When the owners of the 24 NASL teams meet in Chicago on Dec. 1, the atmosphere in the O'Hare Hilton will be distinctly gloomy. For a change, the league's VIPs won't be hearing any talk of blue skies and rosy futures from Commissioner Phil Woosnam. No onward and upward message this time. The mood of uncertainty included the question of whether Board Chairman Henry Kissinger would show up. The fact is that the league is taking a pounding such as it has never experienced in a decade of heady expansion. The pounders include a militant union, a federal court, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and a television network. The ledger books reveal an absolute torrent of red ink. Before the Chicago meetings are over, two and perhaps three teams will have been swept away.
Every one of the 24 franchises is believed to have lost money this year, with the across-the-league deficit amounting to about $30 million. Although attendance was up 7% over 1979 (to 6,196,000), the prospects for 1981 are the worst since 1969, when the league had shrunk to five teams and no one thought it would survive. