Posts Tagged ‘Houston Summit’
The Arena Football League awarded a Houston, Texas expansion franchise to NBA Rockets owner Leslie Alexander on October 26th, 1995. Alexander, a former Wall Street stock trader who purchased the Rockets in 1993, named the team the Texas Terror and placed them in the Houston Summit, as part of his burgeoning local pro sports empire. (Alexander would add a founding franchise in the WNBA – the Houston Comets – to his stable in 1997).
The Terror debuted at The Summit on April 27th, 1996. An announced crowd of 11,501 watched the Terror drop a low-scoring (by Arena Football standards) 36-24 decision to another expansion club, the Minnesota Fighting Pike. The Terror were non-competitive under Head Coach John Paul Young, losing their first 11 games, en route to a 1-13 record, second worst in the 15-team league in 1996. The club lost all seven of its home games, which were played before an announced average of 9,006 fans per game.
Dave Ewart replaced Young as Head Coach prior to the 1997 campaign. Under Ewart, the Terror improved noticeably on the field to 6-8, but at the box office the season was a disaster. Only 3,624 turned out for the Terror’s second season debut against Kurt Warner and the Iowa Barnstormers on May 2, 1997. Announced attendance for seven home dates plunged more than 50% down to 4,153 on average, second worst in the league in 1997.
In December 1997, Alexander and his executives scrapped the Texas Terror brand concept. The team was not resonating, for whatever reason – losing, a “statewide” identity that didn’t speak to the Houston community, or perhaps the Terror’s cartoonish, Frankenstein-inspired aesthetic which seemed about as intimidating as a box of Franken-Berry children’s cereal. The franchise continued under Alexander’s ownership and was re-branded the Houston ThunderBears.
New name, same problems.
The Thunderbears trotted out their new “Thunder Blue, Touchdown Teal and Electric Orange” colors on May 9th, 1998 at the Compaq Center. (Another offseason re-branding project…after nearly a quarter century as the Houston Summit, the personal computing giant bought naming rights to the building in late 1997.). Only 4,629 curiosity-seekers turned out to see the ThunderBears defeat the Florida Bobcats. It was the last time the would crack the 4,000 mark all season, except for a season finale outlier crowd of 9,734, a number which would seem to have all the hallmarks of a massive discounting/comping effort.
On the field, at least, the team continued to improve under new Head Coach Steve Thonn. The ThunderBears won the Central Division title with an 8-6 record, riding the arm of former East Texas State quarterback Clint Dolezel who threw 81 touchdown passes. The Arizona Rattlers eliminated the T-Bears in the first round of the Arena Football playoffs in August 1998.
Under Thonn, the Thunderbears led the Arena Football League in total offense for three consecutive years from 1998 to 2000, but the club fell back to losing records in 1999 and 2000, failing to return to the playoffs. Attendance bottomed out in 1999, when the club averaged a league-worst 3,022 fans. This included an embarrassing crowd of 1,517 for a May 1st, 1999 game against the Grand Rapids Rampage at Compaq Center – the smallest announced figure in the league’s 13-year history.
Under the circumstances, it was remarkable that Leslie Alexander hung in for as long as he did. On February 16th, 2001, on the eve of the team’s 6th season, Alexander sold the franchise back to the Arena Football League for an undisclosed sum. The league designated the now homeless T-Bears as a travel team, barnstorming across the country to gauge interest for expansion franchises for Arena Football 2, the small market developmental league. The T-Bears “home games” would be played in far flung cities such as Bismarck (ND), Charleston (WV), Fresno (CA), Lubbock (TX) and Madison (WI).
The ThunderBears finished their final season in last place in Arena Football’s Western Division with a 3-11 record. Arena Football folded the club following the 2001 season.
Forbes named former Terror/ThunderBears owner Leslie Alexander to its list of the 400 wealthiest Americans on several occasions between 2000 and 2006, with a personal net worth as high as $1.2 billion in 2006. In December 2008, Forbes named Alexander as the NBA’s best owner. He continues to own the Houston Rockets, although he divested himself of the WNBA’s Houston Comets in early 2007.
The Houston Summit/Compaq Center was rendered obsolete with the construction of the Toyota Center in 2003. The former Summit building now hosts Houston’s Lakewood mega church, whose ubiquitous pastor and self-help author Joel Osteen broadcasts his sermons to more than 100 nations worldwide from the former arena.
Former Terror/Thundbears quarterback Clint Dolezel left the team prior to the 2000 season to sign with the Chicago Bears. He was cut in training camp and returned to the Arena Football League in 2001, where he went on to establish numerous career passing records, including becoming the first player to pass for 900 career touchdowns indoors. As of 2011, he is the Head Coach of the Arena Football League’s Dallas Vigilantes.
If you can’t buy a championship calibre team, rent one. It’s an unusual approach in American sports, to be sure, but not unprecendented, particularly in the world of soccer. Faced with a hurried 1967 launch to keep pace with a competitor, Jack Kent Cooke and Lamar Hunt’s ironically named United Soccer Association (USA) consisted of twelve imported European and South American club teams who spent their offseasons playing under pseudonyms in American cities. In October 1978, Earl Foreman, the former owner of the USA’s Washington Whips, announced the formation of the six-team Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). With only two months to assemble rosters before the MISL’s December 1978 launch, two clubs – Houston Summit Soccer and the New York Arrows – elected to lease rosters from nearby North American Soccer League (NASL) outdoor clubs.
