Horsin' Around

According to team President and CEO Ron Borkowski, Chad Spencer, the precocious 6'4", 235-lb receiver for the Lexington Horsemen, likes to dance.

During games.

With the other team's dance squad.

Sure, sounds crazy; but know that Spencer has his limits.

In the midst of one particular Horsemen contest this season against the Ft. Wayne Freedom, he and defensive back Champ Kelly trotted out onto the field to commence their groove. But after eyeing the midriffs of the dozen dancers (officially known as the "Spirit of Freedom") around him, Spencer declared point-blank, "Girls, you need to do some ab work."

And with that-and no doubt also with some sort of sly smile-he strolled back to the Horsemen bench.

Dancing done.

"That's the kind of stuff you would hate to lose," laughed Borkowski, commenting on how much he enjoys and has bonded with the players on his 2003 roster.

And that's also the kind of stuff that has made the Horsemen's inaugural National Indoor Football (NIFL) season so successful.

Laughter. Fun stuff.

Like radio-controlled blimps flying about Rupp Arena, dropping paper prizes to game patrons. Like letting the crowd keep the 385 or so footballs that found their way into the stands over the course of the season. Like four fans boogying mid-field with the Fillies (the Horsemen dancers) and a big-screen TV give-away during the last home game: "Fan Appreciation Night." Like being able to lean over the not-so-soft field walls and talk shop with players just before they fly down the field to cover a kickoff (that is, if you have appropriate press credentials).

And like winning. Winning is fun. Winning is good.

The Horsemen did just enough of it during the regular season, finishing 9-5-second in the Atlantic conference East division-and earning the conference's last wild-card slot in the NIFL playoffs. (The team's 5th loss came in the regular season finale at the aforementioned Freedom, a game in which the Horsemen rested several banged-up starters because the result was inconsequential to the playoff picture.) Pretty respectable for a first-year squad. In fact, Horsemen officials believe that only one other expansion team has ever made the NIFL playoffs (this year's Pacific West champs, the Utah Warriors).

"I was surprised with how successful we were, because it sometimes takes a while to get used to indoor football," admitted Borkowski, speaking not only about Lexington's many wins but also about its league-leading 7,858-person average home attendance. "Getting Tony (Franklin) as a coach has been a big asset. Having him and Dusty (Bonner, the team's quarterback) aboard really brought the other players."

And those other players-at least sixteen of whom played for the University of Kentucky at some point in college-brought to town a ton of talent (hence the nine victories) and familiarity (hence the 3,500 season ticket holders, coming to watch athletes they knew).

For their efforts, the guys get some good times-and a NIFL-restricted $200 bucks a game (only if they dress). That amount is something Borkowski would like the league office to change; specifically, he'd like to see the players on each game's winning team be paid an incentive.

But not every team may have the luxury to dish out more dough for a W. For though semi-pro sports franchises are typically more fan-friendly than big league clubs, they are also more financially fragile. Over the past couple of years, several NIFL franchises have hit the skids. And this past season one team, the Austin Rockers, actually posted on its web site that it had lost money.

But don't look for the Horsemen to ride out of town soon. Borkowski believes that good business practices are the simple solution to staying afloat.

"You get what you pay for. You've got to understand that you've got to be able to market. But a lot of the teams have no marketing or sales reps; they try to bring in a big name coach, but he alone doesn't sell tickets. I don't know how you can run a business without selling something.

"We have a very strong marketing team. So we're in for the long haul. Our commitment with Rupp goes seven years plus extensions. We're pleased with what we've got, and we can only build on it.

"We've got a successful franchise here."

The numbers affirm that. Borkowski's effusive energy affirms that. The players' attitudes do too.

After each game at Rupp, the Horsemen hang out on the turf for a meet-and-greet with the fans. By their countenances and conversation, you can tell the guys are truly glad that people are there to see them, and players are in no hurry for the crowd, especially the big-eyed kids, to leave. In fact, Borkowski says it's hard to get the team off the field and out the building.

Because this fast-paced brand of football, this franchise, this fleeting time in their lives is way too much fun.

Lexington plays at the Ohio Valley Greyhounds (based in Wheeling, W.Va.) Friday, July 11, at 7:30 in the opening round of the playoffs. Ohio Valley is the defending NIFL champs and winners of 28 of its last 29, including an undefeated season this year in which it downed Lexington twice.