In just a few weeks, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) will begin play in Orlando.
This will be the eighth professional football team to call Orlando home (shout out to the Panthers, Broncos, Blazers, Renegade, Thunder, Tuskers and Rage!) and so far all of those efforts have failed. Florida Daily sat down with the CFO of the new Orlando Apollos to find out why this time it might be different.
Mike Waddell is a blur of a man when answering questions as what was supposed to be a 15 minute conversation turned into half an hour as he glided from one topic to another.
Waddell comes to the Alliance of American Football after spending time in broadcast radio at the University of North Carolina (UNC). He also worked in the athletic departments at Akron and Cincinnati before becoming the athletic director at Towson University in Maryland. From there, Waddell went to NASCAR to run the marketing, ticketing and rehabilitation of the track in Richmond.
“We flipped that place around, but I was miserable because if you are in NASCAR you don’t have anybody to cheer for because you working for a track. I am used to cheering for something,” he told Florida Daily.
He’s now charged with making something work that has never taken off before: professional football in Orlando. The way to do it is simple, Waddell said.
“We are committed first and foremost to great football,” he said.
Waddell reeled in a big name to help out in Orlando–the legendary University of Florida player and coach Steve Spurrier–the ‘Ol Ball Coach.
“It’s not just a nickname. He is a ‘ball coach’. He craves being in the huddle, being in the meeting rooms, coming up with the game plan,” Waddell said.
Waddell told Florida Daily that both he and Spurrier’s wife Jerri really wanted to be back in coaching again to have men to care for and love on. The impact of having Spurrier as the head coach cannot be understated, according to the team’s CFO.
“He is our marketing plan. He is our team right now. Soon players will make plays on the field, and that will help define what we are as a team, but as the franchise, Steve is the franchise. There is not another person we could get. Don Shula is about the only other person in Florida that I can think of when I think football,” Waddell said.
Orlando has always been a college football town, making it difficult for pro teams to succeed. The Apollos and the Alliance of American Football understand this and are trying to accommodate fans by having territorial teams. Players connected colleges in the area will stay in the region.
Waddell tells fans to get ready for familiar faces.
“We have 11 UCF Knights,” he said. “We have seven Gators. We have five Hurricanes. We have five Seminoles. We have guys from every school in the state of Florida. People already know Storm Johnson. They already know Stephen Morris. They already know Will (Thrill) Hill.”
The talent will not be the best football players in the world but Waddell says a guy like Josh Johnson is the best advertisement the AAF could have. He was the first overall pick in the quarterback draft for the San Diego franchise. When two Washington Redskins QBs broke their legs, Johnson was signed to backup veteran QB Mark Sanchez. Johnson excelled while Sanchez failed proving that, while there is no Barry Sanders in camp, there are good football players dying to become the next Kurt Warner or Rod Smart, success stories who moved up from the minors to the NFL.
“These are guys who have a chip on their shoulder, who were the last ones cut, or who got cut because the next big thing was coming in behind them and the team invested in the young kid instead of the veteran. These are guys with something to prove,” Waddell said.
The Apollos will play home games at Spectrum Stadium on UCF’s campus instead of the Citrus Bowl where other pro teams have played and failed. Simply put, Waddell wants a fun atmosphere, and a mostly full 40,000 seat stadium is a lot more fun than the same crowd in a 70,000 seat stadium.
Waddell insists there will be a party atmosphere there. For example, alcohol will be sold at Apollos games (it isn’t when UCF has a home game) .
Even with that being the case, Waddell promised that the football product will come first. Putting on quality games that get guys a chance at the big leagues is the goal.
“We are not the NFL,” he said. “We are never going to try to be the NFL. We are not trying to compete with the NFL. We are a supplemental league to the National Football League.”
The Apollos open their season at home just six days after Super Bowl Sunday. The running joke is that Saturday February 9 used to be “the Saddest Weekend in America” since it is the first without football. The tagline for the American Alliance of Football reflects that: “football doesn’t have to end.”