Of the two, the Houston Summit took the more fully outsourced approach, striking a lease deal with the NASL’s Houston Hurricane for 15 players to stock the entire opening day roster, plus the Hurricane coaching staff of Head Coach Timo Liekoski and assistant Jay Hoffman. The Arrows made a similar arrangement with the NASL’s Rochester Lancers, but unlike the Summit, the New Yorkers also signed a few players on their own, including the league’s eventual MVP Steve Zungul.
Summit Soccer took its unusual name from its home arena, the $18 million Houston Summit, constructed in 1975. The team’s original owner was the Arena Operating Co., the private management company formed to operate the city-owned building by Summit developer and Houston Rockets NBA owner Kenneth Schnitzer. Arena Operating Co. reportedly took an interest in the start-up MISL to fill winter time dates at the Summit after the shut down of the Schnitzer-controlled Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association during the summer of 1978. Summit arena President Burrell Cohen served a dual role as President and General Manager of Summit Soccer.
The rent-a-team model worked wonders for both Houston Summit Soccer and the New York Arrows during the 1978-79 MISL season. The Summit finished the regular season in first place among the MISL’s six clubs with an 18-6 record. The Arrows tied for second place at 16-8 and went on to win the championship after the Philadelphia Fever upset the Summit during the semi-finals. Summit forward Kai Haaskivi finished third in the league in scoring in 1978-79 with 39 goals and 64 points, and was joined in the MISL’s top ten by Ian Anderson, Stewart Jump and John Stremlau. Goalkeeper Paul Hammond posted a 13-3 record and a league-best 4.16 goals against average to earn 1978-79 MISL Goalkeeper-of-the-Year honors. Liekoski was named Coach of the Year.
In the spring of 1979, the NASL moved forward with plans for a full-fledged winter indoor league of their own, to head off the threat from the MISL. The Houston Hurricane announcced their intention to play NASL indoor soccer in Houston and that they would therefore terminate their agreement to loan players to Houston Summit Soccer for the 1979-80 season. But the Summit was the only suitable site in Houston that met NASL standards and Arena Operating Corp. controlled it. When the 1979-80 NASL indoor season kicked off in November 1979, only 10 of the 24 NASL clubs participated. The Hurricane sat out the season.
Meanwhile, Arena Operating Corp. got out of the professional soccer business. New York developer Bernie Rodin, a part owner of the NASL’s Rochester Lancers, purchased the Houston Summit Soccer in 1979 for a price reportedly between $500,000 and $1,000,000.
Liekoski departed as Head Coach and Rodin replaced him with former Dallas Tornado Kenny Cooper. On the field, Houston Summit Soccer didn’t miss a beat under Cooper. The club finished the 1979-80 season in first place in the MISL’s Central Division with a 20-12 record. Haaskivi once again finished third in the league in scoring. Sepp Gantenhammer replaced the departed Paul Hammond in goal and, like Hammond the year before, earned MISL Goalkeeper-of-the-Year honors. In the playoffs, Summit Soccer faced the expansion Wichita Wings in the semi-final series:
The Summit swept Wichita in the best of three MISL semi-final series to earn a spot in the title game against the defending MISL champion New York Arrows at Nassau Coliseum in March 1980. The Arrows defeated Summit Soccer 7-4.
Off the field, the Summit ranked near the bottom of the ten-team MISL in attendance in 1979-80 despite two seasons of winning soccer. Rodin pegged his operating losses in Houston at $750,000 for the season. In late March 1980 as the Summit advanced through the playoffs, team and league officials acknowledged that Rodin intended to move his club to the Baltimore Civic Center for the 1980-81 season.
On March 27th, 1980 the Houston Hurricane of the NASL filed suit against Houston Summit Soccer, seeking to block the move until Rodin made payments of $94,560 in unpaid player loan fees and other claims. The suit delayed the move only temporarily and the club’s arrival in Baltimore was made official on May 1st, 1980. The relocated club took on the new name “Baltimore Blast” and became one of the most enduring and successful indoor soccer teams of the 1980’s.
Bernie Rodin sold the Blast in February 1984 to Nathan Scherr, a man who had never seen an indoor soccer game, for $2.9 million.
The franchise that began life as the Houston Summit in 1978 lasted until the original Baltimore Blast folded along with the rest of the MISL in July 1992. Kenny Cooper moved with the team from Houston and coached the original incarnation of the club for its entire existence in Baltimore. The name has subsequently been revived by a successor club that also plays at the Baltimore Civic Center.
“Indoor soccer draws attention” United Press International, April 12, 1979
“Summit Soccer May Leave for Baltimore”, The Associated Press, March 24, 1980
“Houston Files to Stay in Town”, The Associated Press, March 28th, 1980
“Soccer owner, team hit town with a ‘Blast'”, Bill Free, The Baltimore Sun, May 30, 1980
“Nathan Scherr buys Blast for $2.9 million”, Bill Glauber, The Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1984