#50 Phoenix Inferno / Phoenix Pride
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.