Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of five stories examining the history and impact of the Lexington Horsemen, an arena football team that played in Rupp Arena from 2003 through 2009.
Unless you’re the Legends, who have been in the baseball business here since 2001, minor league sports in Lexington have a history of briefly succeeding then ultimately failing.
We’ve tried hockey — remember the Kentucky Thoroughblades and the Kentucky Men O’ War? — basketball (Bluegrass Stallions) and even soccer (Bluegrass Bandits).
Competing amid that landscape of the late 1990s and early 2000s came indoor football with the arrival of the Lexington Horsemen in 2003.
Like most of their predecessors, the Horsemen generated a few years of excitement before ultimately coming undone financially — a disease familiar to minor league efforts across America, not in Lexington alone.
Across their seven-year existence, the Horsemen played in three different leagues and went through two ownership changes. Their first season, the team averaged 7,929 fans in Rupp Arena. By the end in 2009 the crowds were half that size, and possibly less depending on how you view the numbers.
The Horsemen played what turned out to be their final game on Aug. 7, 2009, an 82-49 loss to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pioneers in the conference semifinals of the AF2 playoffs in Pennsylvania.
Players suspected the end might be near, especially when the Arena Football League temporarily suspended operations and the AF2 dissolved that fall. Talks to enter a newly constructed Arena Football League never came to fruition, and the Horsemen announced they were shutting down the business on Oct. 22.
“I was involved in a lot of the upper management stuff,” Jared Lorenzen, the Horsemen’s last starting quarterback said in an interview a few weeks before his death this month. “So I had hints and a feeling that it was coming, and then once we finished our season, that’s when it was like, ‘Hey guys, we’re unfortunately not going to be able to bring this back.”
What led to the demise?
The Horsemen’s final general manager, Matt DiLorenzo, cited the price of trying to do business in an arena as large as Rupp as the biggest reason for the team finally shuttering operations. Several other arena teams faced the same dilemma.
“At the end of the day that’s your biggest thing on the budget is what you pay,” DiLorenzo said. “Filling seats I didn’t think was that big of a problem, I think we averaged about 4,500 people, which was really good for Arena Football 2, but when you’re playing in an arena that seats 22,000, you know.”
The late Lennie House, who bought out the original ownership group in 2005, could see the end coming as early as 2007, when he announced he was considering folding the franchise, citing a lack of support in the community.
“I’ve done all I can,” House told the Herald-Leader at the time. “If Kentucky had responded, then we would be here forever. But I don’t think my family and I can do this anymore.”
House held on for one more year before donating the team to the Horsemen Charitable Foundation, making it a non-profit community team instead of a privately held organization.
Rupp’s CEO and president, Bill Owen, disagreed with the assertion that Rupp’s rent was to blame, pointing out that the business was arena football and interest in it waned after the initial burst of enthusiasm that came with having a new team and winning a championship.
“No,” Owen said. “No, I think it comes down to how many people are willing to buy a ticket to an event and go see it.”
The Horsemen initially paid $4,500 to $6,000 per game in rent, a figure that rose to $9,500 in later leases, according to figures obtained by the Herald-Leader. Attendance in the early years generated hope, if not big profits.
“It was awesome,” former head coach Bob Sphire said of the fan support. “I was really shocked how well it was received and how good the crowds were. I was really worried that with Rupp Arena being so massive, that it would just swallow all that up and make it feel like you didn’t have anybody at the games, but it didn’t feel like that. I thought we had great crowds.”
By the final season, average attendance dipped to 3,010, although one game was listed as having zero attendees. Remove that inaccuracy and the figure rose to around 4,800 — closer to DiLorenzo’s estimate.
“We just weren’t getting the revenue needed to cover our expense,” Owen said of the reason for the rent increase over time. “To make it worthwhile for us, you know every business agreement or every business deal has got to address the needs of both parties, and we just found that under the old structures we weren’t getting enough attendance-based revenue and other things to make it worthwhile.”
None of those circumstances were helped by the start of the Great Recession, which crippled America’s economy late in 2007. Fans and sponsors were no longer able to dig as deep for dollars for minor league sports as they once were willing to do.
The end of the Horsemen did not come as a surprise to many people involved with the organization. House bankrolled the team from his own pocket for a time. Brett Kincaid, who ran things after House, also put his own money into the operation until the final decision to close up shop was made.
DiLorenzo said the end of the AF2 was tough on everyone.
“It was a lot of turmoil,” the former Horsemen general manager said. “A lot of questions in the air, and honestly you’re dealing with a lot of shady people in this business, I mean it’s unbelievable. You deal with people that lie.”
The main Arena Football League resumed operations in 2010 and exists today with just six franchises.
“We made it a lot longer than a lot of other teams,” DiLorenzo said on the day the Horsemen died.