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They are, quite literally, the men in the arena.

Scott Mullen runs the building where the Iowa Barnstormers and Milwaukee Mustangs staged a preseason Arena Football League tilt in front of a crowd of roughly 3,000 mostly educated onlookers Thursday night in Moline.

Some 30 years ago, Jim Foster invented the game those two visiting teams played, and he later founded the Quad-City Steamwheelers, who occupied Mullen's i wireless Center for a decade until they closed their doors in 2009.

Easy as it is to take exception with both men's apparent determination to resurrect a sport that seemed to die a thousand deaths in those 10 short years, there is little to be lost, instead, in giving them credit for what is shaping up as a sensibly methodical investigation.

The truth is, both men merely are taking a long, educated look at the possibility of bringing indoor football back to the Quad-Cities. And neither is prone to make a move that doesn't hold long-term promise.

"It took my breath when I walked into the building tonight," confessed Foster, who, in a consulting role with Milwaukee, arranged Thursday's meet-in-the-middle preseason contest with the team from Des Moines. "I loved seeing that Steamwheelers logo in the end zone. But I also know how much it cost me, so the next thought through my mind was ‘It's not the right time now.' "

Foster, in fact, suggested a couple more years of dormancy beyond the one-season-and-counting since the arenafootball2 Steamwheelers last took the field might make Q-C hearts grow indoor-football fonder.

Mullen's timetable is maybe a shade shorter. He is, after all, the man mainly behind the supportqcfootball.com Web site drive to build a base of potential season-ticket holders that was launched Wednesday. And he makes no bones about the worth of a summertime minor-league sports tenant for the iwC.

"I want to do it because I've got sponsors who want it back," Mullen explained. "They sell food and beverage during the game. We want to keep football here for suite holders, and have more events. I'd like to bring a team back."

There. He's on record for that.

"But," Mullen said dropping that critical cautionary qualifier into the conversation, "I don't want to do it if it doesn't make sense. The af2 model did not make sense."

Hardly anywhere, it didn't anyway. Milwaukee and Des Moines are among seven former af2 teams who succeeded well enough to step into the new hybrid AFL that emerged from bankruptcy last year.

Sensibly, neither Foster nor Mullen's sights are set anywhere near that high for a fractured Q-C market where Wheelers attendance dropped from an average of 8,935 in the team's unbeaten inaugural season to 3,625 in 2009.

Foster said that latter figure actually could work in league with an operational budget half as large as the $1 million-plus the af2 team pushed at the end, and he said that's a budget that could be sustainable in a strict Midwestern bus league.

Such a league exists, the Indoor Football League, where teams in Bloomington and Hoffman Estates, Ill., make their home. Foster doubts Q-C fans accustomed to the nets, pads, bells and whistles that come with the pinball/football he drew up 30 years ago would warm to the IFL.

Mullen, meanwhile, said the IFL might work with a good owner. But there's the hitch. The Wheelers went through four ownership groups in 10 years, five if you consider the half season Mullen's building kept the team alive in the summer of '09.

And, actually, the latter worked well enough that Mullen might consider leading the iwC into the football business again. That's providing Foster can find like-minded arena management in nearby locales to build a league of arena-owned teams.

It's worth looking into, anyway.

"We can do it because we have been successful taking risks," Mullen said. "But we'd have to get our homework done to make sure it's something that we can make money with."

Yeah. He said but. In this case, in this arena, that's a good word on which to lean before leaping.

 

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