Saturday, June 18, 2005

Dragons, Green Machine fight to survive in same market

Dragons, Green Machine fight to survive in same market

Finding enough fans, players to support two teams in Broome a challenge

Press & Sun-Bulletin           

BINGHAMTON -- Two times a week, Binghamton's two semi-pro football teams practice for the coming season.

The Southern Tier Green Machine works out at Otsiningo Park. The Broome County Dragons practice at MacArthur Park. Both teams have been practicing for more than a month, and both begin their seasons in the next few weeks.

Semi-pro football has had a near-constant presence in Broome County since 1970. For a brief time in the 1970s, there were two teams -- the Triple Cities Jets and the Broome-Tioga Bengals.

But that was 30 years ago. The population of the Broome County has decreased by more than 9 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The local economy isn't what it used to be. That means there's a limited pool of players, sponsors and fans -- and money. Then there was the acrimonious way the

Green Machine's season ended last year, as the team abruptly withdrew from the playoffs and its league amid rumors of financial woes and discord between players, coaches and management.

So how will two semi-pro football teams co-exist in this market?

"In the long term, I don't think two teams can survive," Green Machine coach Dan LaMagna said. "To get the community support you need, to get the players you need, at some point the community is going to choose one direction or the other."

The Green Machine opens on June 25 with an exhibition game against the CNY Express (the defending National Football Events national champions) at Union-Endicott High. The BC Dragons' first home game is July 16 against Montreal at Binghamton Alumni Stadium.


Finding enough players is the biggest challenge that comes from having two semi-pro teams in the same city.

According to the roster listed on the Green Machine's official Web site, the team has 63 players.

The BC Dragons don't have a set roster yet, but team owner Karol Cronin and coach Tommy Manny both said the team has more than 60 players signed up. Cronin showed off a stack of 61 signed player agreements at recent practice.

Those robust-sounding numbers haven't translated to the practice field for either team.

At the Green Machine's practice on June 7, there were 29 players dressed and working out. Several more, team owner Maurice Battisti said, were hurt and unable to practice.

At the Dragons' workout on June 9, there were 21 players taking part in the two-hour session.

"Usually , we have 30-35 guys," Manny said. "Tonight was one of the worst ones (in terms of turnout)."

Only six players returned to the Green Machine from last year's squad, according to the roster on the Web site. Cronin said that about 15 of her players were on the Green Machine last year -- though without a set roster, those numbers are impossible to verify.

Last season, the Green Machine began with a roster of 58 players. By October, the team dressed less than 30 players for games.

Cronin estimates that nearly half the players who have signed up for her team are from this area. According to the roster on its Web site, the Green Machine has 19 players (a third of the roster) from Broome County and other surrounding counties. The Green Machine draws heavily from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, where LaMagna, 28, coached last season.

The players on the Green Machine were drawn to the team by its membership in the North American Football League, which has more than 100 teams nationally and plays its championship and all-star games at the Disney Sports Complex in Florida and has been around since 1999.

The players on the Dragons are drawn to its membership in the Empire Football League, which has been in existence since 1969 and has its commissioner, Dave Burch, based in Endicott. The EFL is a regional league, featuring teams in upstate New York, Northeastern Pennsylvania and Canada, and doesn't participate in a national championship.

Numbers have been a problem for Binghamton teams in the past. The BC Jets, who began play in 1997, folded in 2002 due to a lack of players.

That was when there was just one team in town.

"We have a good nucleus; if we weren't competing with another team, we'd be great," LaMagna said.

Neither coach seemed fazed about his team's numbers.

"I've seen teams with 34 guys win championships," said Manny, an 18-year veteran of the Empire Football League who had been coach and owner of the Albany Maulers for the past several seasons. "So it can be done."


Battisti, 62, an Endicott businessman, formed the Green Machine in 2004. The team joined the Empire Football League after a unanimous vote by team owners in January 2004.

That first vote was about as smooth as things ran for the Green Machine. Battisti initially hoped for crowds of between 5,000-10,000 per game. But the team drew, by Battisti's count, only 2,200 fans per game. Battisti said he lost $100,000 last season. The team finished 8-5 but withdrew from the EFL Playoffs in October. The reason given by the league and the team was a lack of players due to injuries.

At the same time, the team left the EFL. According to minutes of league meetings provided to the Press & Sun-Bulletin, the team was voted out of the league at its Oct. 3 meeting in Johnstown. Battisti has denied this, saying he left the league of his own volition and described the move by saying only: "I've always driven a Cadillac."

In January, the Green Machine accepted a spot in the NAFL.

"Maurice is kind of like a grandfather figure who had really good intentions but didn't have the help he needed," said LaMagna, who replaced Jud Blanchard, the longtime area high school coach who left after one season with the Green Machine. "I think last year, the team's intentions were good but they had some growing pains."

A week later, Cronin -- who worked for the Green Machine last season and whose son, Josh, was a linebacker for the team -- announced the formation of the Dragons in the EFL.

"The biggest thing, and biggest deciding factor, was the fact that I didn't want the players to go through what they went through last year," said Cronin, 44, a Johnson City resident who is retail manager for Sears Optical at the Oakdale Mall.

Neither Cronin nor Battisti would talk specifically about last year's experience.

Battisti spent a good portion of practice interacting with his team, talking and joking with players and coaches as drills went on.

"Last year, those guys wouldn't let me do this," he said. "I mean, I love these guys. I love this so much. It's great."

Cronin said that at the team's first preseason meeting, the players peppered her with questions.

"They wanted to know if there were going to be buses and transportation to all the games," she said. "They asked if we were going to leave them high and dry."

Both Cronin and Battisti are going ahead with plans for the coming season. Despite his financial losses last season, Battisti ordered new uniforms for the team.

"I'm not doing this for ego," Battisti said. "I'm doing this for the community. We need something like this."


With the season starting soon, the work has intensified on and off the field for both teams.

The Green Machine is practicing in full pads and helmets twice a week, ending each session with simulated games between the offense and defense.

"We're just starting to really gel," LaMagna said. "We've seen a handful of good individual performances. We're getting there."

The Dragons started practicing in early May. Players still practice in T-shirts and shorts. At the June 9 practice, players were being measured for equipment.

"We're about on pace," Manny said. "We started a little later, but the offense has picked up the verbiage of our plays."

Both teams are holding fundraisers. Players are busy selling ads for both team's respective programs.

The players, coaches and owners of both teams say they're eager to put the past behind them.

"I don't want to say anything negative," Battisti said, watching 29 of his players run through seven-on-seven drills. "I want this to be a positive thing."

"I wish (Battisti) well and his team well," Cronin said, as her 21 players worked out in position groups. "I hope they have a great season."

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