Posts Tagged ‘Midseason Meltdowns’
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.
The Carolina Lightning were a minor league basketball outfit that lasted little more than a month in the all-but-forgotten All-American Basketball Alliance (AABA) in the winter of 1978. Based out of the Winston-Salem Memorial Coliseum, the Lightning played ten games between January and early February 1978 before the comically under-capitalized AABA imploded around them.
The eight franchises of the AABA – which also included Indiana, Georgia (Macon), Kentucky (Louisville), New York (Westchester), Richmond, Rochester and West Virginia (Wheeling) – intended to play a 74-game schedule. The start-up league promised a standard base salary of $9,600 per player plus 4% to 8% of franchise profits (haha).
The Lightning were built by 23-year old player-Head Coach Mike Dunleavy. The University of South Carolina grad made the Philadelphia 76ers as a 6th round longshot in 1976, but was cut in mid-November 1977 after appearing in a just a handful of games during his second NBA season. Dunleavy latched on with the new AABA shortly thereafter and in one month’s time cobbled together an experienced roster.
34-year old Ed Manning had nearly a decade of service in the NBA and the American Basketball Association, including three seasons with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, who had occasionally played in Winston-Salem. Manning’s 11-year old son Danny, a future #1 overall NBA draft pick and All-Star, occasionally attended practice with his father. Bob Bigelow was the 1975 1st round draft pick of the Kansas City Kings, recently released and playing minor league basketball in the Eastern Association back home in Massachusetts when his friend Dunleavy called. Norton Barnhill was a Winston-Salem native who had earned a cup of coffee with the Seattle Supersonics the previous season as a rookie out of Washington State. Melvin Watkins was captain of the UNC-Charlotte 49ers Final Four team the previous spring of 1977 and was later drafted by the NBA’s Buffalo Braves before landing with Dunleavy and Co. back in North Carolina.
“Indiana had signed a bunch of the old Pacers’ stars from the ABA,” recalled Bob Bigelow. “They had Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown, Mel Daniels. Roger was a great player. Not a Hall of Famer, but maybe he should be. They were all in their mid-to-late thirties by then and had probably been drinking more beer lately than playing basketball.
“Roger Brown was going to guard me. I told Dunleavy ‘I’m going to run this old man into the ground!'” Mel Daniels was a terrific player. Maybe 6-9, 255 pounds. By this time he was huge – more like 6-9, 300 pounds. My biggest concern was that he was going to fall on me. We played them in that big 18,000-seat arena in Louisville. There couldn’t have been more than 500 people there.”
The situation in Carolina was no better. One Lightning home game at Memorial Coliseum drew only 170 fans. Team President Richard Pollak admitted to The Associated Press that the players only received $300 each for eight weeks work after his investment partners withdrew.
“I was living in an apartment with Mike Dunleavy and his wife,” said Bigelow. “One day the Carolina owner called up and told Mike ‘we’re cancelled’. Mike said ‘the game?’ And the guy said ‘No. The league.’ And that was it. I packed up my stuff and drove home to Winchester, Massachusetts, one day ahead of the big blizzard of ’78. I got home just in time to dig out my parents’ 80-foot driveway.”
After their bizarre sojourn in the AABA, Dunleavy and Bigelow both returned to the NBA in part-time roles by the end of the 1977-78 season. Dunleavy went on to a lengthy NBA career. He later became a sought-after NBA Head Coach, leading the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers in a twenty-year uninterrupted run from 1990 to 2010. He earned 1999 NBA Coach-of-the-Year honors with Portland in 1999.
Bob Bigelow is a respected speaker and clinician, who has lectured worldwide on the role of youth sports in child development. His book Just Let The Kids Play was released in 2001.
The All-American Basketball Alliance of 1978 is not be confused with the bizarre plan announced by a Georgia-based boxing and wrestling promoter in January 2010 to form a whites-only basketball league in the South also known as the All-America Basketball Alliance. Needless to say, the universally reviled plan was never pursued beyond the initial press release, although it did attract attention (and ridicule) from everyone from The Daily Show to the NAACP.
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.
The Virginia Wave was a short-lived franchise in the all-but-forgotten Women’s American Basketball Association which operated in the autumn of 1984.
