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Brawlers Take New Approach to Football

NILES, Ohio – When the Mahoning Valley Brawlers make their first appearance at Eastwood Field on Oct. 3, the players who take the field will be those assigned by the Fall Experimental Football League. The league will also choose the coaching staff.

The Brawlers were announced Wednesday as part of a four-team development league, known as FXFL, which signs undrafted rookies and young players cut from NFL rosters during training camp.

The team will be owned by HWS Baseball, which also owns the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Although HWS won’t have complete control over the team, the organization is more than happy to let the league run the football operations.

“It helps us do what we do best,” the company’s vice president, Jordan Taylor, said at the press event. “What we do on the baseball field will be brought to the football side through things like marketing, promotions and sales. There will be a lot of similarities in terms of fan experience, giveaways and unique promotions.”

One benefit of the league handling personnel management, Taylor noted, is the Brawlers will have territorial rights to players from Ohio, that is, players from the state will stay in the area.

“That’s an ideal situation,” Taylor said. “It would add some excitement because there are homegrown players on the roster as well as help create the first-year fan base.”

Last year, the inaugural season, NFL teams showed new or renewed interest in 25% of FXFL players.

“This is an NFL-caliber product. Even though we play in minor league baseball stadiums, this is a major league product,” said FXFL commissioner Brian Woods. “These guys have NFL experience. There are players out there on the open market who need an opportunity to hone their skills and play.”

Woods referred to Malcolm Butler, who made an interception late in the 2015 Super Bowl that sealed the victory for the New England Patriots.

“[He] was an undrafted free agent,” Woods said. “And two of New England’s 2014 draft picks played in the FXFL last year. The level of talent is certainly NFL-caliber.”

Formation of the local franchise began about six months ago, Taylor and Woods said. At the general managers’ meeting for the New York-Penn League, to which the Scrappers belong, the Brooklyn Cyclones management began talking about the FXFL. The Cyclones are affiliated with the Brooklyn Bolts, another FXFL franchise.

“They were talking about how successful it was in the Brooklyn market,” Taylor explained. “They mentioned there might be an opportunity for additional teams, so we began talking to the Brooklyn franchise about the operation.”

Woods noted that the FXFL looks to partner with minor league baseball franchises in an effort to offset costs for the teams and add stability to the league.

A key factor in selecting northeastern Ohio for a new team, Woods said, is football’s deep roots here.

“The Valley has a great football tradition and we want to build on the tremendous high school football fan base and the passion people have for that,” Taylor added. “And there’s also the same passion for YSU [Youngstown State University]. We’re going to bring in a high level professional football team for the Valley to call their own.”

Tickets for the three games the Brawlers will play at home – each FXFL team plays five games – went on sale immediately after the press conference. Season ticket packages start at $45. The league takes great interest in making games affordable, Woods said.

“If you go to a place like MetLife Stadium [where the New York Jets and Giants play] with a family of four, you’ll sit in the upper deck and be out $600,” he said. “We’re giving fans an NFL-caliber product that you can buy a ticket to for $15 or $20.”

Professional football has been tried in the Mahoning Valley, although with little success. The Mahoning Valley Thunder played arena football in the Covelli Centre from 2007 to 2009 and never posted a winning record. The Youngstown Hardhats played from 1972 to 1975 and, despite going 38-6 over three years, relocated to Akron because of low attendance.

But Woods and Taylor say this team will succeed because of the quality of players.

“This is true professional football. These guys will go straight to the NFL,” Taylor said. “We’re not going to pull guys off the street. They’ll be major college football players who just didn’t make the 53-man roster, but are just a step short of the NFL.”

Among the FXFL players from last season are Mike Golic, a standout offensive lineman at the University of Notre Dame; former North Dakota State University quarterback Brock Jensen; and former Clemson University quarterback Tajh Boyd.

The final rosters won’t be set until the NFL preseason is complete and each team pares its roster to 53 players from 90.

Most FXFL games are played weeknights so they don’t conflict conflicts with college and NFL schedules. But because of the popularity of high school football in Ohio, the Brawlers won’t schedule any of its three home games on a Friday night.

While an FXFL team used the Brawlers name last season – the Boston Brawlers folded after the season – there was little discussion about changing the name with the creation of a franchise in the Mahoning Valley.

“The Brawlers name couldn’t be more fitting,” Woods stated. “This area has put out more championship boxers per capita than any other place in the United States. It works well for this community.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.