The San Diego Spirit played three summer seasons from 2001 to 2003 in the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the first attempt to form a fully professional women’s pro league in North America. The Spirit endured two seasons of mediocrity, despite the presence of prominent U.S. National Team stars Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett. Prior to the 2003 season, the club brought in new Head Coach Omid Namazi and overhauled its roster with top young players, resulting in a winning campaign and the first playoff appearance in franchise history. Before the Spirit could build on this foundation, however, the WUSA closed up shop in September 2003 after burning through $100 million in three seasons of operations.
The WUSA announced its formation in early 2000, aiming for an April 2001 debut. The league was organized in a single-entity structure, with $40 million in start-up capital provided by a consortium of Cable TV operators and executives. Each funder received investor-operator rights to one of eight league markets in return for a commitment of $5 million. Cable operator Cox Communications purchased rights to San Diego.
The marketing cornerstones of the WUSA would be the stars of the United States Women’s National Team. The league launched on the backs of the USWNT and their thrilling victory in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Cup final on July 10th, 1999 drew a sell-out crowd of 90,185 to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, making it the largest women’s sporting event in history. The US women defeated China in nerve-wracking fashion on penalty kicks and the tournament made media darlings of American stars Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the team. In May 2000, the WUSA allocated three USWNT stars to each of its eight franchises. San Diego received Fawcett, Foudy and striker Shannon MacMillan, a graduate of nearby Escondido High School. In the international draft, San Diego also picked up Fan Yunjie and Wen Lirong of the Chinese team which had given the Americans all they could handle in the final.
Cox Communications spent $2.5 million to renovate 40-year old Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego for the Spirit. The improvements included 3,600 new seats to bring total capacity to just over 6,000, a new and re-graded natural Bermuda grass surface, upgraded lighting to meet television broadcast standards, and various aesthetic improvements. The renovations turned Torero into a quality venue for professional soccer. Viewed alongside similar efforts in other WUSA cities – such as the Boston Breakers’ $4 million renovation of Boston University’s Nickerson Stadium – the renovations were also symbolic of the new league’s free-spending ways. By the end of 2001, WUSA had expended the $40 million intended to fund operations for its first five seasons.
The 2001 Spirit started slow out of the blocks under Head Coach Carlos Juarez before rallying late in the season to finish in 5th place with a record of 7-7-7. Fawcett missed most of the season due to pregnancy, but returned in August less than two months after giving birth to her third child. MacMillan was a bright spot. Her 12 goals were second best in the WUSA to league Most Valuable Player Tiffeny Milbrett.
The 2002 Spirit started slowly again, which cost Juarez his job in early June 2002. General Manager Kevin Crow, a long-time star for the San Diego Sockers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, assumed coaching duties for the remainder of the season. The Spirit finished in seventh place with a 5-11-5 record.
Off the field, the Spirit paced the WUSA in season ticket sales despite lackluster play. In 2002, the Spirit sold more than 2,000 season tickets, which was the best figure in the eight-team league. The Spirit also benefitted from substantial television advertising drawn against unsold inventory on the Cox cable system.
On the last day of September 2002, the Spirit orchestrated the largest trade in WUSA’s two-year history in order to move up a single spot in the 2003 WUSA college draft. The Spirit shipped three starters – midfielders Shannon Boxx and Sherrill Kester, defender Margaret Tietjen – plus the #2 overall pick in the 2003 WUSA draft to the New York Power in exchange for the #1 overall pick and midfielders Jan Lalow and Wynne McIntosh. The prize for the Spirit on the back end of this trade was Santa Clara University midfielder Aly Wagner, already a fixture on the U.S. National Team with 36 caps as a collegian. Soccer America called Wagner “the most gifted playmaker the United States has produced”.
Wagner got the most press attention, but she was just one component of a youth movement that transformed the Spirit in 2003. 22-year old Scottish striker Julie Fleeting returned for her second season and finished tied for third in the WUSA in scoring with 11 goals. New Coach Omid Namazi used his other two international spots to import the 19-year old Brazilian star Daniela and big Canadian forward Christine Latham, fresh off an All-American career at the University of Nebraska. It would be Latham, not Wagner, that walked away with WUSA Rookie-of-the-Year honors after scoring six goals. The young cohort’s contributions were especially significant after offensive leader Shannon MacMillan was lost to a season-ending ACL tear in May.
The 2003 Spirit improved to 8-6-7, good for third place in the WUSA and the franchise’s first and only playoff appearance. Prior to the season, the WUSA selected San Diego to host the 2003 Founder’s Cup at Torero Stadium. All that now stood between the Spirit and hosting the title match was the regular season champion Atlanta Beat. The Spirit travelled to Georgia for the WUSA semi-final on August 17th, 2003. Aly Wagner scored in the 38th minute to put the Spirit up 1-0. The lead held hrough regulation, but Beat forward Conny Pohlers tapped in the equalizer during stoppage time and Charmaine Hooper won it for Atlanta in overtime, ending the Spirit’s season in heart rending fashion.
The playoff semi-final loss proved to be the final Spirit game. Investors pulled the plug on the WUSA on September 15th, 2003. The WUSA folded less than a week before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, providing a sad bookend for a league that was born out of the euphoria of the 1999 tournament.
In June 2004, a reconstituted Spirit – including Fawcett, Foudy and MacMillan – played in a WUSA exhibition doubleheader before an announced crowd of 7,123 at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. The event was part of a pair of WUSA “festivals” (the other was in Minnesota) which showcased the eight former clubs and their stars to potential new sponsors and investors. The events drew little interest and the efforts of the WUSA Reorganization Committee wound down soon afterwards.