The WABA was the brainchild of Bill Byrne, a Columbus, Ohio-based sports promoter who had launched the American Professional Slo-Pitch League (men’s softball) and the original Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL) in the late 1970’s. The WPBL flamed out in 1981 after completing its third season and the WABA represented Byrne’s attempt to learn from the mistakes of the first league and to capitalize on the expected Gold Medal performance of the U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team at the 1984 Los Angeles summer games.
Announced in March 1984, Byrne’s initials plans called for a summer-time league, composed of 8-12 franchises playing a 22-game schedule. Individual player salaries would range from $5,000 to $10,000 and total annual operating budgets were pegged around $300,000. But Byrne’s plans and financial backing were in constant flux. The planned summer schedule was quickly pushed back to the fall. Nine cities were represented at the WABA’s college and veteran draft in Columbus on April 25th, 1984, but only five of these cities made it to the opening bell in October.
“Bill Byrne was having difficulty getting owners to put up the money for all the teams,” recalled Columbus Minks player Molly Bolin, who lived with the Byrne family during the 1984 season. “He would not let that stop him and believed that if he got the league started, people would believe and the money would fall into place.”
One of the cities that fell by the wayside was Baltimore, Maryland. The unnamed Baltimore team took part in the WABA draft in April 1984, selecting two-time Clemson University All-American Barbara Kennedy with its first round selection. Long-time Morgan State men’s basketball Head Coach Nat Frazier signed on to coach the squad and serve as General Manager. But in mid-September 1984, less than a month before the start of the season, the WABA pulled out of Baltimore and relocated the franchise to Norfolk, Virginia and the city’s 10,000-seat Norfolk Scope. The Scope was the home of the powerhouse Old Dominion University women’s basketball program, which had produced one of the women’s game’s greatest early stars, Nancy Lieberman, who played for the WABA’s Dallas Diamonds franchise. The league hoped local enthusiasm for ODU women’s hoops would rub off on the WABA brand. The team would be called the Virginia Wave.
The WABA’s chaotic pre-season carried over into a dysfunctional, under-capitalized season that launched with six teams on October 9th, 1984. Wave players, along with players on the Atlanta Comets and Columbus Minks, did not receive paychecks. With the exception of the Dallas Diamonds franchise, crowds of 500 or less were the norm throughout the league.
Lacking funds for air travel, the Wave endured epic bus trips, including a brutal late November swing that took the club from Atlanta (where less than 100 fans turned out) to Dallas to Houston for three games in four days. As it turned out, these would be the Wave’s final games:
“The players and I were discouraged prior to <the Dallas> game because we had not been paid for the season. We talked to our coach and he assured us that we would be paid prior to game,” recalled Wave captain Barbara Kennedy. “So we played professionally and fought hard to beat Dallas. When we returned back to Virginia, we thought that the check was valid but it was not good. Then immediately we checked out of the hotel and departed to our destinations. Again, we lifted our heads and left Virginia but <it was> bitter because we were losing our passion for the game, leaving our teammates and starting over. That was a sad day for us.”
On November 28th, 1984 Byrne announced that six to twelve games would be cut from the end of the WABA regular season schedule.
The following day, disgruntled WABA investors led by Dallas owner and league finance committee chaiman Ed Dubaj forced Byrne to resign. Dubaj shuttered the league office in Columbus and immediately cancelled the remaining games of the three most financially troubled franchises – Atlanta, Columbus and the Wave. The Wave finished their only campaign with a 5-9 record, eight games shy of completing their 22-game schedule.
The WABA made brave noises about returning in 1985 with a new league office in Dallas led by Dubaj, but was never heard from again after a hastily scheduled championship game between the Dallas Diamonds and Chicago Spirit in December 1984.
“We laughed, cried and were grateful for the experiences and memories,” said Barbara Kennedy in 2011. “We certainly wanted to finish the season but the league had some challenges. But what I can say is that my teammates were close and stayed strong throughout the time and we will always remember our times together and remember <that> we were pioneers. I am proud of my teammates, our coach, the league and thankful for the opportunity, the resources and the many memories…I loved all my experiences.”
Barbara Kennedy-Dixon was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 50th Anniversary Team in 2002. Today she is Associate Athletic Director/Senior Women’s Administrator at her alma mater, Clemson University.
Maybe we should blame it on Morrie Silver. In 1956, faced with the loss of his city’s beloved Red Wings minor league baseball club, the Rochester, New York businessman rallied more than 8,000 of his fellow citizens to purchase stock in Rochester Community Baseball, Inc. in order to buy the team and its ballpark from the St. Louis Cardinals. Today the Rochester Red Wings are the longest running team in the history of minor league sports and remain community-owned under the auspices of Rochester Community Baseball, which continues to be traded as an over-the-counter stock.
