Wilmington, Delaware, so, despite no experience with owning a sports team he had the ambition, drive, and business skills necessary to begin a brand-new team. The adept Heninger, with his own entrepreneurial, and political background, brought with him, both behind the scenes know-how, and the amiable character needed to run the bearish Fornario’s nightclub. He continues, “Gregg and I were quite the team. The nightclub days were something I will never forget. We built something with our bare hands, and it was also one of my first experiences managing a ton of people. It was monumental for me realizing the things I could accomplish.”
While the fans come to see the game of football, it’s what happens behind the action that makes everything on the field possible. Most arena teams have small budgets, so having a guy capable of multitasking is a must. For the Roughriders, Heninger was that guy. He says, “The American Arena League provided no support for its teams, so I was learning the business from the ground up pretty much on my own.” At times, he said he “felt like a kid left throwing the ball against the wall with no parental supervision. It’s how it was in both the AAL and the Arena Pro Football league.” However, “The positive of that experience is that, with Gregg, we quickly learned how to build sponsorships, and how to communicate with and grow the fan base.”
Gregg chose to start his new team, with the help of Jack Bowman, President of the APF and later the AAL, in Richmond, Virginia. It came with a halfway decent arena, and a knowledgeable audience already in place. The city had hosted arena football teams on and off since 2002 and the last team, the Raiders, had a good reputation with the fans. They had left behind a solid roster of local players, many of whom had experience in higher leagues.
“With the Richmond Raiders of the Professional Indoor Football League leaving the city of Richmond two years prior to the Roughriders first year, we certainly found some roadblocks with trust and longevity issues as all arena teams do in regard to sponsorship and new business relationships. To be able to fill all 38 dasher pads and field signage with paying sponsorship and team trade deals was an incredible accomplishment for any arena football team. Especially for one, who at that point in time, had not yet played a single down.”
Jack Bowman, who has since passed away, had experience in Richmond and knew people in town, and at the Coliseum. His help gave the Roughriders a bit of a head start. However, that was pretty much the last time the Riders managers felt they had the league in their corner. The team lasted two seasons in the Richmond Coliseum, where they built a reputation as a winning program. During those two years, the Roughriders lost only two games, played in two championships, and won one.
During their second season, rumors began circulating the city was planning to close the Coliseum. Heninger says, “We started hearing ominous rumblings, and then we got a heads up from the property managers at the SMG Headquarters located in the Coliseum just down the hall from our office. They wanted us to stay informed as things progressed. Soon those rumblings showed up on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper. With uncertainty the stadium would even be standing in 2019, it became clear the Roughriders days in the city of Richmond were numbered.”
Despite efforts by the team and fans to convince the city otherwise, the Coliseum closed. Now homeless, they needed to decide quickly if they were going to fold the team or try moving it. Once they decided to remain in business, Fornario and Heninger began looking for a new city with a building adequate to the needs of a growing football team.
“Finding an arena and host city in an off-season is one thing, but finding the correct city and arena is something else entirely. Wheeling, West Virginia, and the newly renovated WesBanco Arena, was exactly what we were looking for. It checked off all the boxes. With a popular arena football franchise, ten years prior, The Ohio Valley Greyhounds, and the Wheeling Nailers, a successful ECHL Minor-League Hockey team, already in place for over two decades, we knew there was potential for something special, and just as importantly, stable here.”
At the same time, Fornario was also working on possibly starting his own league. Considering how little help the AAL was to them, it’s easy to understand why they wanted to move on. Continuing, Jesse says, “A truly professional league should be something all of its teams are proud to be a part of. A networking source and foundation to help all of its affiliated teams become stronger and united. You need a professional resource to rely upon and a brand name to raise all the teams to an equal standard. The AAL was none of these things.”