In 2007 the new Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) launched as a lower-budget successor league to the WUSA. San Diego Padres owner John Moores was briefly linked to a WPS franchise, but never moved forward. In the late summer of 2008, WPS placed a brief release on its website announcing a San Diego franchise. But the league removed the story days later after and as of late 2011, no further discussions have occurred to bring WPS to San Diego.
The rookie stars of the 2003 Spirit each returned to play in the first season of WPS six summers later in 2009. Daniela signed with St. Louis Athletica and played four matches before her season – and career – was ended by a brutal tackle from Washington Freedom star Abby Wambach. Christine Latham scored two goals for the Boston Breakers in 2009. She was cut in training camp by the Atlanta Beat in 2010. Aly Wagner, now 28 years old and slowed by assorted injuries, signed with the Los Angeles Sol and played in the first WPS Cup final on August 22nd, 2009. It was her final match. She announced her retirement from soccer in January 2010.
San Diego Spirit Sources
League founder Jim Foster sketched his idea for a 50-yard indoor football game on the back of a manilla envelope while watching the Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game at the Madison Square Garden in February 1981. Foster layered a 50-yard carpeted football field over a hockey rink and dispensed with punting, most rushing, and practically all defense. Teams would play eight-on-eight, with all players except the quarterback and kicker playing “Iron Man” football – offense and defense. Taut 30-foot wide nets placed on either side of the uprights kept kickoffs, missed field goals and errant touchdown passes in play.
Armed with an ESPN television deal, Foster launched a preview season in June 1987, featuring four league-owned franchises playing a six-game schedule. Cable TV ratings and attendance were promising, so Foster expanded the league in 1988 by selling limited partnerships to five new investors groups. The six team line-up for the 1988 season included the returning Pittsburgh Gladiators and Chicago Bruisers, along with four expansion teams: the Knights, the Detroit Drive, the Los Angeles Cobras and the New England Steamrollers.
New Jersey toy marketer and philanthropist Russ Berrie was the investor behind the Knights. A self-made millionaire, Berrie started his toy company in garage in 1963, selling inexpensive and often sentimental toys such as Fuzzy Wuzzies, Sillisculpts and troll dolls. By 1988, Berrie’s firm was a public traded company with over $200 million in annual revenue, a sizable chunk of it generated as the exclusive toy licensee of Snuggles The Fabric Softening Bear.
The Knights featured an eclectic cast of pro football castaways. Quarterback Jim Crocicchia was a Wharton School grad from U. Penn who played for the New York Giants as a replacement during the 1987 players strike, as did his favorite receiver Edwin Lovelady. Running back-linebacker Johnny Shepherd was the 1983 Rookie-of-the-Year in the Canadian Football League, and a strike player for the Buffalo Bills. Vince Courville, Derek Hughes, Eric Schubert and Peter Raeford were refugees from the United States Football League, as was Head Coach and General Manager Jim Valek, who once served in a senior executive role for Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals franchise.
Knights players earned $1,000 per game for the 12-game season, plus a bonus of $150 for each victory. But the Knights didn’t win much. They defeated the Los Angeles Cobras twice on the road, but lost their other ten games, including all six home games at Madison Square Garden, to finish in last place at 2-10. 13,667 curiosity seekers turned out for the Knights debut at the Garden on May 9th, 1988, but the teams remaining games all drew announced crowds of 7,500 or fewer.
Following the 1988 season, Foster’s limited partnership structure fell apart. For their investment, the limited partners received operating rights to their local franchise, but little of the financial and marketing discretion typically accorded to professional sports owners. Player personnel and league marketing decisions remained the domain of Foster, the league’s Commissioner. As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman:
“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys. We tell ‘em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’ That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”
Tom Rooney, director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena where the league-owned Pittsburgh Gladiators played, gave a different take on the arrangement to The Pittsburgh Press in November 1988.
“You don’t tell someone who puts in millions of dollars how to run their team. Jim Foster was naive. It’s impractical because of the way of human nature and especially the human nature of people who are worth millions of dollars. They don’t throw in millions of dollars and say ‘Jim Foster, you run the league’.”
The limited partners attempted to buy out Foster during the fall of 1988, but he refused to sell. In February 1989, Detroit Drive officials announced to the press that the 1989 season would be cancelled as a result of the dispute. Ultimately, Foster retained control of his creation but most of the limited partners departed. The Knights pulled out and shut down prior to the 1989 season, as did the Los Angeles and Providence, RI expansion franchises.
Russ Berrie passed away suddenly at the age of 69 on Christmas Day 2002. After his Arena Football investment collapsed at the end of 1988, Berrie turned his attention to the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a Florida-based winter league for ex-Major League players aged 35 and over. At one point, Berrie traded 500 teddy bears from his toy & gift company to the Winter Haven Super Sox for 48-year old pitcher Luis Tiant.
Former Knights Head Coach & General Manager Jim Valek died in 2005.
In 1996, the Arena Football League sold a franchise to ITT-Cablevision, operators of the Madison Square Garden. The New York Cityhawks attempted to make a go of it, but the second time was not the charm. The Cityhawks departed for Hartford, Connecticut in 1999 after two seasons of wretched attendance, marking the final effort of the Arena League to conquer Manhattan.
Several weeks back, I ran a retrospective on FC Gold Pride, a Women’s Professional Soccer franchise that had a Jekyll & Hyde existence during its brief two-year lifespan. During FCGP’s first season in 2009, the club was barely competitive, finishing dead last with a roster that some WPS observers derisively referred to as “FC Old Pride”.