Silver’s so-called “72-day Miracle” in Rochester has inspired numerous imitators but few equals. Virtually all efforts to finance minor league sports franchises through public stock offerings have ended in abject failure. The Chicago Hustle of the Women’s Professional Basketball League and the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League tried (and failed) to dig out of accumulated debts through the issuance of stock. The New York Express soccer team tried to fund their 1986 start-up with a massive $5.3 million offering – few were interested and the team folded before finishing their first season.
Hartford Sports & Entertainment Group formed in early 1993 for the purpose of bringing professional basketball to downtown Hartford, Connecticut. Like the New York Express, Hartford Sports formed with the intent to fund operations with the proceeds of a public stock sale. On May 26th, 1993, Hartford Sports struck a deal with Albany-based sports investor Joseph O’Hara to lease his Capital Region (NY) Pontiacs franchise in the Continental Basketball Association and relocate it to the Hartford Civic Center for the 1993-94 season. The three-year agreement allowed Hartford Sports to lease and operate O’Hara’s CBA club for a fee of $100,000 per season. At the time, the CBA was the Official Developmental League of the NBA. Dozens of CBA players made the jump to the NBA each year,typically on short-term 10-day contracts. Overlooked players such as Michael Adams and John Starks broke out as NBA All-Stars after first gaining notice in the CBA.
The Hellcats debuted at the Civic Center on November 20th, 1993 against the Columbus (OH) Horizon before a CBA record crowd of 11,762. Two weeks later, 10,346 packed the Civic Center to watch the Hellcats play an exhibition against Magic Johnson’s All-Stars. General Manager Rich Coffey told The New York Times that the Hellcats sold 2,384 season tickets and inked $300,000 in corporate sponsorship for the 1993-94 season.
Despite a losing record of 18-38 in 1993-94, the Hellcats announced an average attendance of 5,003 per game which ranked second in the 16-team CBA. In pre-season interviews, Hartford Sports President Michael Kerski pegged the team’s breakeven attendance at 4,000 paid customers per game. But the notion of a “breakeven attendance figure” is often more about spin rather than substance, meant to assure local media and sponsors that the owners have a clear-eyed business plan. A breakeven calculation based on ticket sales would quickly fall by the wayside if the team underperformed in other key areas, such as expense controls or corporate sponsorship. The Hellcats posted an operating loss of $590,386 for the 1993-94 season.
There was another problem. Without deep-pocketed ownership to backstop the team’s finances, Hartford Sports relied on the success of the public stock sale to generate working capital. Hartford Sports offered 100,000 shares valued at $10.00 each. Investors had to make a minimum purchase of $2,500 for one investment unit of 250 shares. Ultimately, Hartford signed on over 150 shareholders, but most were small businessmen and private individuals who purchased only the $2,500 minimum stake. The corporation managed to raise only $410,000 from the planned $1 million offering.
In the spring of 1994, Hartford Sports partnered with the Connecticut Development Authority (CDA), the financing arm of Connecticut Department of Economic Development, to obtain a $1.25 million loan package to provide more working capital. The CDA provided a $250,000 direct loan from the Connecticut Growth Fund and guaranteed an additional $1 million loan from Shawmut Bank. Several Hartford Sports board members and Hellcats General Manager Rich Coffey, the CBA’s Executive-of-the-Year for 1993-94, expressed concerns about the additional debt burden and terms and parted ways with the organization.
The loan contained several challenging provisions. The CDA wanted the asset value of the franchise as collateral against the debt it had guaranteed. Hartford Sports was required to purchase the Hellcats outright from Joseph O’Hara rather than renew their lease option. In addition, Hartford Sports agreed to purchase an inactive Arena Football League franchise – the Cincinnati Rockers – and move it to the Civic Center in the spring of 1995. Finally, the lease required Hartford Sports to radically modify their lease with the state-run Hartford Civic Center. The Hellcats paid a flat rental fee of $4,000 per game during the 1993-94 season. For the 1994-95 campaign, Hartford Sports agreed to pay the greater amount of $8,100 per game or $4,000 + 15% of the game day box office receipts. Although the Hellcats rent would more than double, Hartford Sports still would not receive any share of Civic Center concessions or parking revenue.
