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#55 San Diego Spirit

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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.

Downloads:

San Diego Spirit Sources

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Written by andycrossley

November 13, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Behind the Scenes at FC Gold Pride with Ilisa Kessler

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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. 

FWiL:

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?

Kessler:

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.

FWiL:

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?

Kessler

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.

FWiL:

What (approximately) was the dollar value of corporate sponsorships that FCGP was able to attract in 2009 and 2010?

Kessler:

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.

FWiL:

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?

Kessler:

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.

FWiL:

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?

Kessler:

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.

FWiL:

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.

Kessler:

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.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE COMPLETE INTERVIEW WITH ILISA KESSLER

Written by andycrossley

November 6, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Posted in Interviews, Soccer, Women's Sports

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#50 Phoenix Inferno / Phoenix Pride

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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.

Downloads:

Phoenix Inferno & Pride Article Sources

Written by andycrossley

October 29, 2011 at 2:50 am

#45 Sacramento Spirits / Sacramento Gold

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During pro soccer’s 1970’s boom years (or bubble years, as it turned out) the city of Sacramento, California hosted 2nd division professional soccer for five seasons.  The Sacramento Spirits/Gold appeared in three American Soccer League championship games between 1976 and 1980.  Oddly, during the two seasons the Sacramentans did not play for the championship, they finished dead last.

The American Soccer League dated all the way back to 1933 and spent most of its existence confined to industrial cities of the Northeast, where teams were often defined by their ethnic affiliation.  Through the postwar years clubs such as the New York Hakoah-Americans, Newark Portuguese and the Philadelphia Ukrainians competed under the ASL auspices.  In the early 1970’s, the league began to professionalize, banishing the ethnic names and branching out beyond the Philadelphia-New York corridor.

In 1974, the ASL hired former NBA star Bob Cousy – who professed to know nothing whatsoever about soccer – as its Commissioner to attract national credibility.  A full-fledged West Coast expansion occurred in the summer of 1976, which included the debut of the Sacramento Spirits.  The Spirits played out of Sacramento State Stadium and finished in the cellar that first year with a 4-14-3 record.

The Spirits returned in 1977 and engineered a remarkable turnaround under Head Coach Bob Ridley.  The Spirits won the West Division with an 18-4-4 record and flew east on to face the New Jersey Americans for the ASL Championship on September 4th, 1977.  The Americans triumped 3-0.  Ridley was named Coach-of-the-Year and Spirits leading scorer Mal Roche earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors.

After the 1977 season, a California cabinet manufacturer named John Andreotti bought the Sacramento franchise and re-branded it as the Sacramento Gold for 1978.  The 1978 campaign was anything but golden as the club regressed to a 7-15-2 last place finish.

The Gold rebuilt again in 1979, importing English brothers Ian and Malcolm Filby and South African striker Neill Roberts among others.  Mal Filby was expected to be the team’s key threat but suffered a season-ending injury in the home opener.  Brother Ian stepped up in his stead and led the ASL in scoring with 14 goals and 17 assists.  From a front office standpoint though, the best signing had to be Roberts.  Midway through the season, the Gold sold Roberts’ contract to the Atlanta Chiefs of the first division North American Soccer League for $25,000, reportedly a record transfer fee between the two American leagues.  (Roberts was more than worth it, scoring 14 goals in 19 matches for the Chiefs in 1979).

That $25,000 undoubtedly helped the Gold bottom line.  According to Dave Litterer’s terrific American Soccer History Archives site, typical annual operating budgets for ASL franchises in the late 1970’s averaged $300,000 to $350,000 per year.  By 1979, the Gold had moved to 23,000-seat Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College.  During the 1979 season, the Gold drew 57,073 to Hughes for 14 matches and led the low-budget ASL with average announced attendance of 4,077 per match.

On September 17th, 1979 the Gold travelled to Ohio to face the Columbus Magic in the American Soccer League championship game.  The match took place at Franklin County Stadium, a re-lined minor league baseball park.  As he had all season, Ian Filby came through for the Gold and broke a scoreless tie in the 84th minute.  The 1-0 margin held up to give the Gold the 1979 ASL championship.

The Gold returned for a third ASL season in 1980 (fifth if you count the Spirits years), but quickly ran out of money.  In early July 1980, the Gold chose to forfeit a road match at the Miami Americans rather than pay for airfare to Florida.  By late July, with the team still unwilling or unable to travel, the ASL terminated the franchise.  A group of Sacramento-area boosters raised $35,000 – $40,000 and turned it over to the league office to run the team through the end of the season.  “Sacramento” (the Gold moniker was dropped) finished out the season as a ward of the league and, improbably, made a return visit to the ASL championship game.  Sacramento lost the title match to the Pennsylvania Stoners 2-1 in Allentown, PA on September 18th, 1980.

