Football Fiesta: Tucson Sugar Skulls

The new team returns home to host San Diego this Sunday

Tucson Sugar Skulls No. 16 Quarterback Matt Behrendt runs onto the field at the Tucson Arena ahead of the team’s home opener against the Bismarck Bucks Sunday, March 10.
Tucson Sugar Skulls No. 16 Quarterback Matt Behrendt runs onto the field at the Tucson Arena ahead of the team’s home opener against the Bismarck Bucks Sunday, March 10.

Mike Flowers has lived in the Old Pueblo for four decades, actively embedding himself into the local sports culture since moving from New York.

Flowers, who is a CPA 40 hours a week and a diehard sports fan the other 128, found his newest outlet for sports fandom a few weeks ago when the Tucson Sugar Skulls took the field for the first time.

Flowers was one of the 5,198 attendees tucked inside downtown's Tucson Arena Sunday, March 10, when the indoor football team hosted its home debut. Flowers was thrilled with the team's product, with the bone-jarring hits and pulse-pounding action that separates the indoor game from its more established outdoor form.

When asked what stood out most from his in-game experience, Flowers rattled off a laundry list of items that stood out for he and his wife and two nephews, who joined him in the stands.

"The proximity to the field, the fast action, the constant music, the constant event," Flowers said. "I mean, they've just done a very professional job in conveying a fun family atmosphere with a great sporting event."

Such a positive outlook is commonplace among the few thousand Tucsonans that watched the team's game against Bismarck a few weeks ago, according to Mike Feder, who serves as the Sugar Skulls' executive director.

Feder, who previously worked with the Tucson Baseball Fiesta and the Tucson Sidewinders AAA baseball club, believes indoor football has a chance to thrive in Tucson.

"Almost everybody we talked to had a great time on March 10," Feder said. "It really is rock and roll football. I mean, it's a party. I don't know how better to describe it. It's a party where a football game broke out, and it's very good football on top of it."

The socioeconomic impact of the team's games is apparent to Feder, bringing more and more people to the city's budding downtown scene.

Feder believes the team's presence, alongside the Tucson Roadrunners American Hockey League squad, can lift the region to a place it's never been before economically.

"It just puts so many more people to spend money and go to the restaurants and go to the bars," Feder said. "I talked to a lot of people that actually went to eat lunch before they came to our games downtown. So, it's our hope. Rio Nuevo has been so good to us, so we're trying to give back to downtown as much as we can."

Flowers said his family saw a definite increase in business at the bars and restaurants around the convention center and arena complex that night, with black-and-gold-clad fans flocking to establishments throughout downtown.

"I think it was evident by the number of people and hopefully it will keep increasing," Flowers said. "We had lunch before and we wound up going out for dinner and drinks after. We have four tickets, so on other occasions we'll be inviting other couples to not only enjoy the game but the pre and post-game."

The impact of the team's sizeable following isn't lost on first-year coach Marcus Coleman, who previously coached with the Tri-City Fever and Iowa Barnstormers, also in the Indoor Football League. "To tell you the truth, it was almost a sell-out," Coleman said. "So, we're really appreciative of the support that the community has shown us, and how they made sure that they come out and show their support in different ways. Whether it's by buying tickets, buying sponsorships, buying merchandise or whatever it is, the crowd and atmosphere was great."

Coleman hopes the team will draw another large crowd this Sunday when the team hosts the San Diego Strike Force at 3 p.m. at the Tucson Arena.

"Hopefully we can continue to have it like that every weekend, where can have close to a sellout or a sellout every game," he said.

Coleman believes that a team's ability to draw fans has a definite impact on their on-field product, with players finding extra energy when the stands are full.

"If the players see the community coming out and supporting them, it kind of raises the level a little bit," Coleman said. "They know that they're playing for this community and playing for all the people that are buying tickets or watching on YouTube. But just knowing that you have that support makes you feel more welcomed here."

Coleman believes the team, which is 2-1 this season, can learn a lot from the games they've played so far.

Perhaps the greatest lesson came March 16, when the Sugar Skulls were thrashed by in-state rival, the Arizona Rattlers, 63-28. That loss, which came on the heels of the team's consecutive victories to start the year against the Strike Force and Bismarck Bucks, was an eye-opener for the organization.

Coleman believes that one-sided defeat will serve as a rallying cry for players, showing the team what they need to do to compete at a championship level.

The first-year head coach believes his team can take pointers away from the Rattlers' execution and positioning, using those lessons to thwart the Strike Force.

"We want to continue to try and build off we've already done, and I think the loss that we suffered up in Phoenix against the Rattlers in our last game, I think it was a learning experience for a lot of our players," Coleman said. "Because, if you're trying to play at a championship level, that's what it looks like."

Coleman wants his players to focus on their assignments on Sunday, making sure they get back to the style of play that propelled them past their first two opponents by a combined score of 127-86.

Coleman wants his players to focus on limiting penalties, while maximizing their offensive drives and stifling the Strike Force's high-flying pass game.

If they can do that, then the sky's the limit for the newfound Tucson squad.

"Coming into the San Diego game, that's what I'm expecting to see from us, to be more dialed in," Coleman said. "So, we're just looking for a more polished game coming in to the game this weekend."

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