Fun While It Lasted

The Untold Stories of Forgotten Teams

Posts Tagged ‘USL 1984-1985

#3 – New England/Jacksonville Tea Men

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In January 1978, Thomas J. Lipton, Inc., better known as the Lipton Tea Company, purchased an expansion franchise in the North American Soccer League.  The NASL was riding a wave of expansion in 1978 – a speculative bubble as it would turn out – sparked by the spectacular three-year run of Brazilian superstar Pele at the New York Cosmos, another corporate owned club.

Lipton’s club set up shop in Foxboro, Massachusetts and adopted the nickname New England Tea Men, in a nod to the area’s revolutionary roots and, of course, its corporate overlords.  Lipton Vice President of Marketing Derek Carroll took the reigns as club President with a $1.5M operating budget and $600,000 allocated to sign players from around the world.

One player signed was a little known English striker named Mike Flanagan acquired on loan from Charlton Athletic.  Flanagan came out of nowhere for the Tea Men, scoring 30 goals in 28 games and earning NASL Most Valuable Player honors in 1978.  The rest of the squad was also unexpectedly strong for a club put together on just four months notice.  The Tea Men tied the Tampa Bay Rowdies for first place in the NASL’s American Conference Eastern Division with a 19-11 record.  The Fort Lauderdale Strikers eliminated the Tea Men in the first round of the 1978 NASL playoffs.  At the box office, the Tea Men drew an average crowd of just over 11,000 to Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, the home of the NFL’s Patriots.

The Tea Men had a rougher go of it in 1979.  Flanagan got into a contract dispute back home with Charlton Athletic and ultimately with the Tea Men themselves.  The saga of Flanagan’s status dragged on for much of the 1979 season, with the Tea Men even prematurely announcing his return in June 1979.  Ultimately, Flanagan never returned to the United States again after his MVP campaign in 1978.  Meanwhile, the Tea Men were evicted from Schaefer Stadium by order of a judge due to a dispute with a neighboring dog racing track.  Forced to play on short notice at urban Nickerson Field in Boston, attendance plummeted nearly 50% as did the team’s record.  The 1979 Tea Men finished 11-13 and out of the playoff hunt.

In December 1979, the Tea Men signed on for the NASL’s first winter indoor soccer season.  Only ten of the league’s twenty-four teams chose to take part. The Tea Men probably wished they had stuck with the majority.  Playing at the Providence Civic Center, the indoor Tea Men found new ways to prolong the agony of the bitter 1979 campaign, staggering to 2-10 last place finish.  The incomparable soccer broadcaster/blogger Kenn Tomasch has posted a terrific video clip of the indoor Tea Men from an early ESPN broadcast on Youtube:

The Tea Men gave up on New England in November, 1980 and relocated to Jacksonville, Florida’s Gator Bowl.  Still owned by Lipton, the franchise retained the Boston Tea Party-inspired name, although it made little sense in Florida, which remained a Spanish territory unti 1821.

Jacksonville lured the Tea Men south with a pledge of 14,000 season tickets, but the pledge never materialized.  The Associated Press reported that the Tea Men sold less than 4,500 season tickets after arriving in Florida.  By the end of 1981, Lipton’s patience with the NASL was wearing thin.  The league had blown its national television contract with ABC and was now shedding franchises at an alarming rate.  Lipton lost a reported $7M on the club between 1978 and 1981, including $1.7M  during the first ten months in Jacksonville.  In September 1981, the Tea Men were on the verge of folding before Lipton posted the required $150,000 bond with the league to stay in for the indoor season.

The Tea Men averaged a relatively strong 6,375 fans for indoor soccer at the Coliseum that winter.  A group of local businessmen led by attorney Earl Hadlow struck a deal to lease the club from Lipton and operate it for the 1982 outdoor season.  The momentum died when the team moved outdoors, however.  On the field, the Tea Men regressed from the 18-14 playoff club of 1981 to a last-place 11-21 finish in 1982.  Fan support dwindled as well.  The Tea Men drew only 7,160 fans on average to the 68,000-seat Gator Bowl in 1982, second worst in the 14-team NASL.  Hadlow’s group ran out of money during the season and returned the Tea Men to Lipton, who immediately began looking to unload the club once and for all.  Deals were announced to sell the club to investors in Milwaukee, then Detroit.  Both fell through.

In early 1983, local businessman Ingo Krieg rescued the Tea Men yet again and entered them in the lower level American Soccer League.  The nonsensical Tea Men name endured, despite the fact that Lipton had finally pulled out entirely.  The ASL had a long and rather weird history dating back to the Great Depression.  Similar to the NASL, the ASL had gone on an expansion spree in the mid-1970’s, convinced that soccer’s moment had arrived.  By the time Krieg and the Tea Men arrived in 1983, the ASL was in its death throes.  Rebounding from 1982’s on-field disapppointment, the Tea Men won the final ASL championship in 1983.

Dissatisfied with his partners in the league, Krieg lead an insurrection in early 1984, peeling away the Dallas and Detroit franchises to form the United Soccer League in the spring of 1984.  The Tea Men regressed to an 11-13 record and missed the playoffs.  After countless near death experiences, the Tea Men folded once and for all after the 1984 campaign.

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The Tea Men’s Jacksonville cheerleader squad was known as the Cu-Teas.  Several of their former members have created a Facebook tribute page.

Tea Men coaches Noel Cantwell and Dennis Viollet both passed away from cancer in 2005 and 1999 respectively.

Downloads:

2011 Interview with Jacksonville Tea Men owner Ingo Krieg

Sources & Further Reading:
Associated Press, January 20th, 1978
“Tea Men’s Owners Rescue Their Team”, Associated Press, September 16th, 1981

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Written by andycrossley

March 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm

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