After the season, Sacramento folded along with the rest of the ASL’s remaining West Coast franchises.

##

The ASL played three more seasons from 1981 to 1983.  After 1980, it never again fielded a team west of Oklahoma City.  The league folded in late 1983 or early 1984.

The Gold’s young General Manager Greg “Dutch” Van Dusen became a leading figure in the successful effort to lure the NBA’s Kansas City Kings franchise to Sacramento in 1985.  He also negotiated the naming rights to the city’s ARCO Arena and worked as an executive for the Kings throughout the 1980’s.

Professional soccer – of the indoor variety – returned to Sacramento in the summer of 1993 with the Knights of the Continental Indoor Soccer League.  The Knights played at ARCO Arena in a succession of leagues for nine summers between 1993 and 2001.

Downloads:

Sacramento Spirits / Gold Sources

Written by andycrossley

October 16, 2011 at 7:20 pm

#43 St. Louis Storm

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St. Louis, Missouri was a hotbed of indoor soccer in the early 1980’s.  The city’s St. Louis Steamers of the Major Indoor Soccer League claimed higher average attendances than the NHL’s St. Louis Blues for five straight years from 1980 to 1984.  The club had local celebrity ownership in minority partner Stan Musial.  At their third season peak in the winter of 1981-82, the Steamers averaged more than 17,000 fans per game and played for the MISL championship for the second straight year.

The Steamers began a sad decline in the mid-1980’s, accelerating when original owner Ben Kerner sold the club in July 1984.  By the spring of 1988, the club was insolvent – reportedly $1 million in debt and unable to meet payroll.   Just 4,839 turned out at St. Louis Arena to watch the Steamer’s final match on April 15th, 1988.  A white knight investor group led by San Jose, California businessman Milan Mandaric poked at the carcass, but ultimately passed.  The MISL formally terminated the rudderless Steamers on June 22nd, 1988.  Mandaric’s interest hadn’t entirely cooled, however.

From 1979 to 1984, the MISL engaged in aggressive expansion throughout the United States.  But the league’s fortunes peaked around the same time as the Steamers.  From 1985 to 1988, the league added just one expansion franchise and that club, the New York Express, imploded midway through its debut season, causing national embarassment for the league.  During the same period, the MISL lost eight franchises, including the Steamers and the profitable and popular Cleveland Force, whose owner Bart Wolstein pulled out of the league in July 1988 in sheer frustration.

“(The MISL) was on a roller coaster downhill,” Wolstein told The Los Angeles Times in November 1988.  “I don’t think it will survive, No.1, and if it does survive, I don’t think it will be of any quality.”

The MISL, beset by union bickering, declining fan & broadcast interest and red ink, had little going for it by the end of the 1980’s.  But it did have the siren song of nostalgia in cities like St. Louis and Cleveland, tempting investors to try and recapture the brief moments when the Steamers and the Force had been the hottest ticket in town.  Re-enter Milan Mandaric.

Serbian-born Milan Mandaric built separate fortunes in socialist Yugoslavia (auto parts) and later as a naturalized citizen in Silicon Valley, California (circuit boards).  Always a soccer lover, he first invested in the outdoor North American Soccer League, as owner of two Bay Area clubs in the 1970’s – the San Jose Earthquakes (1974-1978) and the Oakland Stompers (1978), both of which he later sold.  Mandaric quickly lost interest in the Steamers’ mess in 1988, but soon turned his attention to an expansion team in the city.  A clean slate.  On July 6th, 1989 the MISL approved Mandaric’s expansion bid and indoor soccer returned to the Gateway City after a one-year absence in the form of the St. Louis Storm.

Mandaric hired Don Popovic as the Storm’s Head Coach.  Popovic, a fellow Serb, had built the MISL’s first dynasty as Head Coach of the New York Arrows from 1978 to 1983.  Popovic’s Arrows were built around a core of fellow Yugoslav and Hungarian emigres such as Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Fred Grgurev, Juli Veee and Zoltan Toth.  The Arrow won the MISL’s first four titles from 1979-1982, defeating the Steamers in the championship series in both 1981 and 1982.  The years since had been leaner for Popovic.  Gigs with the MISL’s Las Vegas Americans (1984-85) and Pittsburgh Spirit (1985-86) ended after a single season when those clubs folded.  He lasted only a single game as Head Coach of the New York Express in 1987.

