Posts Tagged ‘Ohio State Fairgrounds Coliseum’
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.
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Charles O. Finley purchased the Columbus, Ohio franchise in the International Hockey League on May 11, 1971 for a fee of $50,000. The Columbus Golden Seals would serve as a farm club for Finley’s California Golden Seals NHL franchise. This would be the Midwest-based IHL’s second go around in Columbus, following the Columbus Checkers (1966-1970), who had ceased operations one year earlier.
Loaded with raw young players by their California parent club, the Seals won only once in the first 25 games, at one point enduring a 21-game winless streak. Columbus hockey fans responded accordingly, with only one 1971 Golden Seals game attracting an announced crowd of over 2,000 fans and several drawing less than 1,000 spectators. The Golden Seals finished the 1971-72 campaign with a league-worst record of 15-55-2. Incredibly, the 1972-73 Golden Seals were worse, finishing 10-62-2 while opponents outscored them 393-177.
The spring and summer of 1973 saw Finley attempting to divest himself of many of his money-losing sports properties, including the NHL Golden Seals and the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball Association. Finley sold his IHL franchise to Indianapolis-based mortgage banker Al Savill on April 18, 1973. Savill had owned the minor league Indianapolis Capitals of the Continental Football League in the late 1960’s and gained minor notoriety in 1969 when he offered Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson a $400,000 contract to play for the Caps while the rookie running back reached a salary impasse with the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills.
Savill renamed his club the Columbus Owls for the 1973-74 IHL season. Freed of the dregs of the California Golden Seals farm system, the Owls signed an affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues and put together a competitive team that finished 40-34-2, good for second place and a playoff appearance. Remarkably, the turn around occurred under the same Head Coach – Moe Bartoli – who had suffered through the previous year’s 10-62-2 nightmate. Bartoli was the face of hockey in Columbus, having also served as a player/coach for the Checkers in the late 1960’s.
In July 1975, Savill purchased the Pittsburgh Penguins out of receivership for a reported $3.8 million. Reportedly, the sale germinated from a casual conversation between Savill and Marc Boileau, the Penguins Head Coach who came to know Savill during his days as an IHL coach. Savill and his partner Otto Frenzel would own the Penguins for only three years, losing a considerably sum of money in the process. But their purchase of the club in the summer of 1975 at a time when the IRS has padlocked the doors of the team offices likely saved NHL hockey for Pittsburgh.
Towards the end of the 1975-76 season, Savill asked the IHL Board of Directors for permission to move the Owls to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Savill cited tepid attendance as the franchise’s main problem, noting that the club averaged only 2,568 fans per game at the 5,000-seat Fairgrounds Coliseum through 38 games of the 1975-76 schedule. He pegged financial losses at approximately $100,000 per year during his first two seasons owning the Owls and expected to exceed that number for the 1975-76 campaign. However, in June 1976, Savill announced that the Owls would stay put in Columbus for one more season.
Attendance was just one challenge the Owls faced in Columbus. The other was the building itself. The Owls’ Fairgrounds Coliseum lease de-prioritized the team in the spring, meaning the team frequently had to host playoff games in Troy, Ohio. During the bitterly cold winter of 1977, the United States faced a severe natural gas shortage that closed 4,000 factories and idled over 400,000 workers. The Midwestern industrial communities that played host to the IHL were especially hard hit. In January 1977 the Fairgrounds Coliseum nearly expended its natural gas allotment for the winter, prompting Owls general manager Moe Bartoli – now bumped from the bench to the front office – to ponder cancellation of the remainder of the season.
In June 1977, Savill announced he would not return to Columbus for the 1977-78 season, citing an inability to secure home playoff dates at the Coliseum after March 20th, 1978. In August 1977, the IHL approved plans for Savill to move the club to Indianapolis. However, prior to the start of the 1977-78 IHL season in October, Savill instead moved the Owls to Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio. The Owls arrived in Dayton on the heels of the Dayton Gems, who had shut down operations over the summer after suffering their own problems with declining attendance in the mid-seventies.
In early December 1977, with the season barely 20 games old, the Owls announced plans to either disband or relocate the team immediately. The Owls averaged only 1,500 per games at Hara Arena and Savill expected to lose close to $300,000 if he remained in Dayton for the remainder of the season. The IHL quickly convened and approved a mid-season move to Grand Rapids, Savill’s original preference of 18 months earlier.
Although the Owls unhappy stay in Dayton lasted less than two months, they stuck around long enough to play a role in a classic piece of 1970’s hockey goonism that seemed straight out of the hockey classic Slap Shot, released in theatres the same year. During an October 29, 1977 game against the Port Huron Flags, Owls enforcer Willie Trognitz swung his stick into the skull of Flags player Archie Henderson during a bench clearing brawl, putting Henderson in the hospital.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have hit him with my stick, but I was too tired to fight,” Trognitz told The Associated Press “I already had been in two fights.”
Commissioner Bill Beagan suspended Trognitz from the IHL for life…which proved to be just the sort of publicity boost the career minor leaguer needed. Four days later, the goon-deficient Cincinnati Stingers of the major league World Hockey Association signed Trognitz to a contract.
In August 1979, Al Savill’s six-year associated with the Owls came to an end. A group of local Grand Rapids minority partners led by Michael Knapp and David Baines bought out Savill’s majority share for a reported $100,000 plus assumption of the team’s debt. Two weeks later, the team was served with an eviction notice from Stadium Arena over $12,366 for back rent and other fees.
Owls owner Michael Knapp disbanded the club once and for all on June 6th, 1980.