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Baltimore Arena Football Team Taps Omarr Smith As Head Coach

December 15, 2016
Baltimore's new Arena Football League team may not yet have a name, but it does have a face.

Omarr Smith, a member of the AFL Hall of Fame who has played and coached in the league, was introduced as the franchise's head coach at a news conference at Royal Farms Arena Dec. 14, where the club will play its games beginning in the spring.

"We get to write our own story starting with the cover," said Smith, who has been associated with seven ArenaBowl championship teams, four as a player and three as an assistant coach.

Arena football, an indoor version of the game, arrives in Baltimore because of the involvement of sports entrepreneur Ted Leonsis, founder and chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the NBA's Washington Wizards, the NHL's Washington Capitals and the WNBA's Washington Mystics. 

In February, before the AFL's most recent season, it was announced Leonsis was launching a Washington franchise, named the Valor, for the 2017 season. But after the 2016 AFL season ended, the league saw several teams dissolve or move to other leagues, leaving it with just three active franchises in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Tampa Bay, Fla., plus Washington.

In November, Leonsis was awarded a second AFL expansion franchise for the 2017 season that will play in Baltimore. Right now, the plan is for the AFL to start its season, possibly in April, with five teams.

"This is an exciting time for the AFL, some people wouldn't agree, but that's fine," said Smith, who was spending his first day ever in Baltimore and plans to relocate from the West Coast. "I've been around this league for a long time. I've seen some great times, I've seen some low times. I'm a true believer in this league, and I believe, sometimes, you've got to take a step back to move forward."

The AFL, in the words of league and team officials, is hitting the reset button with a philosophy of slow growth with substantial ownership groups that have backgrounds of owning pro sports franchises and that either own or control leases for arenas. For instance, Leonsis owns the Washington D.C. Verizon Center, where the Valor will play.

A single ownership group starting two pro football expansion franchises simultaneously may be unprecedented, Leonsis said.

"We did this because of our belief in [Baltimore], our belief in the fan base and, equally important, our belief in the AFL," he said.

Leonsis said having a team in Baltimore was also due to the Philadelphia franchise ownership making a convincing argument the league needed regional rivalries. Another possibility down the road, Leonsis noted, would be a team in Newark, N.J.

Leonsis said he was encouraged by the passion of Baltimore Ravens and Orioles fans. 

"You can really see the central role that sports teams play in a community and how it uplifts the pride of a city. That's what we want to do with the AFL," he said.

A team name and logo is expected to be unveiled in January.

Buttressing Leonsis' faith the AFL can succeed in Baltimore and elsewhere is the high-scoring game's excitement and pace -- it's not unusual for teams to score 50, 60 points each -- and because of that, it is a game that will appeal to a young audience that has grown up on video games.

"It's not unlike hockey or basketball, in that it's a video game come to life," he said.

Turning to the subject of Baltimore's new coach, Leonsis said the franchise was fortunate to land "someone who is a Hall of Fame member as a player and as an assistant coach."

Smith, a defensive back as a player, played for the San Jose SaberCats and the Tampa Bay Storm and was an assistant coach for three teams before becoming the head coach last season of the now-defunct Los Angeles Kiss.

In 2016, Smith led the Kiss, which had been 7-29 during the previous two seasons, to a respectable 7-9 regular-season record. That was good enough to make the playoffs, but Los Angeles lost, 56-52, in the first round to Cleveland.

As far as acquiring players is concerned, that process is in its beginning stages.

"Washington has already had an open tryout, so they have a leg up on the Baltimore team," Smith said. "But we're going to have an open tryout here and try to identify as much local talent as possible, but we'll recruit nationwide -- guys who were in college, guys who were in the NFL and got cut." 

Smith said emphasis would be placed on signing players who will reflect well on the franchise.

"We want to pride ourselves on guys who have character, who have a passion for football," he said.

Season ticket memberships are now on sale. The team is accepting $50 deposits per seat. The lowest-priced season tickets will be just $8 per seat. Season-ticket membership will entitle fans to special perks, such as exclusive events with players and coaches. Tickets are available by calling 667-930-0200 or emailing ticketsales@baltimoreafl.com.