The 1989-90 Storm team, assembled on three month’s notice, was short on Slavs by Popovic standards (only three).  The core of the team was built on players from the former Los Angeles Lazers franchise, which folded two weeks before St. Louis joined the league.  To stock the team, the Storm were awarded the first five picks in the Lazers dispersal draft.  Daryl Doran, a long-time Steamer favorite (1982-1988), returned to St. Louis by way of the Lazers draft.  Also returning from the Steamers’ glory years was poopular goalkeeper Slobodan Ilijevski, known to local fans simply as “Slobo”, who played eight seasons with the Steamers from 1980-1988.

The Storm finished 24-28 in their debut season, posting the weakest record of any postseason qualifier.  The eventual champion San Diego Sockers eliminated the Storm in the first round of playoffs.  Off the field, the Storm lost a reported $1.5 million during the 1989-90 season, which Mandaric had to absorb himself as the sole owner.  This led Mandaric to publicly speculate about folding the club after a single season.  But in July 1990, Mandaric secured ten local limited partners and agreed to continue, possibly saving the MISL as a whole, as the Sockers had threatened to follow suit if the Storm shut down.  The league lived on for a thirteenth season under a new name – the Major Soccer League (MSL).

With the team’s future settled for now, Popovic added some Slavic firepower, signing the 1989 MISL MVP Preki (Predrag Radosavljevic) in August 1990.  The Yugoslav midfielder was in his prime at the age of 27, having led the league in cumulative scoring over the past five years.  He became available to the Storm as a free agent due to a salary dump by his former team, the perenially low budget Tacoma Stars.

“Preki is the Michael Jordan of the MISL, he’s that good,” said Storm VP & General Manager Dan Counce announced at the time.

During the 1990-91 season, the Storm surged ahead on the field, posting a 32-20 record, second best in eight-team MSL.  Preki lived up to the hype, scoring 68 goals and adding 53 assists, many of those dished out to Thompson Usiyan who added 64 goals.  Hungarian Zoltan Toth – a Popovic holdover from the New York Arrows dynasty of the early 80’s – handled the bulk of the goalkeeping duties, posting a 25-10 record.

During the season, the Storm travelled to Switzerland and won the FIFA-sanctioned Zurich International indoor soccer tournament.  In the spring, St. Louis defeated the Tacoma Stars in the playoff quarterfinals before falling again to the arch-rival Sockers in the MSL semis.

In the front office, the news was even better.  Announced attendance rose from 6,400 to a league-high 7,772 fans per game.  Running on a $2.5 million annual expense budget, the Storm projected to lose $350,000 for the year, a 70% reduction from the staggering first year loss.  For the first (and only) summer in Storm history, Mandaric did not threaten to fold the team.

Heading into the 1991-92 campaign, Popovic added another high-scoring Yugoslav to his stable.  Like Toth, Branko Segota was a key member of Popovic’s early 80’s championship teams in New York.  To pry him away from the San Diego Sockers, the Storm had to part ways Thompson Usiyan and his 64 goals.

It turned out to be a poor trade.  Viewed as a top contender, the 1991-92 season quickly went sideways for St. Louis.  Beset by injuries, goalkeeper Toth unexpectedly retired two games in to the season.  In early March, with the club mired in last place at 12-20, management fired Don Popovic. Defender Fernando Clavijo finished out the season as player-coach.  In April 1992, the Storm’s third season, which had begun with sky high expectations, ended in a 7th place (dead last) finish with a 17-23 record.  Remarkably, despite the on-field disaster and lame duck ownership, the Storm led the MSL in attendance with an announced average of 10,748 at St. Louis Arena, up 25% from 1990-91.

By early 1992, Mandaric was reportedly more interested in the $162 million new arena planned for his adopted home city of San Jose than in continuing with the Storm in St. Louis.  He placed his 80% stake in the team up for sale early in the 1991-92 season.  Throughout the season’s second half, negotiations lurched along for a group led by limited partner Dr. Abraham Hamatweh to purchase the Storm.  Hamatweh, a former Steamers and Storm season ticket holder, acquired a minority stake in the club in the summer of 1990, when Mandaric first considered folding the team.  The negotiations stalled throughout the spring as Hamatweh’s group continually failed to generate enough capital to conclude the transaction.

