Notebook: VooDoo reaping benefits of GM Brandon Rizzuto’s hard work _lowres

Brandon Rizzuto

Brandon Rizzuto’s childhood sports dream was to become the next Craig Biggio, a do-everything major leaguer.

Lucky for Rizzuto, he had a backup dream, one which he’s now living.

Brandon, a product of Archbishop Rummel and the University of New Orleans, is one game into his first season as general manager of the New Orleans VooDoo, a franchise in the Arena Football League. Following last Saturday’s 51-50 upset of the Jacksonville Sharks at the Smoothie King Center, the franchise appears to be reaping the early financial benefits of its young marketing man.

He’s embraced college mid-major sports tactics learned during stints in sports information and external relations at Nicholls State and UNO: how to stretch the penny. He is, after all, leading a four-person staff, one of the smallest in the Arena Football League.

“Growing up and not being the next Craig Biggio is somewhat depressing,” Rizzuto, 30, said half-joking. “But growing up and being the general manager of a professional football team is a pretty close second.”

Led by first-year coach Dean Cokinos and quarterback Adam Kennedy, the VooDoo (1-0) host the Cleveland Gladiators (1-0) on Saturday at the Smoothie King Center.

The VooDoo, which in recent seasons has struggled with local exposure, revealed a number of changes this season:

- Increased exposure via billboards around town, electronic signage at the Smoothie King Center and a weekly radio show called the “Witching Hour” on Fox Sports 1280 AM.

- A new-look web site (www.aflvoodoo.com) with an app expected to debut in April — presently, Rizzuto said, just one AFL team has an app. The team has also added an online store (shopaflvoodoo.com) offering more than 1,000 items. Combined, the remaining of the 12-team league online stores offer 244 items, he said.

- Future plans include a life skills program for players.

Improvements during games include:

- An upgrade in music (rap heavy, rock light on defense and pop, rock, country on offense) as well as the on-field emcee: Kango Slimm of Partners-N-Crime, popular pioneers of their distinct version of New Orleans Bounce Music.

- Improved promotions include Rome’s Tuxedo Race and That’s Amore Pizzeria Dash for your Dinner.

- The VooDoo reverted to its original uniforms from 2011.

“I’ve never heard or seen this much positive chatter about the VooDoo,” said longtime fan and season ticket holder Joshua Dean whose “Pope Clown” gameday costume earned him the 2014 AFL Fan of the Year honors at the What a Fan Sports Fan Conference.

Last season, the VooDoo tied with the Los Angeles KISS for the worst record in the league (3-15).

The highlight of arena football in New Orleans occurred in 2011. Rizzuto, working as the franchise’s media relations contact, watched season ticket sales peak at approximately 6,800, with nearly half being sold within hours of the announcement of the VooDoo returning to New Orleans.

“Over the past four seasons, we’ve steadily become more and more distant from our fan base,” he said. “And I believe that is largely in part by not having someone local in the front office.”

Owners Dan Newman (Shreveport) and Doug Harrington (Texas) live outside the area.

Duvalt healthy again

Receiver Chris Duvalt caught seven passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns — all team highs — Saturday against Jacksonville, showcasing his recovering from an left ACL tear during the seventh game of the 2013 season.

Duvalt appeared in two games last season -—eight games apart — and collected 11 catches for 122 yards and two scores. But this season, he’s playing without a knee brace, and with an improved understanding of the game. That’s what occurs when you spend nearly two seasons on the sideline.

“It makes me want to play harder and not even think about the knee,” he said. “I believe in myself, that I’m still the same player — I’m a better player, actually — than I was before.”