In early 2010, the club engineered a massive reboot, highlighted by the hotly debated $500,000 acquisition of FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. The 2010 FCGP team won the WPS Cup and can make a strong argument to be considered the most dominant women’s club side ever assembled. But red ink and disinterest sank the club less than two months after its great triumph.
Former FCGP forward Tiffany Weimer contributed an interview, which I hoped to pair with a behind-the-scenes account from FCGP’s former General Manager, Ilisa Kessler. It took a while to connect with Ilisa and the piece ending up running without her participation. Too bad, because when we finally got together she turned out to have some killer stories. I thought the highlights deserved to run here as their own post.
You worked for three seasons for the San Jose CyberRays of the WUSA before that league abruptly folded in 2003, which must have been traumatic. When new owners came into the same market ready to try again with women’s soccer in 2008, how did you feel when they asked you to lead the new organization?
First off I was honored to even be asked. Taking this position was a very difficult decision to make. I knew the history of women’s pro sports in the Bay Area, I lived it, and it always ended the same way – and the emotional rollercoaster was traumatic. I learned this as early as being with the San Jose Lasers (American Basketball League) as an intern. When that folded I was heartbroken. For the Pride, professionally, I was leaving a stable job in broadcast TV and personally I was in a new place in life because I had a family. I also knew besides risk, how much work it was going to be to start a business in less than 6 months. I knew that was going to be taxing, and maybe even impossible. But again, I was honored, and there are not many opportunities to be a General Manger of a pro sports team, and to be in the sport I love, so how could I say no? Most importantly, there are not a lot of opportunities for women to be at the General Manager level in sports, and so taking the role, I looked at it as a very serious responsibility. I hope in the end, I represented women and the sport well.
What was the difference in the reaction of the Bay Area – the media, the soccer community, sponsors – between the arrival of the CyberRays in 2001 and the arrival of FC Gold Pride in 2009?
Honestly, I don’t think much changed, at least for the mainstream media and the Bay Area community. For the Pride, the difference was that there were more avenues for us to try and get exposure – particularly with bloggers (who were great to us from the beginning), Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. But, in the end, we talked to the same people over and over. Look at the Big Soccer message boards and the WPS chat on Twitter. It’s the same voices – which are important voices, but not new voices.
I always thought we had a great website, but great doesn’t mean anything if people are not looking at it. We tried, but it was hard to break through in such a busy world. I remember a TV station telling us that they needed “a hook” to cover us for the 2010 WPS Cup championship match. Obviously bringing a championship to the Bay Area – the 1st since the 2002 San Jose Earthquakes, didn’t mean much.
For the soccer community, well, that’s an interesting paradigm. I may be generalizing a bit, but from my experience, I found that a majority of the “soccer community” loves soccer if it is about their kid, or their adult rec game. For them, soccer is recreation, not entertainment. There is a difference. I remember walking soccer fields with <French National Team midfielder> Camille Abily to promote the championship match. Most said, “we can’t make it, my kid has a game” or “I have an adult rec game”. I asked one guy if he wanted to pass with Abily (he was warming up for his match). He just shrugged and kept passing to his teammate. I thought, these people are nothing but weekend warriors. They don’t love soccer. They just love getting exercise and socializing.
Sponsors are hard to determine – I think they were weary on two fronts – those that knew the history of women’s soccer stood by with a wait & see attitude. Is it really worth an investment? And then those that just need to invest in something that will guarantee a return on investment – mostly because the economy has just been so horrible – women’s soccer isn’t that.
What (approximately) was the dollar value of corporate sponsorships that FCGP was able to attract in 2009 and 2010?
We pretty much missed every budget cycle for sponsorship in 2009. We maybe had $30K in cash and about $165K in barter/in-kind. The cash didn’t even pay for the operations of one home game. The hole was so deep from the on-set, it was impossible to dig out of it. 2010 was better. We got in the sales cycle and realized for us cash is king but offsetting operational costs with barter works for us too. We got creative. Our cash went up 857%, and barter up 44%. We had our medical bartered out – that saved us hundreds of thousands a year in medical and worker’s comp claim costs. We got all our port-a-potty’s through a sponsorship deal, saving us over $24K. Even our game program was bartered out – otherwise, we were not going to have one in year 2. Like I said, we got creative.
In 2010, FC Gold Pride acquired Marta, who was the highest paid female soccer player in the world, at a reported $500,000 year. Can you explain how her contract was structured? What was the club on the hook for and how much did sponsors like Amway have to contribute? Or did they provide sponsorship tied into Marta’s presence that partially offset what you paid out in salary?
Marta’s contract was a 3-year guaranteed contract. Meaning someone had to pay her – if not a team, then the league itself. Why there would be a 3-year deal agreed to when the league knew <Los Angeles Sol owner> AEG was only in it for one year, I don’t know….I wasn’t part of that negotiation. I do know how difficult of a negotiator Marta’s agent is, and the league seemed desperate for credibility in the start and felt that we needed the best female player in the world in the league. I also know that a player like Marta needs the US too…especially for competition, media and sponsors. But in the end, she definitely won out.
Amway, has a separate endorsement deal with Marta, and it has nothing to do with the teams. When we acquired Marta, we had to negotiate with Amway to be a sponsor, which was not easy because they were already in the market with the Earthquakes.
“The Marta Effect” as I like to call it, does not exist off the field. Her salary does not justify any new business. It’s not like a Beckham signing where you get incredible ticket sales, sponsorship and jersey sales. The biggest sale of Marta jerseys went to Marta, she bought a slew for family and friends. You can’t do any huge media campaign around her because of her limited English. Reporters are not excited to do an interview with an interpreter, it’s just not the same.