The St. Louis negotations took on more urgency once the eternally shaky Tacoma Stars gasped their death wheeze on June 5th, 1992. Two weeks later, a potential savior expansion franchise in Buffalo declined to join the MSL in favor of its lower-cost, non-union rival, the National Professional Soccer League.  That left the Storm as the MSL’s sixth franchise and several owners went on record saying they wouldn’t continue with only five teams.

The five remaining franchises of the MSL voted unanimously to fold on July 10th, 1992 after Hawatmeh’s group gave up trying to raise the necessary funds to continute as the league’s sixth franchise.  The group reportedly raised $850,000 – more than enough to post the league’s required $350,000 letter of credit for the 1992-93 season – but felt it didn’t have enough to continue in the MSL, despite the league’s continual cost cutting over the previous four years.

##

One month after the MSL folded in July 1992, Storm minority owner Dr. Abraham Hawatmeh and his group purchased the Tulsa Ambush of the lower-budget National Professional Soccer League.  The NPSL’s lower cost model allowed Hawatmeh’s group to move forward with the financial commitment they deemed insufficient for the MSL just a few weeks earlier.  The St. Louis Ambush played at St. Louis Arena for eight more seasons before folding in 2000.

Milan Mandaric took two more cracks at indoor soccer.  In 1994 and 1995, Mandaric operated the San Jose Grizzlies of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in his adopted hometown.  In San Jose, Mandaric reunited with Preki, who earned CISL MVP honors for the Grizzlies in 1995.  The Grizzlies folded in 1995 after two seasons.   Mandaric entered the expansion Florida Thundercats in the National Professional Soccer League in the fall of 1998.  Former Storm defender Fernando Clavijo coached the Thundercats.  The club folded after one season of dismal attendance at the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise, Florida.  Mandaric has sinced turned his attention back to Europe, where he has owned Portsmouth, Leicester City and Sheffield Wednesday in England.

Preki became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1996.  He debuted for the U.S. National Team the same year, earning 28 caps between 1996 and 2001 and representing his adopted country in the 1998 World Cup.  Preki also played for the Kansas City Wizards and Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer from 1996 to 2005, winning MVP honors in 1997 and 2003.  He retired at age 42 in 2005 and later served as Head Coach of both Chivas USA (2007-2009) and Toronto FC (2010) of MLS.

Long-time St. Louis Steamers and St. Louis Storm goalkeeper Slobo Ilijevski passed away on July 14th, 2008 after suffering a ruptured aorta while playing soccer for an amateur team. He was 58.

Sources

“Major Indoor Soccer League Preview: Slimmed Down League Will Try To Regain Credibility – and Fans”, Pete Thomas, The Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1988
“MISL Withstands One More Storm”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1990
“MISL Storm signs Stars’ Preki” United Press International, August 14, 1990
“Storm soccer team cuts losses by 70%”, Rob Moore, The St. Louis Business Journal, May 27, 1991
“Segota Doing Well, But Storm is Losing”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1992
“MSL owners to huddle on league’s future today. Buffalo joins NPSL.” Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun, June 19, 1992
“Owners To Discuss Future of MSL in Call Today”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1992
“Soccer league fizzles, extinguishes city’s Blast. Last minute talks to replace teams fail.” Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun, July 11, 1992

Written by andycrossley

October 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm

#42 FC Gold Pride

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FC Gold Pride was a short-lived franchise in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), which played at multiple locations in the Bay Area of California over two seasons from 2009 to 2010.  Although the club never caught on with Bay Area soccer fans or corporate sponsors, the club did engineer a stunning worst-to-first turnaround from its debut season in 2009 to its swan song in 2010.  FC Gold Pride’s 2010 WPS Cup championship side is widely considered to be one of the finest women’s club teams ever assembled.  However, the club folded little more than a month after winning the Cup.

FC Gold Pride came into existence on September 3, 2008 as a last minute franchise for the inaugural season of WPS, which planned to kickoff in March 2009.  The other six WPS franchises had each been in place for more than a year when the league introduced the FC Gold Pride club, owned by tech entrepeneur Brian NeSmith and his wife Nancy.  In fact, WPS had already awarded two expansion clubs for the 2010 season by the time the NeSmiths signed on for 2009.

WPS needed the Bay Area club to replace its moribund Dallas franchise, the league’s seventh club which existed on paper only.  The purported Dallas investors had made zero progress securing a stadium lease and had neglected to hire a coach or front office staff by the late summer of 2008.  With FC Gold Pride’s entry, Dallas was quietly removed from league plans.  WPS could now move on to the process of allocation – the distribution of U.S. Women’s National Team players to each of the seven founding franchises.  The USWNT had just defeated the powerhouse Brazilians for Olympic gold in Beijing on August 21st, 2008.  WPS would allocate three of the U.S. gold medalists to each club, who would serve as the marketing tent poles for each local franchise.