After an off season, which included a whirlwind tour of practically every adequately sized stadium in the mid-Atlantic region, they found exactly what they were looking for in Wheeling, West Virginia. WesBanco Arena. was built in 1977, and despite its advancing age, was perfect for the Riders. Unlike the 13,500 seat cavernous Richmond Coliseum, the more intimate WesBanco seats 5,000, which seems to be the ideal number for indoor football teams. It came with better locker rooms, decent broadcasting facilities, and a football crazy fan base. Best of all, being close to West Virginia University, there is a deep well of local talent available to build a team upon.
“The undefeated, and championship success of the West Virginia Roughriders in our inaugural year in West Virginia, was due, in part, to the incredible support and guidance given to us by all the folks at WesBanco. The arena staff and front office quickly became an extension of the Roughriders brand. It allowed for open-ended, and honest communication, which helped give us the ability to fully realize our vision for the city and the brand. I would venture to say that without their support system, the return of arena football might never have happened in ‘The Friendly City.'”
Finally, with the move to West Virginia complete, the Roughriders had to decide which league to join. Unable to get their new league off the ground, they took a look, for the second year in a row, at the National Arena League. However, with its pretensions of being an upper-echelon league, it has a steep affiliation fee, and requires a three-year commitment from its members. Even with that, the league still has issues with bottom feeder teams not fulfilling their responsibilities to the rest of the league. The Arena Football League is considered the major league of minor-league football, and with that comes onerous affiliation fees, as well as a collective-bargaining agreement paying their players at a rate well out of step with the rest of the arena football world. Basically, it’s a billionaire’s ball club, and unless you like losing money, it’s not a place to make a long-term commitment on a blue-collar budget.
The Indoor Football League and Champions Indoor Football league teams are almost all located in the Midwest, which would raise traveling costs for the Riders and their playing partners. Fornario has said, “When you’re thinking about arena football, smaller is better. Fewer games, shorter travel distances, and low ticket prices.” Unfortunately, that left an unsatisfying return to the AAL, but Jesse saw it as an opportunity to, as he put it, “rally the new fan base around the Roughriders flag.”
With the off-season clock quickly winding down, Jesse put his Richmond experience to good use. He hired a capable sales staff, and they filled every dasher pad with sponsorship deals from local businesses. He says, “We hired a staff of incredibly dedicated professionals, students, and entrepreneurs. Our vision was to utilize their local connections in the Ohio Valley while financially benefiting everyone. It was a total win/win. We sold over 90% of our entire advertising inventory on game days, and that allowed us to meet local businesses and their employees in the surrounding areas. This further expanded the growth of our brand at a crucial time for our franchise.”
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of the Riders move is how unusual it is for the existing ownership of a team, at any level of professional sports, to move their name brand from one city to another. One famous example was the Baltimore Colts moving to Indianapolis. Like the Richmond Coliseum, the stadium in Baltimore had aged out of usefulness and with the plans for a new stadium facing a complicated future, the Colts chose to make the move.
Unlike an NFL team, the Roughriders played in the AAL, which has sadly gained an unfortunate reputation as a 2nd-rate league. However, even with that impediment, to the credit of Roughriders management, the team still lured a deep pool of talent to both Richmond and Wheeling. Along the way, the team has had players like former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Greg Hardy, Superbowl Champion Robert Meachem, and arena football stalwarts like Larry Beavers, Ellis Lankster, Robert Kent, and Arvell Nelson.
Of having recognizable name talent, Heninger says, “Having the big-name players definitely helps sell tickets and sponsorships. The fans come out to see their favorite former NFL or college star who adds to the excitement and magic of the experience.” Describing it like a chain reaction, he continues, “The players bolster the roster with skill and experience, which generates fan excitement and new sponsorships and merchandising. For four months, those players truly become part of the local community.”
While signing those players may have been Player Personnel Director Andrew Germain’s and Gregg Fornario’s responsibility, getting the word out was Jesse’s job. He cultivated relationships with the local press, as well as the writers working for general sports and arena football websites. He says, “Because professional arena football is a niche sport, the power and utilization of social media platforms are paramount. Even more than an attractive website, a team’s social media presence becomes an extension of the branding and a living pulse for the team and the fans to interact, advertise, announce, and candidly communicate with the fan base. With a staff of four game-day photographers in Richmond and sometimes six or more in Wheeling, I made it a point to over-deliver incredible images of every single game and event the Roughriders took part in.”
