April 16, 2018

With little buildup, the Massachusetts Pirates seek to revive arena football in Worcester

PHOTO/GRANT WELKER
Jawad Yatim, the Massachusetts Pirates president, announces the arena football team in November alongside (from left) Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty; Timothy Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce; and City Manager Ed Augustus.

In football terms, Worcester arena football is on third down.

That means it's crunch time for the Massachusetts Pirates, the third team to call Worcester home.

It was a fast turnaround from November – when the team was announced – to form a roster, land sponsors and develop a fan base.

"It's been a great learning experience being thrown into the fire like this and taking this challenge head-on," said Jawad Yatim, the team's president and co-owner with his father, Hassan Yatim.

The Yatim family of Shrewsbury, the owners of Yatco Energy, which has 17 gas stations across the area, decided to bring a team to the area after seeing a void in the market. They're novice owners in a fledgling league, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of football during the months when the New England Patriots aren't playing.

"Everything they've done has exceeded our expectations," said Sandy Dunn, the general manager of the DCU Center, where the Pirates will play eight home games through early August.

A short history

The Pirates, who opened their season April 7, mark a return of arena football to Worcester, months after the Worcester Railers brought the third incarnation of minor league hockey to the city.

A previous arena league team, the New England Surge, played in Worcester in 2007 and 2008 in the now-defunct Continental Indoor Football League. Another short-lived team, the Massachusetts Marauders, played in 1994 in the Arena Football League.

Yatim said he expects crowds of 6,000 to 8,000 per game but did not disclose ticket or corporate sponsorship numbers. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported attendance of 5,500 for the Pirates' first game.

Many tickets have been sold outside Central Massachusetts, including Greater Boston, he said, where the team will run a bus to make it easier for fans to catch games in Worcester. Tickets start at $10 per game.

For those who can't catch a game, NESN will show rebroadcasts in the days following each game.

The National Arena League has undergone change since last year's inaugural season. The six-team league, stretching from Maine to Jacksonville, Fla., had five teams fold after last season and brought on three new teams.

Making it entertaining

Arena football is meant to be faster and higher-scoring than what fans might be used to with college football or the NFL. The field is the size of a hockey rink, just 50 yards long and half the size of an outdoor field. Teams can score in the 50s, 60s or even 70s, racing up and down the field in a way that can make even the Patriots' offense look tame.

Each of the Pirates' 24 players make $150 per game. Unlike minor-league baseball or hockey, players aren't signed to any specific major league club. Players are still hoping to make the NFL nonetheless.

"The main thing is getting film," Yatim said of players' hopes for football stardom. "That's why these guys do it. As long as you have film, you're giving yourself a shot."

Dunn compared arena football to a mix of NFL and professional wrestling.

"This is really as much about the entertainment aspect as it is about the football," she said.

But Yatim said he also wants the on-field product to draw fans itself.

"I ultimately want to get to the point where the product sells itself," he said.

Worcester's minor-league role model

The Pirates would be happy to match the success of the Railers, whose first season was a success on-ice and at the box office. The team snuck into a final playoff spot and averaged nearly 4,400 fans a game, only a few dozen behind the ECHL league average.

That attendance mark exceeds that of the Worcester Sharks in the team's nine seasons in Worcester, despite the Sharks playing in the higher-level American Hockey League. The Railers vastly beat attendance in two other cities – Manchester, N.H., with 2,793 and Norfolk, Va., with 2,602 – where the ECHL also replaced departed AHL franchises.

Railers President Mike Myers attributed the team's success to a range of efforts, including community outreach long before the team first played a game and a game schedule packed with special promotions, themed jerseys for players or fan giveaways.

"We were selling an idea," he said. "We're not selling hockey."

Myers, who helped run the predecessor Worcester Sharks, said he's seen a change in how fans in the Worcester area support their teams, with less of what he called a naysaying attitude.

"They want to see good things happen here and want to support the city," he said.

The city, meanwhile, sees entertainment options like the Pirates as another way to bring people to Worcester to enjoy themselves. Mayor Joseph Petty said Worcester has gained in popularity by offering dining and entertainment for a more affordable price than in Boston.

Petty predicted the Pirates would do well based on past success for teams in the city.

"It's good entertainment for a reasonable price," he said. "I think Worcester will support it."

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