I remember when we picked her up – prior to the Los Angeles Sol dispersal draft day, we created an entire ticket sales plan and staffed heavy in the office – longer hours, etc. to handle the phones. When it was announced she was coming to the Pride, we sat for an entire day staring at each other waiting for the phones to ring. When I came in the next morning, I said, new plan – outgoing phone calls start right now. Let’s hit up season ticket holders who haven’t renewed, large groups, teams, everyone, & let them know who we just signed. At that moment, I thought, crap, she isn’t going to move the dial like we had hoped.
Talk a little about the behind-the-scenes decision to bid on Marta’s contract. What roles did you, your Head Coach Albertin Montoya and the NeSmith family play in that conversation? Was it a consensus? Were any of the veteran players on the team involved in the discussion?
I don’t remember discussing Marta with the veteran players – Albertin may have. I know throughout, Albertin did discuss with certain players the addition of new players – some we didn’t pursue because of their feedback.
The NeSmith’s discussed Marta with both Albertin and me. Of course, best player in the world – who doesn’t want to coach or manage that type of player? But from a pure business standpoint, Brian NeSmith and I discussed how it was not a good business move. We figured she would not increase tickets and sponsorship to justify her salary. We knew we would have to be extremely lucky for that to happen. But, I am sure one reason why the NeSmith’s bought the team in the beginning included the idea of owning a pro team. If you have the means, it’s an amazing opportunity to own a pro team – especially in the sport you are passionate about. And so, once you own a team and you are already pumping a lot of money into it, and coming off a losing season, then, adding the best player in the world to your team could definitely make you enjoy your investment that much more. If you are already losing a few million, what’s another half?
My last conversation with Nancy before the Board meeting that took place where the owners were to decide who could take Marta’s contract, she told me that they were not going to do it. The call after the Board meeting was Nancy saying, well, we’ve got Marta. So just like that, I knew the Pride would be the team that would pick Marta up in the draft <a few days later>. The other teams were going to pass because of cost. It was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least since Albertin and I had resigned ourselves to moving on & continuing our player acquisitions without Marta.
Can you share a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment from behind the scenes when you wondered what you’d gotten yourself into? Start-up sports leagues are famous for these and I figure you might have one or two such stories.
I have quite a few, most I can’t tell, but here’s a sampling:
One of my first decisions as GM was to approve Pounce’s (our mascot) chest size. The first drawing we got had her at about a D-cup. I asked for B. If I ever needed a title for a book about my experiences at the Pride, it would be “From the B-Cup to the Championship Cup”.
Year 2 opening day. My ops department had a complete meltdown the week leading into it. They were totally unprepared. The night before, around 7pm, we realized most of the stadium wasn’t loaded in and we had a ton of issues – no wireless for one. No wireless means no ticket sales on-site. We were freaking. I had my entire staff stay till about 2am to load the stadium – field boards, signage, food product, you name it, it was all off-site at a different location. The WPS league office showed up game day and didn’t think we were going to be able to open gates for the fans. My brother came to the Bay Area for the game and I called him at 7am to get him to the stadium to help. We asked a woman off the street with her kid to help for free tickets. I had a coach from a rec league go get us corner flags. We moved more barricade that day than I had my entire ops career. It was a nightmare. We made it, but if I didn’t have a background in ops and a staff that was willing to do anything, we probably would have never opened. Fans and the team had no idea – we prevailed.
Puma – they were great for us. Having a national apparel deal is huge for a fledgling league. I remember the CyberRays days – 3 apparel sponsors in 3 years. It was awful and stressful. Even as great as Puma was to the teams, their “lifestyle” designs got in the way of functionality. The skort was a personal fight with them. I refused to have my players wear them – here I was trying to legitimize women as strong, athletic, professional athletes, and they wanted them to play in a skort. Not on my watch.
Then there was a meeting with Puma where they came to our offices and presented their <original> concept for 2011. They started the presentation with photos of 80’s style one-piece jumpers. My heart started pounding and I physically had to restrain myself as I started to realize what was about to happen. They presented us with the “Uni-Kit”, which they pointed out was their “working title”. Nancy NeSmith was in the meeting with me and our VP of Marketing and Sponsorship, John Hooper. We all just about had a meltdown. John and I couldn’t imagine any player wearing a one-piece uniform. We brought up injuries to the midsection (how does the doctor treat?), what if blood gets on their jersey? They have to change the entire uniform? FIFA – do you think they would approve this? But the best was Nancy. She flat out said “how do you expect the women to pee? They have to completely undress to pee? No way”. I just laughed. It was by far one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in women’s soccer.
Georgia real estate develop David Berkman owned the Barracudas, along with minority partners Charles Felix and Bruce Burge. Berkman was a serial hockey investor during the 1990’s who owned, at various times, the Atlanta Knights and Quebec Rafales of the International Hockey League, the Atlanta Fire Ants of Roller Hockey International, and various East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) clubs including the Birmingham Bulls, Jacksonville Lizard Kings and the Pensacola Ice Pilots.
In the spring of 1999 Berkman and his partners made a bid to enter three indoor football franchises into a Southeastern U.S. start-up called the Xtreme Football League. Berkman’s group reserved the Birmingham, Jacksonville and Pensacola markets – all locations where they had experience operating ECHL hockey clubs.
Meanwhile, the major market Arena Football League announced plans to start its own second-tier league which would be known as AF2 and would launch in 2000. In July 1999, AF2 bought out and absorbed the Xtreme Football League into AF2. Berkman and Co. paid a $150,000 fee per franchise to enter the Birmingham Steeldogs, Jacksonville Tomcats and Pensacola Barracudas into AF2.
