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As Jeff Fisher takes over beleaguered Arena Football League, Billings Outlaws forge ahead

Jeff Fisher
Posted at 1:53 PM, May 17, 2024

BILLINGS — The Arena Football League has had its moments as a viable professional sports entity, notably during its original incarnation from 1987 to 2008.

Thus, enthusiasm persisted when the latest adaptation of the AFL brand was instituted in 2023 and set for a new season in 2024 made up of teams stretching across the country — including the Billings Outlaws.

The league, however, has been in disarray since the season began as organizations fell apart, as games were rescheduled or forfeited, as a partnership with NFL Network hasn't come to fruition, and as questions endured about its overall legitimacy.

Just last week the Outlaws were warming up prior to a game in Rapid City, S.D., only to have it forfeited within an hour before kickoff because the opposing team refused to take the field, reportedly due to unpaid wages.

The Billings team had no choice but to pack up and come home.

"I can definitely say without a doubt that this isn't what we signed up for," Wyoming attorney and Outlaws owner Steven Titus told MTN Sports. "It was the most disgusting atrocity I've ever seen in the football industry. We were on the field ready to go. What happened can never happen again."

The situation didn't lend itself to notions of credibility for the AFL, which twice went bankrupt in its previous iterations. Will another shoe drop?

Titus, for one, believes brighter days are ahead.

The league announced this week that former NFL coach Jeff Fisher, president of football operations for the AFL's Nashville Kats, has been named interim commissioner after the ouster of Lee Hutton, and that it will go forward with a smaller group of teams. Of the original 16 AFL teams, the Georgia Force, Iowa Rampage, Louisiana VooDoo, Minnesota Myth and Philadelphia Soul collapsed.

The Oregon Blackbears were originally left out after this week's realignment, but the organization announced Friday its "executive team has agreed in principle with the AFL on a new licensing agreement that allows for the completion of the 2024 season and the addition back onto the remaining 2024 AFL schedule."

Fisher spent 22 seasons as an NFL head coach, 17 with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise and five more with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams. He coached the Titans to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV on the heels of the Music City Miracle.

Fisher also has some Montana connections: His son Brandon played linebacker for the Montana Grizzlies, and Fisher was even mentioned as a possible candidate for the Montana State coaching vacancy after Jeff Choate departed in early 2021.

Fisher's job now is to resuscitate the troubled AFL. Titus, whose Outlaws have had much of their early season schedule restructured by the league, hailed the appointment of Fisher as commissioner as a constructive move.

"I think the darker days are gone," Titus said. "I think we hit rock bottom. I think we're crawling out of it. People are genuinely happy and excited that Jeff Fisher has taken the helm of the AFL. With his success in the NFL, he gives the league instant credibility and stable leadership.

"We don't have someone who, in the face of adversity, won't show up or lie about what's going on. We have someone who's willing to give us the tough love and encouragement and advice we need to continue moving forward.

"Things are absolutely going to get better. To the fans of the AFL and the fans of the Billings Outlaws, please hang in there with us. We're going to continue to have a winning product."

Billings has a vacillating history as an indoor/arena football city. The first franchise, known as the Thunderbolts, was an Indoor Football League expansion team in 2000. When the original IFL shuttered, the franchise became a member of the National Indoor Football League in 2001 and rebranded as the Outlaws.

The team changed its name to the Mavericks for the 2005 season, then became the Outlaws again in 2006. The franchise was a member of United Indoor Football for the 2007 and 2008 seasons before joining the reconstituted IFL in 2009 and 2010.

The infamous Father's Day tornado of 2010 all but destroyed the Outlaws' home arena at MetraPark. The team finished the season playing at the Billings SportsPlex and eventually won the IFL championship.

In total, the Outlaws won an NIFL title in 2006 and IFL championships in 2009 and 2010. But the franchise ceased operations prior to the 2011 campaign.

Another franchise, the Billings Wolves, played two IFL seasons in 2015 and 2016 but then folded.

The current version of the Outlaws was born in 2021 and began as a member of Champions Indoor Football, but the ill-fated ownership of Keith Russ eventually led to the team being sold to Titus.

The Outlaws played the 2022 and 2023 seasons in the CIF before joining this latest version of the AFL for 2024.

The first-place Outlaws, with a 3-0 record, are scheduled to play a home game this Saturday against the 2-0 Salina Liberty at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. The game will mark the return of Liberty coach Heron O'Neal to Billings; O'Neal coached the Outlaws to their three previous championships.

Looking ahead, the AFL schedule is expected to remain fluid. But for all that's happened, Titus insists the Outlaws franchise is healthy and stable and will continue to operate in good faith.

"First and foremost, we're focused on making sure that we win this weekend," Titus said. "Long term focus, we want the franchise to be sustainable. We want to have good, long-term partners. These teams don't run on pipe dreams, they run on money, they run on partnerships, they run on season ticket sales.

"We have to make sure that we create a sustainable franchise and make sure we're doing what we need to do so this isn't a six-figure loss for me and a write-off every year. We'll make strategic decisions.

"Right now I'm fully committed to the AFL for the foreseeable future. One thing at a time, though. Let's focus on winning against Salina this weekend."