In allocation, each of the two dozen or so eligible USWNT players would choose and rank their top three WPS cities to play in.  The seven WPS clubs would submit a wish list of the three USWNT players they wished to bring into market.  Commissioner Tonya Antonucci and her league staff would serve as matchmakers, aligning the player and team preferences as closely as possible.  In a preliminary ballot, not a single USWNT player listed Dallas among their three choices.  With the entrance of Bay Area into the league, the players received new ballots and the results shifted dramatically.

Sixteen players – nearly two-thirds of the pool – ranked Bay Area on their list of preferred cities, making the two-week old franchise the most popular destination in the league.  This included the Americans’ greatest star, Abby Wambach, who ranked FC Gold Pride as her top choice.  Wambach had started her pro career in the previous pro league, the WUSA,  in 2002 and 2003 with the Washington Freedom, owned by John Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel.  Alone among WUSA investors, Hendricks kept his team alive after that league folded in 2003.  From 2004-2008, Henricks funded a low-budget version of the Freedom, which played an amateur schedule without its former stars such as Wambach and Mia Hamm.  That legacy gave Hendricks great credibility as the dean of WPS owners and he insisted on the return of his erstwhile superstar.  Wambach got her second choice and was allocated to Washington.  In the allocation event on September 16, 2008, FC Gold Pride received three players with local ties: defender Rachel Buehler and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart of Stanford and midfielder Leslie Osborne of Santa Clara University.

As Head Coach, the NeSmith’s quickly appointed Albertin Montoya, a former college assistant at Stanford and Santa Clara.  The club did not undertake a comprehensive coaching search and Montoya had a thin resume by WPS standards.  Skeptics of the hire pointed out that Montoya’s key credential seemed to have been running the Mountain View Los Altos Girls Youth Soccer Club where the NeSmith daughters played as teenagers.

FC Gold Pride signed a lease to play at 10,000-seat Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University, a facility shared with the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer.  Gold Pride debuted at home on April 5th, 2009 against the Boston Breakers in a game televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.  The crowd of 6,459 went home happy after former U.S. National Team star Tiffeny Milbrett came off the Gold Pride bench to break a 1-1 tie in the 90th minute.

Carrie Dew and I would call that our ‘Glory Day’,” recalled forward Tiffany Weimer, who assisted on the franchise’s first goal that afternoon.  “It was the best we played and we thought we were going undefeated after that.”

The glory didn’t last.  Gold Pride won only three of their remaining 19 matches in 2009.  At 4-10-6, Gold Pride finished last in the seven-team league and their total of 17 goals in 20 matches was the weakest offensive output in WPS.    Bright spots included the Canadian international Christine Sinclair (6 goals) and Tiffeny Milbrett (4 goals), who combined for ten of the club’s seventeen goals and were both selected to play in the postseason WPS All-Star game.  The All-Star nod must have been sweet vindication for the 36-year old Milbrett.  The former WUSA Most Valuable Player (2001) had scored 100 goals for the U.S. National Team from 1991 to 2006 but was passed over by every WPS franchise in the league’s January player draft before latching on with Gold Pride as a free agent in March.

FC Gold Pride’s announced attendance dropped substantially after the home opener.  Only one of Gold Pride’s remaining eight home dates in 2009 drew over 4,000 fans.  The club started the season with the highest ticket prices in WPS ($18 – $45 per seat).  Halfway through the summer, the team slashed those prices, angering some season ticket holders and advance buyers.  Unlike other WPS clubs, Gold Pride offered few comp and deep discount promotions to pad attendance.  In fact, the club’s internal sales figures actually stacked up much better within WPS than the league’s announced attendance figures indicated to the public.  Gold Pride sold 885 season tickets – 4th best in WPS – and their total 2009 ticket sales revenue of $644,000 ranked third, trailing only the Boston Breakers ($646K) and the Los Angeles Sol ($854K).

Despite the last place finish, the NeSmith’s retained Montoya for Gold Pride’s second season in 2010 and the rebuilding began.  41-year U.S. National Team legend Brandi Chastain, the league’s oldest player, was released.  Team captain Leslie Osborne was allowed to depart via free agency, as was the Brazilian midfielder Formiga, whom Gold Pride had selected with the #1 overall selection in the international player draft prior to the 2009 season.  Formiga’s rumored $75,000 annual salary made her easily expendable after an unexceptional campaign.