Former Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets defensive back Kevin Porter served as Pensacola’s Head Coach during the club’s first season in 2000.
Due to the overlapping ownership, the staff of the ECHL Ice Pilots operated the Barracudas during the summer months. During AF2’s first season in 2000, the Barracudas were a hot ticket, claiming an average of 7,294 fans per game at the Pensacola Civic Center. Attendance dropped precipitously in the next two seasons, mirroring the experience of the Ice Pilots, whose attendance fell off nearly 50% between 1998 and 2001. Barracudas attendance bottomed out at 2,768 per game in their third season during the summer of 2002.
The club folded on November 11, 2002.
Wide Receiver/Defensive Back Will Pettis made his pro debut with the Barracudas in 2002. He went on to join the first-tier Arena Football League’s Dallas Desperadoes in 2003, where he became an All-League performer. Pettis won the league’s Ironman-of-the-Year award in both 2007 and 2008, given to the league’s best two-way player. Pettis went to NFL training camps with the New Orleans Saints (2003) and the Atlanta Falcons (2005).
Downloads & Further Reading:
Pro hockey arrived in Muskegon, Michigan on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the fall of 1960, along with the opening of the 5,100-seat L.C. Walker Arena. Jerry Delise of New Haven, Connecticut secured Muskegon’s International Hockey League expansion franchise, dubbed the ‘Zephyrs’, at league meetings on June 5th, 1960.
The IHL was a classic Midwestern bus league – think Slap Shot – that initially operated in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Milwaukee in the decades after World War II. Muskegon’s club played under the Zephyrs name for five seasons (1960-1965), before Delise re-branded the club as the Muskegon Mohawks prior to the 1965-66 season.
In 1967-68 the Mohawks signed the iconoclastic 29-year old NHL refugee Carl Brewer. Brewer was perhaps one of the greatest defensemen of the 1960’s and was certainly the most gifted player to ever suit up for the Mohawks. As a young man, Brewer anchored the defense for three straight Stanley Cup champion teams for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1962 to 1964 and earned three NHL All-Star selections. But his remarkable career was punctuated by disputes with authority and serial retirements during his prime years. Among other dissatisfactions with NHL life, Brewer loathed air travel. In the winter of 1967-68, his wanderings brought him to Muskegon as a player-coach. He spent a single season of self-imposed exile in the IHL, earning all-league honors. According to a 1970 Sports Illustrated profile, Brewer relished the long bus rides through the icy Midwest, which allowed him time to read. Following the season, the Detroit Red Wings offered a contract to return to the NHL. In typical fashion, Brewer spurned the offer to go play & coach in Finland…which he travelled to by boat.
Between 1967 and 1976, the Mohawks posted nine consecutive winning seasons, highlighted by a Turner Cup championship during Carl Brewer’s season in 1968. While Brewer drifted through for only one winter, the iron men of the Mohawks throughout the Golden Era of the 1960’s and early 70’s were player-coach Moose Lallo and right winter Bryan McLay.
Both men arrived in Muskegon along with the Zephyrs in the fall of 1960. Lallo was on the tail end of a 20-year playing career, and served double-duty as the team’s Head Coach. He led the Zephyrs to a Turner Cup championship in their second season in 1961-62. Lallo retired as a player in 1965 and continued as Head Coach and General Manager until the late 1970’s. McLay played thirteen seasons with the Zephyrs and Mohawks from 1960 to 1973, scoring exactly 500 goals in 932 games. Like Lallo, McLay stayed with the Mohawks in the front office after his retirement and, also like Lallo, he never played a minute in the NHL.
Like any great minor league team of that era, the Mohawks also had a classic tough guy named Lynn Margarit. Margarit played eight seasons for the Mohawks. During the final season of his career in the winter of 1975-76, Margarit became the all-time penalty minutes leader in the IHL with 2,156. The enforcer had a particularly fierce rivalry with the players (and fans) of the Toledo Goaldiggers. In 1968, a 20-year old Toledo fan filed assault and battery charges against Margarit, claiming the big defenseman bludgeoned and kicked him with his skates in the stands of the Toledo Sports Arena. In 1975, the Goaldiggers’ Ken Wright attacked Margarit in a game at Toledo, beating him so badly he had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher and hospitalized.
The Mohawks fell on hard times after 1976. They never again had a winning season under the Mohawks name. Lallo resigned his Head Coach and General Manager post in March 1978, ending eighteen years with the organization. McLay replaced him, but quit himself less than a year later when the ‘Hawks got off to an historically bad start, going 3-32-3 to start the 1978-79 season.
The Mohawks’ struggles worsened as the 1980’s dawned. The city threatened the Mohawks with eviction over back rent in December 1981 and the team nearly folded in August 1982. The Mohawks hung in for two more losing winters, bottoming out in 1983-84 with a 19-58-5 record, the second worst performance in the IHL’s 24-year history in Muskegon.
Longtime pro hockey exec Larry Gordon purchased the Mohawks in June 1984 for the reported price of $1. Gordon was a former World Hockey Association executive and the ex-General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers. In 1980, Gordon used his Oilers connections to purchase an expansion club in the Central Hockey League, which he operated in Wichita, Kansas and later Billings, Montana from 1980 to 1984. The CHL gasped its last breath in June of 1984 and Gordon turned his attention to Muskegon.
Gordon re-branded the club, dropping the ‘Mohawks’ moniker in favor of the ‘Lumberjacks’ for the 1984-85 campaign. Over the next two years, Gordon assembled the pieces that would make the Lumberjacks the dominant IHL club of the late 1980’s. Holdover Scott Gruhl was one of the few bright spots from the listless 1983-84 squad, scoring 40 goals in just 56 games for the Mohawks. Jock Callander arrived in the fall of 1984 after spending the previous season with Gordon’s Montana Magic club.
