Force returns to Arena

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

DULUTH -- The theme surrounding Monday's news conference announcing the return of arena football to the Arena at Gwinnett Center was a combination of a return of an old tenant and a new beginning.

Gwinnett's latest sports team will represent the return of the Arena Football League, and it will retain the name and color scheme of the Georgia Force, which called the arena home for three of its previous seven-season run from 2002-08.

However, the team with the old name and color scheme will have many dramatically new components, not the least of which will be new owners and a new AFL league structure.

"The Georgia Force is back," Atlanta radio personality and news conference master of ceremonies Dave Hubbard proudly proclaimed. "New faces, new ownership, but the same great product that you are used to, maybe better than before."

The new faces include an ownership group, headed by AFL Executive Committee member Doug MacGregor and Alabama businessman Donn Jennings, who are relocating the Alabama Vipers franchise from Huntsville, Ala., to Gwinnett County.

Ron Evans will also make the move to Gwinnett as the team's president and is as excited about the opportunity that the new market presents for the team.

"We had a wonderful fan base in Huntsville, some great sponsors, another facility that just did some tremendous things for us in terms of cooperation," Evans said. "But the new AFL is growing by leaps and bounds. And frankly, the new AFL outgrew a market that size and an arena that size.

"(Gwinnett) was always the first choice. We looked at, actually, two other markets just briefly. I think this is the best market for a team to move to right now, and it was always our priority to try to come here."

The team will retain the old Georgia Force name and color scheme, which was prominently featured in Monday's news conference with the slogan, "Back In Black And Blue," and was secured when officials with the new AFL purchased them from the old Force ownership group -- headed by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank -- last winter.

The team's logo will be slightly different, and is, according to Evans, "a work in progress." The new ownership group also purchased the domain name www.georgiaforce.com from the Falcons.

Evans said the priority of the new AFL is to avoid making mistakes that led to the demise of the old AFL, which disbanded in December 2008.

That included the Force despite the success the team had both on the field -- making the playoffs in five of its seven seasons, including a berth in the 2005 Arena Bowl -- and off -- the team averaged 10,291 fans per game in its final season at the arena, 90.6 percent of the arena's capacity of 11,355.

"There's a night and day difference in the financial model of the new AFL (from) the old AFL," Evans said. "The old AFL was not modified or tweaked. It was completely done away with, in some cases, by default, rather than by design."

The new, restructured league returned this summer, with the inaugural season ending last Friday night with the Spokane Shock's 69-57 victory over the Tampa Bay Storm in the Arena Bowl.

As the Alabama Vipers, the team finished 7-9 this past season, fifth in the AFL's American Conference.

Head coach Dean Cokinos, who will move with the team to Gwinnett, is looking forward to continuing the on-field success the old Georgia Force had in the old AFL.

"We will bring players in here the community is going to embrace," said Cokinos, who will begin building the roster when the league allows teams to re-sign their own players beginning in mid-September, followed by the free agency period, which is expected to begin a month later. "You're going to be proud of the product."

Officials at the Arena at Gwinnett Center and Gwinnett County officials already are.

"We're very proud of that professional sports teams are coming ... to Gwinnett County," County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said. "The Gladiators, and the AAA baseball team (the Gwinnett Braves). ... You put all these together and you truly have a triple play."