On June 22, 1994, Hartford Sports announced the purchase of both clubs, paying $700,000 to take ownership of the Hellcats and $200,000 to acquire the Arena Football franchise, which would now be known as the Connecticut Coyotes. After paying the two franchise fees, some overhanging debt from the Hellcats first season, and legal fees associated with the loan process, Hartford Sports was left with a new $1.25M debt obligation…and less than $100,000 of new working capital heading into their second Continental Basketball Association season.
The dominoes fell quickly for Hartford Sports & Entertainment after that. Hartford Sports went most of the summer without a General Manager for the Hellcats and Coyotes properties until Casey Kahler arrived in mid-August of 1994. The corporation issued a prospectus in mid-October that projected necessary sales of 5,000 Hellcats and 10,000 Coyotes tickets per game to meet its debt and payables obligations. During the offseason, Hellcats season ticket sales fell from 2,400 to 1,800 for the club’s second season. Hartford Sports missed its very first interest payment on the loan package in November 1994. Shawmut Bank notified the team it was in default on the $1 million loan on December 14th, 1994.
On the court, the Hellcats assembled a rogues gallery of basketball curios during their brief run in the CBA. There was the 7′ 5″ center Chuck Nevitt, one of the four tallest player in NBA history. And Bo Kimble, who led 11th-seeded Loyola-Marymount’s improbable and inspiring run to the Elite Eight in 1990 after the death of his teammate and friend Hank Gathers. During their final days, the Hellcats traded for the controversial former Georgetown star and 1988 U.S. Olympian Charles Smith. Smith joined the Hellcats in December 1994, several months after his release from a two-year prison term for killing two Boston University students in a March 1991 hit-and-run incident. Smith had been with the Boston Celtics at the time, playing on a 10-day contract after a call-up from the CBA.
On January 20th, 1995 the CDA took over the operation of the Connecticut Coyotes franchise from Hartford Sports, seeking to sell the team as a hedge against the now toxic loan. The Hellcats staggered on through January 1995, “flat broke” in the words of Hartford Sports board member Tom Drohan. The team charged fans to shoot baskets on the Civic Center floor following home games in order to generate meal money for upcoming road trips. A late January road trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan was funded by drawing down on a letter of credit posted with the CBA league office – a rarely used last resort measure.
The Hellcats gave up the ghost on January 30th, 1995, cancelling a scheduled home game against the Mexico City Aztecas and folding in midseason. Connecticut Development Authority spokesman Joe Cohen provided a damning epitaph in a press interview:
“I don’t think it’s so much an example of Hartford not being able to support a CBA basketball franchise as it is a reflection of weak management that took what was a strong concept and ran it into the ground from a business standpoint.”
Brian Foley, a health care entrepeneur from Avon, Connecticut, agreed with Cohen’s assessment. He stepped forward in February 1995 with an offer to purchase the shuttered Hellcats franchise from the CBA for $750,000. The league initially balked, which meant the club could not be resuscitated in time to play out the 1994-95 schedule. Foley eventually purchased the former Hellcats franchise in May of 1995 for an estimated $450,000. Foley re-branded the club as the Connecticut Pride and entered it in the CBA for the 1995-96 season.
Meanwhile, the CDA-managed Connecticut Coyotes debuted at the Civic Center on May 13, 1995, losing to the Orlando Predators 45-43 in front of an announced crowd of 7,643. The Arena Football team flopped on the turf and at the box office. Under coach Rick Buffington, the Coyotes finished 1-11, losing all six of their home games in Hartford. The Coyotes average attendance of 7,853 for six games ranked 11th in the 13-team AFL. In October 1995, the CDA unloaded the Coyotes to Benjamin Morris and Scott Gerard, both of Connecticut, for $750,000.
“This is my first venture of this type, but it’s somewhat similar to what I do,” Morris told The Hartford Courant. “I usually buy undeveloped or rundown real estate properties, and I see a lot of parallels.”
Morris brought in Larry Kuharich, who coached the Tampa Bay Storm to the 1993 Arena Bowl title, to replace Buffington. Kuharich signed the young quarterback Aaron Garcia to lead the team on the field. Garcia, in his second AFL season, had a strong campaign throwing for 31 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions. But overall, the product was the same. The Coyotes finished 2-12, dropping their two-year cumulative record to a woeful 3-23 with only two wins for the home crowds in Hartford. Attendance figures remained near the bottom of the league in 1996 with a purported average of 7,850 per game.