After winning just 19 games in 1983-84, the Lumberjacks went 50-29-3 in 1984-85, posting the first 50-win season in Muskegon’s 25-year history. Callander dished out 68 assists, many of them to Gruhl who scored 62 goals en route to IHL MVP honors. Muskegon advanced to the Turner Cup finals, losing to the Peoria Rivermen four games to three.
The Lumberjacks added the final piece of the puzzle in 1985, signing Callander’s former junior hockey teammate Dave Michayluk. Michayluk, Gruhl and Callander combined for 150 goals in 1985-86 as Muskegon recorded a second straight 50-win season. This time the Lumberjacks finished the job, sweeping the Fort Wayne Komets in the finals to earn Muskegon’s first Turner Cup since 1968.
In 1987, Gordon further boosted Muskegon’s fortunes by signing an affiliation deal with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, which made Muskegon the top farm club for the Pens. Pittsburgh would now provide upwards of 16 players per season to augment the roster led by Callander, Gruhl and Michayluk.
The Lumberjacks returned to the Turner Cup finals again in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992, losing three times and winning one more title (1989). Perhaps the best Lumberjacks club of the era – the 1987-88 team coached by former NHL star Rick Ley – failed to make the finals after setting a league record with 58 regular season wins. Gruhl departed after the 1989-90 season, but the Callander-Michayluk combo stayed intact through all five championship series appearances from 1986 to 1992.
“<Dave> was such a great player and natural scorer. I got a lot of assists because of his scoring ability,” recalled Callander in 2011. “We had so much confidence playing together and knowing where the other one was going to be. We loved the game. I know for sure my career would not have been anywhere near as successful without him as a line mate.”
When Larry Gordon bought into the league in 1984 for $1, it was a Midwestern bus league. Muskegon was a typical IHL city, with a population of just under 40,000. In the early 1990’s, IHL franchises began to trade in the millions of dollars, as NBA owners and other well-heeled investors brought franchises to major cities like Detroit and Salt Lake City. Despite Muskegon’s dominant play, the small city only produced average attendance of about 2,600 in 1991, a figure now well below the league’s purported average of 5,700. In early 1992, Gordon orchestrated a move to Cleveland for the 1992-93 season.
In May of 1992, as the franchise prepared to move to Cleveland, the Muskegon Lumberjacks had perhaps their finest hour. Their Pittsburgh Penguins parent club, riddled with injuries to key players, promoted “The Muskegon Line” of Callander, Michayluk and Mike Needham to skate as a unit in the playoffs. None of the men had played in the NHL during the regular season. Michayluk hadn’t seen action in an NHL game in nine years. All three players scored a playoff goal during the Penguins playoff run. Their names are inscribed on the Stanley Cup today as 1992 NHL champions.
“The Stanley Cup was a dream come true. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to play another NHL game,” said Callander. “When I got the call I had not played <in the NHL> for over a year. We all got called up in the playoffs when the Lumberjacks were getting ready to start the <IHL> finals. The next six weeks were unbelievable it was a whirlwind of excitement and a roller coaster of emotions. I really felt bad for our teammates in Muskegon because I believe we would have won another Turner Cup. Our team was playing at a very high level at the time we all got called up. But at the same time I was living out a dream that I had since childhood and it was something I will never forget.”
The Lumberjacks played in Cleveland from 1992 to 2001, when the International Hockey League folded.
Dave Michayluk never played in the NHL again after helping the Penguins win the 1992 Stanley Cup. He returned to Cleveland and played five more seasons alongside his friend Jock Callander.
Callander played briefly for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL before returning to the Cleveland Lumberjacks in 1993. He retired in 2000 as the IHL’s all-time leading point scorer, a feat he attributes to playing alongside Michayluk, and today works in the front office of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, based in Cleveland.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks name is back in use today by an amateur team in the United States Hockey League, which plays at L.C. Walker Arena.
The Quebec Rifles entered the United Football League as an expansion franchise in January 1964. Based out of Montreal, the new franchise adopted the nickname of its local hero Head Coach, former Montreal Alouettes star quarterback Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry. The Rifles were a geographic anomaly in the eight-team UFL, a minor league loop based in the Midwest with clubs in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia. In Canada, the Rifles were the first team to play pro football under American, rather than Canadian, rules. J.I. Albrecht served as the club’s General Manager.
The Rifles played out of 13,000-seat Delorimier Stadium, a former home of both the Alouettes (1946-1953) and the Montreal Royals, the long-time farm club of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Royals finished the 1964 UFL season at 5-9. Running back Joe Williams led the league in scoring with 17 touchdowns. Former University of Indiana Hoosier John Henry Jackson handled the quartbacking duties as one of the early African-Americans to see significant time at the position in the pros.
In February 1965, the UFL clubs split into two factions. The owners interested in pursuing the traditional low-budget minor league model went off to launch the Professional Football League of America. The UFL’s more ambitious franchises, including the Rifles, merged with like-minded clubs from the Atlantic Coast Football League to announce the formation of the Continental Football League. The Continental League announced its intention to pursue a television contract and to compete with the NFL and the AFL for top collegiate talent. The owners hired A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Commissioner of Major League Baseball (1945-1951) for the same post in their new organization.
