Billings fans take new indoor football team back to the future for nickname

BILLINGS — If at first, you succeed, why not try again?

That’s apparently the thinking of Billings indoor football supporters, who voted in a runaway to christen the city’s new Champions Indoor Football team the Outlaws — a nostalgic nod to the franchise that built a faithful following as three-time champions of various indoor league iterations from 2000-10.

In a public contest sponsored by The Billings Gazette and EconoPrint, nearly 400 names were submitted, according to Tommy Benizio, a consultant whose company Benizio Sports in Dallas has helped facilitate to return of indoor football to Billings.

“Outlaws was a clear winner,” said Benizio, who was in town Wednesday and took in a Mustangs baseball game with Outlaws co-owner Keith Russ. “I really feel like the community picked this name. I’m hearing nothing but stories of family memories and positive experiences people had with the Billings Outlaws a decade ago.”

Said Russ: “I’m happy about the Outlaws name. That was the name I wanted. From what I’d seen, that was probably the best one.”

Benezio said he could remember only one of the other three finalists: The Magicians. “I thought that was pretty cool,” he said.

But Outlaws is synonymous with successful indoor football in The Magic City.

The team earned playoff appearances in eight of 11 seasons, winning titles in 2006 and then in 2009 in front of more than 8,000 spectators at MetraPark, now First Interstate Arena. They also won a year later in a sold-out Sports Plex after a tornado ripped the roof off the Metra.

However, the tornado proved to contribute to the Outlaws’ demise, and the team folded after the season. Other than a two-year stint with the Billings Wolves in 2015-16, Billings has been without indoor football since.

“I know a pretty good bit about the Outlaws from when they were here,” said Rust, who also co-owns the Wyoming Mustangs of the CIF and splits most of his time between Wyoming and western South Dakota. “They had a pretty good run.”

Russ’s Gillette team went 4-8 in its first season, but the Mustangs didn’t lack enthusiasm in northeast Wyoming. The team’s first five games were sold out, he said, and the team won two leagues' “best fan-base” awards.

“It’s been fantastic,” Russ said.

He said Gillette’s template will be instilled in Billings as well. That includes extensive community involvement from the team, particularly players connecting with fans.

The Mustangs, Russ said, require players to be on the field for 15 minutes after each game to mingle with the crowd. The Outlaws will do the same.

“We were out in the community every day,” he said. “We got to where everyone knew us.”

Since the April announcement of indoor football’s return to Billings, Russ said the team has hired a general manager and a sales staff. He said he and co-owner Tel Koen of Pick-Six Entertainment expect to hire a head coach in September.

“We’ve got so many resumes we have to go through,” he said. “Once we announced a coaching search, we got overloaded with resumes.”

Russ said they’ll look for a coach who’s “real fan-oriented, real community-oriented, someone who’ll have the players out in the community, real approachable by fans. Just a real character guy with as much as experience as they can bring.”

The Outlaws are also looking to establish a dance team. Operations staff will be hired closer to when the season starts in March, Russ said.

In 2021, Champions Indoor Football had active teams in Salina, Wichita, and Dodge City, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; and Gillette. Omaha won the league title 40-39 on July 17 over Salina, which is guided by former Outlaws coach Heron O’Neal. Two teams from Texas and one from Oklahoma were inactive; another expansion team from Denver figures to give the league 10 active teams for 2022.

Looking ahead, Russ is aware he’ll have divided loyalties the first time Billings and Wyoming meet during their 12-game season next year.

“Right,” he said. “I would probably not root for either team. I’d hope it ends in a tie.”