The Carolina Ghostriders, Asheville’s newest sports franchise, is, by all accounts, off to a shaky start. Until 10 weeks ago the Ghostriders, part of the 16-team American Indoor Football League, didn’t even have a home, and their arrival in Asheville after a year as a winless traveling team didn’t exactly set local pigskin fans on fire. What’s more, given the Asheville Civic Center’s long history of failed minor-league franchises — the Smoke, the Aces, the Altitude and the Smokies — and the facility’s badly aging arena, the team’s future here seems uncertain at best.
In spite of all the doubts, however, we wanted to see for ourselves what the team has to offer, so Xpress sent two veteran writers — avid sports fan Brian Sarzynski and avid nonfan Steve Shanafelt — to take in the Ghostriders’ first home game on March 3.
What follows are excerpts from their on-the-scene report.
As the crowd filters into their seats, both teams take the field and begin a series of drills and stretches.
Steve Shanafelt: Is it just me, or do the players seem kind of small?
Brian Sarzynski: Why don’t you walk out there onto the field and say that?
SS: I’m serious. Even in high school, there were some enormously huge guys who played football. These guys are only kind of huge. Is the warm-up routine they’re doing fairly typical?
BS: Yeah, warm-ups are fairly typical to sports.
SS: Like I’d know that. I played Dungeons and Dragons in high school, not football.
BS: Your pale complexion validates that claim.
SS: But I can rattle off combat stats for bizarre monsters you’ve never even heard of.
BS: That’s a cry for help.
Field of (bad) dreams
AIFL football, modeled on the better-known Arena Football League, is played on a 50-yard field that’s half the size of a regular field. Hockey arenas are often used to host indoor-football games, but the facilities vary from venue to venue.
SS: The first thing that strikes me as strange is how low the walls are. Also worth noting is the large, inflated Ingles grocery bag in the end zone. It looks like there wasn’t enough room to fit it anywhere else.
BS: Look at this stuff — there’s Styrofoam duct-taped to the side of the wall. But not here in the end zone [smacking the bare wall with his hand], because this won’t hurt.
SS: I thought this looked deadly. It seems like, assuming you’re over 5 feet tall, if you hit one of the barriers you’d just fly over it. And it looks like everything on the field was bought used.
BS: This is the old hockey rink; the Smoke used to play on this! And what is up with the turf? It’s all spray-painted. They just duct-taped it down too.
SS: Not to mention the high-quality, PVC toilet-piping goalposts.
Playing in black-and-white jerseys, the Augusta Spartans take the field to a barrage of boos and wisecracks from the crowd. The team doesn’t seem particularly concerned about not being the hometown favorites.
BS: Who are these guys?
SS: The Spartans, from Augusta.
BS: We’re gonna open a can of mountain whoopass on them.
SS: You think?
BS: Oh yeah.
SS: I’m betting that they take this game. They seem prepared; they don’t look jittery at all. Then again, I’ve been a fan of the Spartans ever since the Battle of Thermopylae.
The home team
Emerging from the locker room into a smoke-machine fog, the Ghostriders are welcomed onto the field with great enthusiasm. Different parts of the arena erupt for different players, suggesting that at least some athletes have brought in their own cheering sections.
SS: They’re wearing these Carolina Panthers-type uniforms, all black and blue. Very … ahem … imaginative. They seem to be in good spirits, considering they lost their first game of the season last week.
BS: They did?
SS: Yeah, by like 30 points. But this is their first home game, so I can see why they’d be enthusiastic. This whole experience is right out of high school. Except for the smoke machine, which is more novelty heavy-metal-tribute act. A bunch of people are going nuts, yelling for a team that has yet to do anything other than be from the same town as the people in the seats. Here’s your pageantry; here’s your spectacle.
BS: I just saw a guy fall over the duct tape!
SS: That’s not a shock, given the state of the AstroTurf. Come to think of it, that would be a great tradition to start: We could rename them the Asheville Pratfalls.
Within seconds of the kickoff, the Spartans score a touchdown. Part of the appeal of indoor football is the game’s rapid pace, the quick turnovers and high scores, but the ease of the Spartans’ touchdown doesn’t seem to bode well for the Ghostriders.
SS: Something tells me this is going to be a shutout. We aren’t even halfway finished with the first quarter, and I’m already kind of bored. Dazed, really. I’m also hoping that the Ghostriders continue their losing streak. It’s a lot more interesting for them to be horrible and to keep losing games than it is for them to just be mediocre and win a few. They went through their entire first season without winning a game. Why change now?
BS: I’m going on the record here: I’m very reluctant to like this. I feel like a jaded lover. I’ve been burned too many times by amateur sports in the Civic Center. The Smoke won me over; then they left town. The Altitude came in here, brought all the guys in Armani suits, but they couldn’t put fans in the seats. Then the Aces came. I loved the Aces — they won me over too. But I got fooled. I’m jaded.
SS: But what do you think of the actual Ghostriders game so far?
BS: It’s like a mix between professional wrestling and a snuff film.
SS: The crowd is kind of apathetic too. Do you expect to see a serious rivalry between the Ghostriders and the Spartans?
BS: Not yet — it’s only just started.
SS: So this is where it all begins?
BS: Forget about it. This is the downfall of the Civic Center. Duct tape holding up Styrofoam? We’re six months away from this place booking professional cockfighting. This is how low we’ve stooped.
A mysterious stranger
While discussing the game, the Xpress reporters are approached by a lean young man named Jim Terry. He says he’s just arrived from Florida, where he’s played indoor football as a kicker. Terry mentions that he has “the story of the year” for us about the Ghostriders. But cryptically, he won’t say what it is until after he talks to Ghostriders owner Rob Boyd. So instead, we make small talk about the game.
Jim Terry: You know, if you kick the ball through the uprights, it’s worth a point.
SS: Is it?
SS: Neat. So is this like the kind of games you have in Florida?
JT: No. We’re an Arena One team.
SS: What does that mean?
JT: It’s televised. We’re talking about a difference of teams that are worth $10- to $15-million, as opposed to the teams here, which are worth about $150,000.
SS: I’ve never understood why we even get minor-league teams at all here. It seems too small.
JT: There’s a market and a facility. It’s not very big, but the cost of living is probably cheaper than in Florida.
SS: Not for long. In a similar game in Arena One, what would we be seeing?
JT: You’d have the patented nets on the end zone. You’d have multimillion-dollar turf. You’d have a new sound system. You’d have 14,000 people at a game. This isn’t even close.
SS: So there’s more to these games than playing on used carpeting?
JT: You have multimillion-dollar budgets. You have $100,000 worth of coaching salaries. It’s a whole other level. In Arena League, the minimum salary is $1,500 a week. Here it’s $300. It’s apples and oranges.
The halftime show consists of dance routines by the Angels (the Ghostriders’ cheerleaders) and a group of local preteens. There’s also a strange contest involving balloons, groceries and shopping carts that defies easy description. During this time, we talk to some of the people behind the Ghostriders, including a team staffer and owner Rob Boyd.
SS: It looks like a small turnout. I can never tell with sports events, though.
Ghostrider staffer: It is small.
SS: Do you think that’s because it’s just the first home game?
GS: It’s because it’s the first one. There’s a lot of bugs and kinks to work out.
SS: I heard it was rushed; it looks like it.
GS: All I know is that I want to go home, take a long bath and die.
Moments later, we get an audience with the team’s owner.
Rob Boyd: I was hoping for a bigger crowd. I guess we all can’t have that, right? It’s the first home game of the year. It’s a low score for the game; usually it’s 30-something by now.
SS: This is your first team, isn’t it?