Along with a new league, the Rifles had a new home in 1965. The club relocated from Montreal to Toronto, a shift that got off to a rocky start when the University of Toronto refused to offer a lease at Varsity Stadium. The club reluctantly set up shop at Maple Leafs Stadium, a baseball stadium used by the city’s triple-A baseball team. Etcheverry did not make the move to Toronto and was replaced as Head Coach by former Alouettes assistant Leo Cahill.
Under Cahill, the Toronto Rifles went 11-3 in 1965 and earned a trip to the Continental Football League championship game, which they lost to the Charleston (WV) Rockets 24-7. The backfield duo of Joe Williams and Bob Blakely finished top two in the league in rushing, while wide receiver Dick Limerick paced the circuit with 17 touchdowns. John Henry Jackson took the snaps at quarterback again, with the exception of one October night in Charleston, West Virginia. FBI agents entered the Rifles locker room moments before kickoff and arrested the 26-year old on draft evasion charges. Charleston’s owner courteously paid Jackson’s $1,000 bond and Jackson made it back to the stadium in time to watch the final three minutes of the game.
In 1966, the Rifles got the Varsity Stadium lease they coveted and moved across town. Jackson lost his starting job to Tom Wilkinson, a rookie out of the University of Wyoming. Wilkinson passed for 18 touchdowns and earned league Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Williams and Blakely finished 1-2 in the league in rushing for the second straight year, both going over 1,000 yards. Cahill’s Rifles were a top club once again and their 9-5 record was good enough to get back to the Continental League playoffs. In the semi-final, they met the Philadelphia Bulldogs in a rematch of the 1965 title game. Once again, the Bulldogs got the best of it, eliminating the Rifles 31-14.
In April 1967, Cahill moved across town to take the head job with the dreadful Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. The Rifles signed CFL legend Jackie Parker to take over coaching duties. It was the first coaching gig for the recently retired 35-year old. But during the pre-season, Parker became alarmed at the desperate state of the team’s finances and resigned two days before the season opener.
The Rifles ownership folded on September 5th, 1967 after only two regular seasons games. Continental Football League officials met in emergency session and agreed to collectively fund and operate the team through the end of the season, possibly as a travel-only team. Now a ward of the league, the Rifles played their third and final game of 1967 on September 16th, losing 16-3 to the Hartford Charter Oaks in a game shifted from Toronto to Connecticut.
Shortly thereafter, the Continental League’s new Akron Vulcans franchise – owned by a con artist named Frank Hurn who bought the club with Chicago mob money – collapsed as well. Unable to operate two clubs at league expense, the league folded by both the Rifles and the Vulcans on September 21st, 1967.
The Rifles ran significant deficits throughout their brief history. The club lost a reported $300,000 in 1965 and $400,000 in 1966.
The Continental Football League folded after the 1969 season.
After the Rifles folded, Tom Wilkinson joined Leo Cahill across town with the Argonauts. He went on to play 15 seasons in the CFL, winning the league Most Outstanding Player award in 1974 and winning five Grey Cup titles with as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos between 1975 and his final season in 1981.
Sam Etcheverry, the man who gave the Rifles their name, was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969. His post-Rifles coaching career was brief, but did include a Grey Cup championship as head man of the Montreal Alouettes in 1970. Etcheverry passed away in 2009.
Rifles President Alan Eagleson introduced the player agent era to the National Hockey League by representing the teenage Bobby Orr in the mid-1960’s. As Executive Director of the NHL Players Association he became one of the sport’s primary power brokers in the 1970’s and 1980’s and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989. In the 1990’s Eagleson’s ethical and financial misdeeds as an agent and leader of the NHLPA came to light as the result of investigations by Lawrence (MA) Eagle-Tribune reporter Russ Conway and complaints by retired NHL players, including Orr. Eagleson was ultimately indicted in the U.S. and Canada on charges of fraud, embezzlement and racketerring. He served a prison sentence in Canada in the late 1990’s.
Remember that Churchill line about the Russians that Oliver Stone lifted for JFK? It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It’s a sentiment often shared by fans and observers trying to discern the money men and financing schemes behind the kind of pro sports outfits that swim in the weird end of the pool.
When I ran the Boston Breakers in Women’s Professional Soccer in 2010, the St. Louis Athletica franchise abruptly folded in midseason when Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid – a couple of shady Subway and Papa John’s franchisees in London – stopped making payroll. The collective reaction of WPS officials and St. Louis fans was: “Who the f**k are the Vaid Brothers?” Nobody ever heard of these clowns. We all thought another guy owned the club – you know, the guy who actually owned the club the year before and still liked to refer to himself as the “Chairman” and take part in league conference calls. Turns out he sold it, but forgot to tell anyone.
The Vaids may have been poorly vetted absentee deadbeats, but they weren’t scary. Not scary like the reputed backers of the Major Indoor Soccer League‘s Phoenix Inferno, a blackbox franchise whose personable front man Rick Ragone turned out to have little equity, but plenty of silent partners back in Scarface-era Miami.
Ragone’s story begins in Miami, where as a young man he worked as a PR assistant with the Miami Dolphins. In the early 1970’s Ragone hooked on in the front office of the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League, where he became an early proponent of the hybrid game of indoor soccer, played on carpeted hockey rinks. At the Toros, Ragone crossed paths with Scottish-born executive Norm Sutherland. The two men kicked around the NASL for a few years and then teamed up to announce the formation of the indoor Major Soccer League in August 1975. Ragone and Sutherland envisioned their league as a summer time rival to the outdoor NASL and claimed they had franchises “90% sold” in six major markets. The project never made it off the drawing board, similar to other efforts that the young entrepeneurs tried to get off the ground in the late 1970’s, including Ragone’s effort to put an NASL team in sleepy Spokane, Washington and Sutherland’s role in another abandoned indoor start-up, 1978’s Super Soccer League.
