2015 will be the fifth season of SteelHawks football in the Lehigh Valley. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with SteelHawks General Manager and Executive Vice President Mike Clark, to discuss the SteelHawks 2015 season and the move to the new PPL Center in Allentown.
Kram: Congratulations on your move to the brand new PPL Center. It seemed to be the worst-kept secret in the Lehigh Valley. Was the move a foregone conclusion? Were there any issues with the move that you didn’t anticipate?
Mike Clark: Yeah, worst-kept is an understatement. But, no, everything with the negotiations went as expected. I guess the only thing was the delays with the arena deal itself and the construction which didn’t allow us to complete our deal in time for LAST season. We’ve been welcomed by the Arena and the Phantoms organization–we’re thrilled, and this is going to take us to a new level.
Kram: Parking is a big concern for the fans overall–be it concerts or hockey or now SteelHawks Professional Indoor Football. What are your thoughts on the matter, and what was your personal experience when you were downtown the other night?
MC: I went to Tom Petty the other night, as you said, and I was shocked. It was a sold-out concert of 10,000 people, and I got out, and home to Bethlehem in 15 minutes. The traffic flow was great. And, while we’d love to have 10,000 for SteelHawks, it will certainly be less. And the other advantage for the Phantoms and SteelHawks games is that the parking will be $6.00 rather than the $10.00 for concerts. The other great part for the SteelHawks is, a lot of those kinks will be worked out before our season starts in the Spring. But my first experience, at only their second event there, was great. I was also impressed with their security down there.
Kram: Over the past five years, a tailgating culture has grown surrounding the SteelHawks games. Do you think there might be an opportunity to get permission from the City of Allentown to designate one lot as a “tailgating lot?”
MC: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. What the city is trying to do, is bring folks downtown to patronize the restaurants and bars in that area–and with three restaurants built right into the arena, it’s probably not going to work. One of the draws of downtown, now, is the food and beverage. What we’re trying to do, from an interactive standpoint, is use the area on that corner for, say, moon-bounces and so on to create a kind of party-atmosphere outside the gates on game days. We’ll try to create a pre-game celebration that way. Inside, perhaps Chickie’s and Pete’s will have some kind of tailgate-party scenario.
Kram: There are a variety of “premium” seating and luxury group areas in the new arena. Will any of those be available on a game-by-game basis for SteelHawks football?
MC: Yes, groups will be able to purchase or sponsor any of the available luxury areas, including the “bunker” ice-level suites for corporate outings or such, or in conjunction with sponsorships.
Kram: What color will the field be? –PLEASE tell me green….
MC: Umm…no comment… I cannot divulge that at this time. Well, I CAN tell you it won’t be red and blue, like Trenton. But it will be our field, with our sponsors, and it will be brand new turf. That should alleviate some of the problems we’ve had in the past with the used turf.
Kram: The arena has a wide variety of concession areas. Will they all be open and available to SteelHawks fans on game days?
MC: Yup. Everything will be open, and available for our fans.
Kram: I see the upper level–200 level–isn’t shown on your seating chart. Will it be open?
MC: At the moment, no, we’re only going to be selling tickets in the lower bowl. We have the ability to open it, if need be, if the ticket sales demand it. That would be a good problem to have.
Kram: The AHL hockey schedule is out, and the PIFL schedule is expected soon. Do you think there’s an opportunity for a “downtown doubleheader” where both the SteelHawks and Phantoms play on the same day? (I think that would be a great sports day downtown–come down and park once, go out to eat between games, and stay all day.)
MC: Rob Brooks from the Phantoms alluded to that during our press conference. There’s a very distinct possibility; it could definitely happen. For this season, with the way our schedule is looking, it might depend somewhat on the Phantom’s playoff schedule–as well as other events the arena might have in the works during that time. Right now, we’re looking at opening up in early April, second week. And I don’t think we’d want to do that for our very first opener at PPL Center, but thinking past that, it will probably depend on the Phantom’s playoff schedule–if they make it, and we hope they do. The changeover from football to hockey–or vice versa–can happen in under three hours, if it needs to happen.
Kram: Will SteelHawks’ gear be available in the Phantom’s shop? Or just on SteelHawks game days?
MC: We’ll have a kiosk set up during the SteelHawks games. But, if fans need gear–or even personalized, we can always do that through our Bethlehem office. We’ll also have a presence there during hockey games sometimes, distributing season ticket information and the like. It’s a very nice relationship with the Phantoms.
