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Force, Arena talking
Football team mulls return to Gwinnett

DULUTH - One of the Arena at Gwinnett Center's first stars could return to the Duluth venue.

Officials are in talks with the Georgia Force arena football team, which played two seasons in Gwinnett before moving to Atlanta's Philips Arena for the 2005 season.

"We're having some significant conversations with Philips, and we've also had conversations with the Gwinnett Arena," said Reggie Roberts, who is a spokesman for the Force as well as the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. Both teams are owned by Home Depot founder Arthur Blank. "It's still very premature at this point. We're trying to figure out what's in our best interest."

Because the Force, along with the minor-league hockey team Gwinnett Gladiators, generated large interest and attracted crowds to the Duluth venue in its infancy, fans and officials are excited about the opportunity of bringing the team back.

"They had a real good thing brewing here (in 2003-2004)," Duluth resident Erik Richards said. "All they were missing was the management and the resources to get the talent."

Richards, who considers himself a "mega fan," said the team's talent has drastically improved, so near-capacity crowds would quickly return if the team came back to the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"I feel like, had they stayed here, it would have been the toughest ticket in town. I think they would be a fool not to come back," he said. "I'm very excited about the possibility they are going to come home."

Earlier this month, the Force lost an Arena Football League conference championship game, ending the season short of today's Arena Bowl game.

Roberts said several factors, including the stadium atmosphere, are driving the team's decision.

And Richards said the environment in Philips and Gwinnett are drastically different.

Though the two venues often saw the same size crowd - 10,000 to 12,000 fans per game - the Duluth facility would be packed while the larger Atlanta arena would "look like a ghost town."

"You put 10,000 to 12,000 fans in an 18,000-seat arena, it looks half full," he said. In Gwinnett, "it felt more intimate and more full. ... The electricity in the place looks alive."

Traveling to games throughout the country, Richards said smaller, intimate venues worked best for the Arena Football League, where sidelines are nonexistent and balls are often projected into the crowd.

"Arena football is more of a neighborhood team, where people can rally around them and not have to pay so much to go see an NFL team," Commissioner Kevin Kenerly said. "I'd like to see them come back. I thought it was sad when they left because I thought this was where they belonged."

Preston Williams, manager of the Gwinnett Center, declined to talk about conversations with the team, but he said he would be thrilled to have the team back.

"I think the Force certainly helped add a bit of a buzz or a bang to the opening of the arena (in 2003)," he said. "They did well here, and we were happy to have them. If something happens to allow them to come back, we'd be happy about it. Our fans and supporters were sad to see them go."

Richards said he was disappointed when the team left for Atlanta, and a lot of his friends lost interest. But many, he said, would come back if the team were closer.

"I have hundreds of friends that have given up on them," he said, adding that he has a hard time giving away tickets to neighbors and business acquaintances.

"The drive is not the issue. It was knowing that we are going to a huge, monstrous arena. The sport can't do that. It's not a knock against the team or the sport. It's a niche," Richards said.

In Gwinnett, "it's almost like the place was built for arena football." (Actually, it was built with the Force in mind.) "It's set up so everyone is going to be close to the action. That's what makes this sport so great."

Roberts said officials had no timeline to decide on a venue but would like to wrap up the process before practice for next season begins in the fall.

"We're trying to gather as much information as possible from our friends at Philips and our friends in Gwinnett," he said.