Nevertheless, Ragone and Sutherland were not the people sold on indoor soccer in the Seventies. Two other men, Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman succeeded in launching the first indoor the league, the Major Indoor Soccer League, in December 1978 with six teams in major East Coast and Midwest cities. Rapid expansion followed and the MISL announced Phoenix, Arizona as the league’s 12th franchise on May 30th, 1980 to begin play that November. Ragone would be the President and purported owner and he tabbed Sutherland as the Head Coach & GM of the club, dubbed the Phoenix Inferno.
The Inferno debuted at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 21st, 1980, losing 5-4 to the San Francisco Fog before an announced crowd of 11,098. Sutherland last only half the season in the Head Coach role, posting an 8-19 record before being replaced by player-coach Adrian Webster. But Ragone didn’t jettison his old colleague – Sutherland retained his GM role in the front office. The Inferno finished their first season at 17-23, good enough to squeak into the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to the defending champion New York Arrows. At the box office, the Inferno claimed attendance of 152,309 for 21 dates for an average of 7,253.
Barely a month into the Inferno’s second season on December 22, 1981, tragedy struck when Ragone perished along with his father in a four-car accident in Paradise Valley, Arizona. After Ragone’s death, a San Francisco real estate investor named Irv Berger stepped in and assumed control of the franchise in January 1982.
Under Berger, the financial fortunes of the Inferno swiftly plummeted. By December of 1982, just 11 months into his ownership, the Inferno owed more than $110,000 in back payroll taxes to the federal government and another $26,000 to the Arizona Department of Revenue. On December 13th, 1982, IRS agents raided the Inferno offices, seized all the cash on the premises and padlocked the office shut. A bankruptcy court sold a controlling stake in the club to Arizona cable television pioneer Bruce Merrill in January 1983 for $175,000. Under Merrill’s financial stewardship the once-bankrupt Inferno were able to complete the 1982-83 MISL season.
After getting out from under his Inferno financial woes, Irv Berger gave an interview to The Arizona Republic in February 1983 revealing more details of the Inferno’s financial history and ownership structure. Despite Ragone’s public representations, the majority ownership in the club during Ragone’s (and later Berger’s) tenure was held by a group of Cuban exiles in and around Key Biscayne and Hialeah, Florida.
The group included the Reverend Manuel A. Espinosa, a controversial right wing radio host in Miami with ties to the anti-Castro paramilitary leader and accused terrorist Dr. Orlando Bosch. Espinosa was profiled in Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1980. Two other Inferno investors, Rogelio “Roger” Novo and Emilio Palmar co-owned Roger’s-on-the-Green, a golf course restaurant and lounge in Key Biscayne, Florida. In 1982, Ricardo “Monkey” Morales was shot in the head and killed there during an argument with another patron. During the 1960’s and 1970’s Morales was involved with violent anti-Castro mercenaries, while simultaneously working as an informant for the CIA, FBI and DEA. By his own admission, Morales was part of the October 1976 bombing of Cubana Air Lines flight 455 in the sky off Barbados, an act of terrorism for which Dr. Orlando Bosch was arrested and tried in Venezuela. The bombing killed 73 people on board including all 24 members of Cuba’s Olympic gold medal fencing team. Conspiracy theorists have speculated on Morales as a possible participant in various Cuban exile scenarios of the JFK assassination.
The Arizona Republic article cited accounts from Inferno staff members that Ragone would periodically fly off to Miami and return with “suitcases full of cash”. For his part, Berger came off as somewhat rattled by the experience. Noting that he only met one of the Cubans (Novo) one time, Berger told the paper: “I hear this group is very dangerous. You better watch your step. They’re very heavy people.”
Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Bruce Merrill set about re-branding his formerly bankrupt club. He fired Sutherland and replaced him with former San Diego Clippers (NBA) GM Ted Podleski. Podleski, a conservative Christian, blanched at the Inferno name and replaced it with the dullest identity imaginable: for the 1983-84 season, Arizona’s MISL entry would be known as the Phoenix Pride. Podleski also dispensed with the Inferno’s flashy yellow, red & black color scheme and substituted coloring more suitable to his bland new vision: beige.
The 1983-84 Phoenix Pride campaign was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. The club finished in 6th (last) place in the MISL’s Western Division with an 18-30 record. Merrill, for his part, lost $2.2 million operating the Pride, a figure that United Press International sportingly referred to as “a league record”. In June 1984, Merrill announced the club would fold if he could not find a Greater Fool buyer within one month. Failing to do so, he terminated his membership in July 1984.
At least some members of the group of Cuban exiles behind the Inferno were, in fact, “very heavy people”, as Berger had warned.
Rogelio Novo, the Inferno investor and restauranteur who witnessed Morales’ killing, met a gruesome end of his own in January 1985. He died of a shotgun blast to the head and his body was dumped in an undeveloped area in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Another Cuban exile Inferno investor, Reverend Manuel Espinosa, was politely asked to move out of his Hialeah, Florida housing unit when components for an unexploded bomb were discovered beneath his car in 1983. He died of natural causes in the late 1980’s.
After the Pride folded in 1984, pro indoor soccer returned to Phoenix with the Arizona Sandsharks of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1993. That club lasted five years from 1993 to 1997.
Several former Inferno staff members have gone on to business careers of great acclaim. Former broadcaster Marc Middleton is the CEO of Growing Bolder Media Group and host of the Growing Bolder television show syndicated on PBS channels nationwide.
Former Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tim Pearson later became Chief Marketing Officer for consulting giant KPMG and is a New York Times best-selling author of several business marketing and branding books.