In September 1996, Morris negotiated to sell his Arena Football franchise to ITT-Cablevision, owners of Madison Square Garden. The Arena Football League blocked the sale, wishing to sell their own New York City expansion team to ITT-Cablevision. Morris took legal action against the league. In October 1996, the parties reached an undisclosed settlement, the net result of which was that Morris sold or returned the Coyotes back to the league, who dissolved the franchise during the first week of November. The league subsequently sold an expansion franchise to ITT-Cablevision which began play at the Madison Square Garden in 1997 as the New York Cityhawks.
Brian Foley operated the Connecticut Pride, formed out of the ashes of the Hellcats, in the CBA until the end of the 1998-99 season, when CBA owners sold the entire league to Isaiah Thomas for $10 million. Foley lost an estimated $2 million in the CBA during his four years of ownership. Thomas fared worse, running the entire league into the ground in less than two years. The CBA shut down in 2001 and the Pride followed shortly thereafter.
The New York Cityhawks fared poorly in Manhattan. After two seasons at the Garden, the club’s owner relocated the team to Hartford, giving the city it’s second helping of Arena Football. The renamed New England Sea Wolves fared no better than the Coyotes before them, lasting only two years at the Civic Center (1999-2000) before leaving town for Toronto.
The Women’s American Basketball Association was the brainchild of 47-year old Columbus, Ohio-based sports promoter Bill Byrne. Byrne was something of a serial sports entrepeneur. After holding player personnel positions in the World Football League, Byrne founded the American Professional Slo-Pitch Softball League in 1977. One year later, Byrne launched the Women’s Professional Basketball League, the first attempt at a nationwide professional basketball league for women. The WPBL signed the sport’s top American collegians and Olympic stars such as Carol Blazejowski, Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers. Byrne stepped down as Commissioner after two seasons intending to launch his own WPBL expansion franchise, the Tampa Bay Sun. The Sun never got off the drawing board and the league folded following its third season of play in 1981.
By March of 1984, Byrne was ready to give women’s basketball another shot, hoping to capitalize on the expected strong showing of the USA women at the 1984 Los Angeles summer Olympics. The WABA, Byrne claimed, would avoid the mistakes of the previous league, such as playing in the winter time, when arena rental fees were higher and competition was greater against men’s basketball, hockey, football and various college sports. The WABA would play a 22-game schedule in the summer, with 8-12 franchises operating on $300,000 annual budgets. Player salaries would range from $5,000 to $10,000 per year.
“The pay, the arenas, the travel were all out of whack,” Byrne told George Vecsey of The New York Times, speaking about the WPBL.
But Byrne’s WABA was severely disorganized and under-capitalized from the get-go. Plans for the summer season were quickly scrapped and the 1984 tip-off was pushed back to the fall. Of the nine cities represented at the WABA’s college and free agent draft on April 25th, 1984, four dropped out or relocated before the season began. The United States won the gold medal in women’s basketball in Los Angeles, but only two U.S. Olympians, Pam McGee and Lea Henry, agreed to play in the rickety-looking WABA.
“Bill Byrne was having difficulty getting owners to put up the money for all the teams,” recalled Minks player Molly Bolin. “He would not let that stop him and believed that if he got the league started, people would believe and the money would fall into place.”
The WABA debuted in early October 1984 with six teams: the Atlanta Comets, Chicago Spirit, Columbus Minks, Dallas Diamonds, Houston Shamrocks and the Virginia Wave.
The Minks set up shop alongside the league office in Byrne’s home base of Columbus, Ohio and had a distinctive throwback feel to the days of the WPBL. In September 1984 the Minks signed Larry Jones as Head Coach. Jones, 42, played ten seasons in the NBA and the American Basketball Association between 1964 and 1974. Like Byrne, Jones lived in Columbus and he had worked for Byrne in the old WPBL office as that league’s Director of Player Operations and Scouting in the late 1970’s.
The Minks star player was expected to be “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, the all-time leading scorer during the WPBL’s three-year run and a player whose striking appearance was often called upon to market her teams. But Bolin left Columbus right before the season opener in early October in a dispute over salary and working conditions.
“<The Minks> were staying on an old army base outside Columbus,” says Bolin. “The weather had turned to freezing and we were walking about a mile to the cafeteria and to the gym, but the kicker was they would not turn on the heat in the dormitories for another couple weeks and I was letting the hot water in my shower run to warm up the room. When some of the girls began to get sick, an owner’s wife took pity on us and moved us into a hotel in Columbus, which was a huge improvement.