The club’s fortunes began to turn at the WPS college draft on January 15th, 2010.  Montoya stockpiled three of the first twelve picks and then shrewdly chose Stanford teammates Kelley O’Hara (#3 overall) and Ali Riley (#10) as well as Florida State’s Becky Edwards (#12).  O’Hara would score six goals and earn an All-Star nod as a rookie.  Riley would take home WPS Rookie-of-the-Year honors, while Edwards would emerge as a key contributor in the midfield.  Beyond their skill, Stanford products O’Hara and Riley could be expected to add local appeal at the box office in the Bay Area – in theory anyway.

FC Gold Pride’s make-or-break moment as a franchise came two weeks after the college draft on January 28th, 2010.  Shockingly, the league’s flagship franchise, the Los Angeles Sol, folded after a single season of play when a new investor solicited by the WPS league office backed out at the 11th hour.  The Sol had posted the league’s best record in 2009 and now the key components of that club would be parceled out to the remaining WPS clubs in a disperal draft in early February.  All except one.  The 23-year old Brazilian superstar Marta was league’s greatest star – and its greatest burden.

In a league where the average player earned $32,000 in 2009 and where most clubs generated less than a million dollars in annual revenues, Marta had a three-year guaranteed contract worth a reported $500,000 per annum.  A special mechanism was created to dispose of her contract.  Any interest club could submit a bid, with the minimum offer set at 75% ($375,000) of Marta’s 2010 salary.  If the highest bid was less than $500,000, the remaining eight clubs would collectively make up the difference to fulfill the contract.  The great question was what would happen if no one was interested.  Across the board, WPS owners were reeling from far greater than expected losses during the inaugural season.  Boston, with its large Brazilian population, passed, as did Chicago, New Jersey, St. Louis, Washington and the new expansion team in Philadelphia.  The Atlanta Beat expansion club, in need of a star attraction for its new soccer specific stadium, placed a bid.  And then the NeSmith’s, whom no one expected to be a player in the auction after losing $3 million in 2009, stepped in and bid the full $500,000.  Marta would play in the Bay Area.  A couple of days later, with the deal already done, FC Gold Pride went through the charade of selecting her with the third overall pick in February 4th dispersal draft.

“Our plan is to sell out every game,” owner Nancy NeSmith declared to The New York Times after WPS announced the dispersal draft results.  “If we get into a smaller stadium and sell out, the demand grows and sponsorship grows.”

The Marta acquisition aside, budget cuts were the rule of the day as Gold Pride headed into year two.  The team departed Buck Shaw Stadium and signed a cheaper deal to play at Pioneer Stadium on the campus of Cal State East Bay.  Necessary renovations to the 5,000-seat facility would not be complete until June, so Gold Pride would play the first two months of the 2010 season at Castro Valley High School Stadium.

The team also slashed its already lean marketing budget to near zero, meaning that many Bay Area soccer fans never got the memo about Marta’s arrival.  Only 3,757 turned out for the 2010 home opener at Castro Valley High School on April 17th, 2010.  An early June match-up against the visiting Washington Freedom featured the two greatest stars of the women’s game – Gold Pride’s Marta versus Abby Wambach of the Freedom.  The same pairing drew 14,000 to the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles the prior season.  Only 3,442 turned out in the Bay Area.

On the field, the rebuilding campaign led by Montoya and GM Ilisa Kessler was a wild success.  After dropping the 2010 season opener on the road to St. Louis Athletica in April, Gold Pride reeled off five consecutive victories.  In June, the St. Louis franchise folded abruptly in midseason and its players were dispersed.  Gold Pride added long-time U.S. National team stalwart Shannon Boxx to an already fearsome line-up that included world class internationals Marta, Sinclair, Milbrett, Buehler, Barnhart, French midfielder Camille Abily, Canadian defender Candace Chapman, and the outstanding rookie trio of O’Hara, Riley and Edwards.

Gold Pride rampaged through the WPS regular season with a 16-3-5 record, outscoring its opposition by a margin of 46-19.  Marta paced WPS in scoring with a record 19 goals.  Sinclair led the league in assists with 9 and also finished fifth in goals with 10 of her own.  Barnhart allowed a miserly 0.77 goals against average with eight shutouts, both tops in the league.  By virtue of finishing with the best record in the league, Gold Pride earned a bye through the WPS playoffs and the right to host the WPS Cup Final at Pioneer Stadium on September 26th, 2010.