Because there is no NFL Network, or ESPN dedicated to minor-league football, it is the responsibility of each team to raise its visibility within its own marketplace. He continues, “It’s imperative the fans are included in every bit of news. The Roughriders players and organization have done great things, and I wanted the world to see it.” For all their hard work, Heninger, and the Roughriders, led the league in attendance, and finished their first season in Wheeling undefeated, and in possession of the Jack Bowman Trophy as AAL Champions.
Though he is credited with putting the team on the media map in both Richmond and Wheeling, Jesse is quick to share credit with all the capable people who helped put the Rider vision into action. When asked, the first people he mentions are Tracy and Doug Hynes. He says, “There are some people who, when you look back in time, you realize you would not have been able to do without. Those were Doug and Tracy. Doug Hynes was the PA Announcer for the Richmond Raiders Arena Football Team and was one of the first people to introduce us to the city of Richmond. Not only would Doug become our incredible “Voice of the Roughriders” on gameday, but he also introduced us to his wife Tracy, who became The Roughriders “Gameday Operations Manager.” He adds, “Sometimes in life, when starting large ventures, you could use a little luck and a lot of help. They provided both of those things for us.”
Another person he eagerly shared credit with is Eric Doty from On The Road Media. Heninger says, “I can’t say enough about Eric. He reached out to me way before I even moved to the City of Wheeling in December of 2018. He was a local photographer/entrepreneur with a true and vested interest in the Ohio Valley region as he had lived there his entire life. Eric was the first person who made me believe in the power and magic of Wheeling, West Virginia. He was excited for the area because he knew how much football meant to the people of the Ohio Valley, and how much they truly needed it. I am not sure if he knows this, but without him, we wouldn’t have accomplished what we did.”
While those were some of the big players on the inside, there were also people on the outside Jesse wanted to share credit with as well. A consultant on websites and ticket chart graphic design work, he says, “Trey Braid has been a lifesaver and a fantastic mentor to myself and Gregg since the latter half of 2017. Not only has he been the creative mind behind the Roughriders website and countless others around arena football (NAL, CIF, IFL, AAL, etc.), but he has also been an amazing beacon of knowledge and insight for myself as I became more and more familiar with a sport he has known for years.” In today’s market, a brand’s website is its business card. For a local minor-league sports franchise, it may be the first interaction fans have with the team. If the website is unprofessional, the perception of the team could be damaged. With Braid’s help, the Riders business card is attractive and accessible.
Another resource Heninger mentioned was the many professional and amateur journalists and enthusiasts also putting the word out about the Riders and the sport of arena football. Among those he mentioned are Jeff Bluemenauer and Chris Thoburn of “Rough N Ready,” which became the Roughriders Official Fan Page, Tyler Fankhauser (Beneath The Deck), Stephen Ur III (Inside The Arena), Paul Beckwith (Fifty Yarder), Arena Football Talk, R.J. Ciancio (AFN Talk), and Lockedin Magazine. People like this keep the discussion alive by bringing real news, opinions, and conjecture to Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Saying farewell to the Roughriders, and Riders Nation wasn’t an easy decision, but Heninger felt, with the team in good shape moving forward and lots of time left to go in the off-season, Fornario should have as much time as possible to replace him. When asked if he would consider staying in the arena football world, he says, “My time in arena football has been nothing but hard work and pure magic, and if you could tell me that could happen again somewhere else, I’d listen for sure.”
Though he has no definite plans as of yet, like all risk-taking entrepreneurs he is betting on himself to create his own future possibilities. In the meantime, he says, “I want people to be proud of what the Roughriders have done,” and he is going to “continue to live my life passionately.”
Jay Luster is the former editor and publisher of Arena Football Insider. His former site may be no longer with us, but Jay has continued to follow and write about arena and indoor football.