“I was offered about the same amount I made my first year <in the WPBL in 1978> so I promptly thanked the coach for ending my misery in Columbus and told him I was leaving.”
Bill Byrne convinced Bolin to return to the Minks several weeks later, with the promise of a larger salary and free housing at the Byrne family home.
The WABA struck a television deal with the Satellite Programming Network, a Tulsa-based syndicator of old movies and talk shows (which later morphed into CNBC in 1989). Bolin unearthed this rare broadcast footage from a Minks home game against the Dallas Diamonds at the Ohio State Faigrounds Coliseum and posted it on her Youtube page in 2011:
The WABA’s pre-season dysfunction predictably carried over into a disastrous regular season. The Atlanta Comets ownership pulled out just prior to the opener. Seven of Atlanta’s unpaid players boycotted a November home game. The Chicago Spirit drew an estimated crowd of just 150 to their first home game.
The Minks made their home debut on October 9th, 1984, defeating the Atlanta Comets 103-98 in overtime before an announced crowd of 723. The Minks’ second game on October 30th drew 503 fans and a November 1st match up against the Houston Shamrocks drew just 251.
On November 28th, 1984 Byrne announced that six to twelve games would be cut from the end of the WABA regular season schedule.
“Houston’s 3-15 and there’s no reason in the world to fly them <into Columbus> for $12,000 for a game that won’t affect the standings at all,” Byrne told The Associated Press. “As far as we’re concerned, these games are being treated just like rainouts in baseball. If a team is out of the race and has rainouts to make up that don’t affect anybody, they sometimes forget them, and that’s just what we’re doing.”
The following day, disgruntled WABA team owners led by Dallas Diamonds owner and league finance committee chaiman Ed Dubaj forced Byrne to resign. Dubaj shuttered the league office in Columbus and immediately cancelled the remaining games of the three most financially troubled franchises – Atlanta, the Virginia Wave and the Minks. The Minks finished their only campaign with a 12-5 record, five games short of completing their 22-game schedule.
The WABA made brave noises about returning in 1985 with a new league office in Dallas led by Dubaj, but was never heard from again after a hastily scheduled championship game between the Dallas Diamonds and Chicago Spirit in December 1984.
Downloads & Sources
The New York Express, Shep Messing told Newsday in October 1986, will be “better run as a business than any team in the history of professional soccer.” Bold words from the former New York Cosmos star, who brought a Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) expansion franchise to Long Island in the fall of 1986 with the help of two novice sports investors and an unlikely financing scheme.
The MISL granted a franchise to Messing and his partners Stan Henry and Ralph McNamara on May 15th, 1986. Messing would play the role of local hero and front man. At the age of 37, he also appointed himself the presumed starting goalkeeper for the Express. Henry and McNamara were the money men – sort of. They expected the bulk of the team’s operating capital to come from a sale of public stock. Henry ran an empire of Pennysaver advertising circulars on Long Island, and served as Board Chairman of the Express. McNamara was a managing principal at the Long Island brokerage firm of MacPeg, Ross, O’Connell and Goldaber. He took the title of CFO of the Express and his firm marketed the financial scheme behind the enterprise – a $5.3 million public stock offering intended to finance operations of the club for its first three seasons.
As the broker of record, McNamara had a legal obligation to be more cautious in his forecast for the Express than Messing’s best-organization-in-the-history-of-soccer antics. “Public offerings are calculated risks,” McNamara told Newsday, “We are going to make an effort to field a team and see what the community will bear. We think it will work.”
There was little evidence to support Messing’s irrational exuberance or McNamara’s meaured optimism. The MISL had a few great success stories in the early-to-mid 1980’s, but its adventures in New York City were not among them. The New Jersey Rockets and the late era New York Cosmos had both failed after short runs at the Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands sports complex. Most troublesome for the Express was the legacy of the New York Arrows. The Arrows were one of the league’s founding franchises in 1978. Like the Express, they played on Long Island at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Under Yugoslav Head Coach Don Popovic, the Arrows became a dynasty, winning the first four MISL championships from 1979 to 1982. Messing starred in net for the Arrows, while a collection of Slavs and Hungarians including Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Juli Veee and Fred Grgurev provided the offensive firepower. Despite the championships, the Arrows were never a success at the gate. The Arrows filed for bankruptcy and folded in the summer of 1984, leaving behind a pile of unpaid bills and a community skeptical of the MISL brand.