The final was anti-climactic.  Coming off a two-week layoff, Gold Pride easily defeated a tired Philadelphia Independence team, playing their third game in eight days, by a score of 4-0.  Sinclair scored a brace, Kandace Wilson got one, and Marta added a garbage time goal in the 90th minute to give the hometown fans a final thrill.   WPS announced a sell-out crowd of 5,228, but Nancy NeSmith later told blogger Jeff Kassouf of Equalizer Soccer that the team only managed to sell 2,900 tickets for the final.

“If you can’t even sell out a championship game, that’s a wake up call for us…that people had better things to do or they are just not that interested,” NeSmith told Kassouf.  “It’s kind of like Field of Dreams.  You build it and people will come.  And no one came.”

Gold Pride owners Brian and Nancy NeSmith lost a reported $5 million on the team during its 26 months of operation.  Dismayed at the response to the championship game by the public and the media, and by the lack of sponsorship and season ticket interest in the weeks immediately following the Cup victory, the owners decided not to post the required security bond to play a third season in 2011.  FC Gold Pride officially folded on November 16th, 2010.

##

After FC Gold Pride’s demise, the 2011 WPS expansion franchise Western New York Flash opened up its checkbook in an effort to re-assemble the core of Gold Pride’s championship team in Rochester, New York.  Flash owner Joe Sahlen took on the final year of Marta’s $500,000 annual contract.  The club also landed Gold Pride vets Sinclair, Ali Riley, Candace Chapman, Becky Edwards, Kandace Wilson, and Brittany Cameron.  The Flash lost a bidding war with Boston for the rights to Kelley O’Hara.

Like Gold Pride a year earlier, the Flash breezed through the regular season and earned the right to host the 3rd WPS Cup at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester on August 27th, 2011.  Once again, the opponent would be the Philadelphia Independence.  This time the match was a thriller, with the Flash winning on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie held up through overtime.

Young UC-Berkeley filmmaker Jun Stinson produced a mini-documentary on the demise of FC Gold Pride entitled the 90th minute in 2011.  The 20-minute film has screened at several symposiums on the West Coast and in Hawaii, often with live commentary from former WPS and WUSA players.

Downloads:

2011 General Manager Ilisa Kessler Interview
2011 Tiffany Weimer Interview
2009 FC Gold Pride digital Media Guide
WPS Standard Player Contract

Written by andycrossley

October 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

#34 Philadelphia Fever

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Philadelphia is just one of those cities.  During the Golden Age of sports start-ups in the 1970’s, it seemed like the city got a new franchise every six months, promoting some unfamiliar sport that momentarily grabbed a few headlines as The Sport of the Future.  Box lacrosse? Check.  World Team Tennis? Yep.  Professional women’s basketball?  For about six weeks.  The North American Soccer League?  Twice!  Every preposterous new league had to be in Philly and just about every neophyte owner insisted upon alliteration.  Between 1974 and 1979 the City of Brotherly Love became (briefly) acquainted with the Freedoms, the Firebirds, the Fox and the Fury to name just a few.

Or perhaps it was just that Philly had the buildings.  Lots of buildings.  For the well-heeled speculators, Philadelphia offered the world class Spectrum for indoor sports and multi-purpose Veterans Stadium for outdoor events.  And for the rogues gallery of flim flam men and drug traffickers who launched sports franchises in the city in that era, there was no shortage of decrepit fire traps like the Philadelphia Arena, Philadelphia Civic Center and JFK Stadium available for short money.

The Philadelphia Fever joined the start-up Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) as one of six founding members in 1978.  The club set up shop at The Spectrum, competing with the 76ers and the Flyers for winter-time game dates and fan dollars.  The sport of indoor soccer was new on the national scene, but had a minor history in Philadelphia, where the defunct Philadelphia Atoms of the North American Soccer League had taken part in several well-attended indoor exhibitions at the Spectrum between 1974 and 1976.  In particular, a February 1974 Atoms match against a touring Soviet Red Army club had attracted nearly 12,000 fans and whetted the interest of the NASL in the indoor game.  But the NASL moved slowly and other entrepeneurs had taken notice as well, including Ed Tepper, owner of the Philadelphia Wings box lacrosse team that played at the Spectrum in 1974 and 1975 and Earl Foreman, a former minority shareholder in the Philadelphia Eagles and former owner of the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association.  Foreman and Tepper launched the MISL in 1978, announcing the league’s formation in October, just two months before kickoff of the first matches in December.