Kram: The next few questions are about the 2015 team: This is the time of year when each franchise is quite optimistic about their chances to be competitive. I see you’ve signed a few players already–and other than the new arena–is there anything that has you more optimistic than usual for the upcoming season? For, perhaps another trip to the playoffs or another trip to the Championship game?
MC: Veteran leadership. Players like Larry Ford and Brandon Renford who are going to be around for, now, their third season with the team. It’s always good to have that presence around–both on the field, as well as in the community. It’s still early in the recruiting process, and we’ve had players calling us, as opposed to having to go out and call them. I think we’ve developed a reputation–as far as the way players are treated here–around the league–if they hear good things about a place it makes the recruiting process easier.
Kram: Has the arena helped with recruiting?
MC: Huge. It’s been huge in the recruiting process. We just had Jeff Morgan, starting LB for Trenton last year–we signed him the other day–took him on a tour, and he was just in awe. He hurt us big-time last year when he played against us. I think last year when they played us here he had an interception return for a TD and a fumble return for a TD. To get a player like that, it’s huge to have the arena as kind of a “closer.” I mean, I think this is going to be the best arena in indoor football, AFL included. The amenities and newness–the facilities as far as the locker rooms–it’s going to blow this sport out of the water. We like to say, “We’re going from the shack to the mansion.”
Kram: You mentioned Trenton. I know there’s a rivalry with our neighbors to the Southeast, what with coaches and players moving between the teams. Would you characterize the rivalry as a friendly one? Or, more heated?
MC: Heated. I would say. It’s heated. But, I love their ownership group, and from a business perspective the growing rivalry–it’s good for our sport. And, only an hour away, there’s going to be a lot of players switching teams. We swapped kickers. We got their star LB and their first-team DE. They got our star DB–two of them. One was our team MVP. There’s gonna be that battle for players, and it’s gonna be a very, very heated rivalry on the football side of it.
Kram: Watching the team last season, I felt like defense was a key to the team’s success. Do you agree? And do you expect that to be a strength of the 2015 squad?
MC: I’m a defensive guy. I think defenses win you championships–especially in this sport, because it’s so predicated on offense. When you get those three to four stops per game on defense, you should win. Our defense was huge last season–especially in those first four games, allowing us to jump out 4-0, is what got us into the playoffs. In addition to DL Larry Ford and LB Jeffery Morgan (from Trenton) we’ve signed DL Gerald Bryant who had 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss.
Defense, in my opinion, is something you’ve got to get early, and keep building on it. Without a pass rush in this game, well, and strong D-backs–you’re not going to win many games. We’ve got to get those 3-4 stops. I love defense. When we get those star defensive recruits to sign, It’s exciting.
Kram: A couple questions about the league–the PIFL: I’ve heard rumors about expansion. Is there anything to that?
MC: We’re definitely going to have our eight teams, and whether we can get to ten this year–we should know more in the next week, week-and-a-half. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if we have as many as six new teams for the 2016 season. But we’ll have to see. For now, I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance we go to 10 teams for 2015–some teams might like to start early in the process for 2016 in order to start building their brand.
Kram: Given the possibilities of expansion, do you foresee a time when the schedule might expand from six home games?
MC: I don’t think so. I think the owners really like the 12-game schedule. Once you expand to 14–that would only be one more game at home–that’s a whole extra month of the season, and overhead, for that one home game. It’s more taxing on the teams, players, and front offices, that extra month. But we’ll never go down–I think 12 is where we’re going to be. A lot of our teams share buildings with hockey, too, so that’s part of it.
Kram: Last season many of us who are fans were, uh, disappointed with the quality of the officiating. Is that something that’s being addressed league-wide?
MC: Yeah, I think a lot of the owners, and our league, were not too impressed with the officiating last season. At our league meetings in early November, probably expansion is topic 1, but officiating and where we see growing and improving the officiating will be topic 1-A. I’m sure every team feels like more bad calls went against them, rather than for them. It’s definitely a huge topic of concern, at the ownership level, for when we go to league meetings.
I’d like to thank Mike for his time. It was great talking SteelHawks football with him. Lunch at Black Forest Deli isn’t too bad, either!
Season ticket packages are on sale now, for the 2015 season at the PPL Center. You can fill out an inquiry form here. Or, you can call the SteelHawks at 610-282-3100 to choose your seats. Season ticket packages start at just $48.00!
See you at the arena!