After two road losses to open the season, the team debuted at home on November 21st, 1986. An announced crowd of 10,570 watched them lose to the Kansas City Comets and drop to 0-3. The match up for the debut on Long Island may have been a bad omen – Comets majority owner David Schoenstadt owned the New York Arrows in 1984 when the club plunged into bankruptcy.
The Express kept losing into December. When the club reached 0-10, the axe fell on Head Coach Ray Klivecka. Messing turned to his former Arrows coach, Don Popovic. Popovic arrived in late December and began supervising training sessions, but seemed in no hurry to sign a contract.
“After being with two clubs in two years, I want to be sure this team will be here longer than one year,” Popovic told The Pittsburgh Press.
Unwilling to sign but also unwilling to leave, Popovic continued to run Express training sessions. But by league rule, Popovic could not be in the team bench area unless he was under contract. On one night, Popovic sat in the stands, attempting to orchestrate the match from the front row.
“<Popovic> sat behind the glass and relayed changes to one of the players and sometimes directly to me,” recalled interim Head Coach Mark Steffens. “He didn’t change a lot of things, just a player switch or two.”
Eventually, Popovic descended to the bench for a single match, despite never signing a contract. He resigned the same night.
Meanwhile, the stock sale was a bust.
“Let’s just say the money never really existed and the ‘game plan’ for selling stock was less than stellar,” says Buchdahl. “Before the season even started, I think many people knew there was a little smoke and mirrors happening with the financing. But I also think Shep thought he could convince someone to give us the money we needed.”
In January, Express GM Kent Russell and Assistant GM Joel Finglass bolted for front office roles with the MISL’s Dallas Sidekicks. 24-year old Micah Buchdahl became acting General Manager, presiding over remnants of a staff that no longer received paychecks. The Express missed their $75,000 player payroll on February 1st, 1987, forcing the league to draw down the club’s $250,000 letter of credit to cover it.
“<Sometime> in the middle of December or January the fella <Stan Henry> called me and asked me to come out on the Island to dinner,” recalled MISL Commissioner Bill Kentling. “Mitch Burke, the deputy commissioner, and I drove out on a snowy night and had a lovely dinner. We sort of kept waiting for the reason for the dinner and we got the check and we were paying and he said to us ‘Oh by the way, I’m not sure I can make payroll this week.’
I said “I’m sorry…perhaps we should sit at the bar for a moment and talk about this.” And he was just out of money or chose to be out of money, you’re never sure.”
Messing announced the immediate dissolution of the team and the initiation of Chapter XI bankruptcy proceedings on February 17, 1987 during the MISL All-Star Break. Although the Express finished with a record of 3-23, they did manage to win their final game, a 6-5 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Lazers at the Forum on Valentine’s Day 1987. The Express drew an announced average of 5,212 fans to their 13 home dates at the Coliseum, numbers that Micah Buchdahl admits were routinely fudged. For their three victories, the Express lost a reported $3 million during nine months of operation.
Buchdahl expropriated much of the club’s office equipment and held it hostage in his aunt’s garage in a failed effort to receive his final five weeks of missed paychecks. Read his highly entertaining behind-the-scenes account of the Express here.
Express defender Andranik Eskandarian, the former Iranian World Cup and Cosmos star, delivered the final judgement to The Chicago Tribune: “This team should never have been let in. I don’t think the league is going to last long if it’s going to be like this.”
Express co-owner Ralph McNamara’s firm closed in the wake of the October 1987 stock market crash. His broker’s license was revoked in 1991. In the late 1990’s he reappeared in Clearwater, Florida operating a fake venture capital scam under the alias Ralph Deluise. McNamara was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 2007.
Shep Messing plead guilty and received probation in 1991 in the wake of a securities probe into an investment scam that targeted NBA players represented by agent Harvey Lakind, including Darryl Dawkins. He remains a soccer icon in New York and has enjoyed a long career as a soccer commentator and broadcaster for ESPN, NBC and MLSNet.com among other outlets.
Rick Davis was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001.
Former Express Assistant GM Joel Finglass married Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kelli Finglass (nee McGonagill), who is now the Director of the cheerleaders and a star of the long-running CMT program Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team.
The original Major Indoor Soccer League folded in July 1992.
1986 New York Express Stock Offering Circular (57MB – download only)