All six MISL clubs had to scramble to put together rosters during the short ramp up to the league’s debut.  The New York Arrows and Houston Summit opted to lease rosters outright from nearby North American Soccer League clubs and finished with the best records in the league.  The Fever stocked their roster primarily with local semi-pro players, augmented by a handful of NASL veterans such as Joey Fink and Fred Grgurev.

The Fever squeaked into the final playoff spot with an 11-13 record, but found themselves in the best-of-three 1979 MISL Championship Series after upsetting the 18-6 regular season champion Houston Summit on the road.  The Fever lost the title to the New York Arrows in a two-game sweep.  Grgurev led the league in scoring with 46 goals in 24 games and was named to the All-MISL Team.

The Fever proved popular at the box office during the 1978-79 season,  leading the MISL with an announced attendance average of 7,737 for twelve home matches.

During the 1979-80 season, the Fever posted a franchise-best 17-15 record, but missed the playoffs by one game after losing a tie-breaker formula to the Buffalo Stallions.  17 wins was not enough to save the job of Head Coach George O’Neill who was fired by Fever owner Ben Alexander in August 1980.  Thus began a coaching carousel that continued for the remaining two years of the Fever’s existence.  Alexander hired former MISL Coach-of-the-Year Len Bilous to replace O’Neill – then fired him in March 1981 with several games remaining in an 18-22 campaign.  Former Fever player Skip Roderick finished out the 1981-82 season for Bilous, then handed the coaching reigns to former U.S. National Team chief Walt Chyzowych, who signed a three-year contract beginning with the 1981-82 season.  Like O’Neill, Chyzowych fell out of favor and lost his job before the end of his first season after posting a 7-18 record.  Roderick stepped back in temporarily before giving way to Mannfred Schellscheidt, another former U.S. National Team coach, who had previously worked for new Fever owner Joseph Raymond in the American Soccer League.  The 1981-82 Fever finished with a league-worst 11-33 record under Chyzowych/Roderick/Schellscheidt.

The ownership of the Fever changed hands once, when paper manufactuer Ben Alexander sold controlling interest in the Fever to New Jersey businessman Joe Raymond in November 1981Raymond had been through the investment ringer with pro soccer once before, as owner of the semi-obscure New Jersey Americans in the American Soccer League during the late 1970’s.

The Fever’s popularity had declined precipitously, with attendance falling from best in the six-team MISL in the 1978-79 debut season to worst in the expanded 13-club league during the Fever’s final season in 1981-82.  In an April 1982 Philadelphia Inquirer article, various Fever executives and players defended the club’s marketing and pointed to the club’s losing ways as the culprit for waning interest in the club.  But this is a common excuse of faltering clubs and the record does not bear it out.  Although the Fever qualified for the playoffs in only one season – their first – the team was at or near .500 in each of their five seasons with the exception of the last.  More likely, the Fever simply could not compete in the winter with both NBA and NHL competition.  The MISL’s best draws in cities like St. Louis, Kansas City and Baltimore competed with no more than one winter-time rival for media attention and the disposable income of local sports fans.

Joseph Raymond would own the Fever for less than one year after buying the club in November 1981.  The club reportedly lost in excess of $1 million during the 1981-82 season.  In the early summer, Raymond requested a one-year moratorium from the league to re-organize the club’s finances.  There was a precedent for such a move in the MISL, as the Fever’s in-state rival the Pittsburgh Spirit had gone dark for the 1980-81 season before returning under new ownership for 1981-82.  Raymond’s request was granted at the MISL league meetings in August 1982 and the club’s best players departed for greener pastures.  In January 1983, the MISL announced the Raymond had given up his efforts to re-organize the club and handed his membership back to the league, effectively folding the club.

##

In the years since the Fever passed into oblivion, various reports have erroneously stated that Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the club in 1982 and relocated it to The Forum as the Los Angeles Lazers.  This is not correct.  Buss obtained an MISL expansion team in June of 1982.  Fever owner Joseph Raymond was granted a one-year leave of absence from the league around the same time Buss entered, which may account for the confusion.  But Raymond folded his club by returning it to the league in late 1982.  The Fever and the Lazers are two different franchises.

One-time Fever head coach Walt Chyzowych passed away in 1994.  He was inducted into the United States Soccer Hall-of-Fame three years later in 1997.

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Sources:

“Fever Fires O’Neill”, The Associated Press, August 5, 1980
“The Fever: A Franchise That Is Living On Hope”, Lewis Freedman, The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 13, 1982
“Fever Drops”, United Press International, January 21, 1983

Written by andycrossley

July 17, 2011 at 9:33 pm

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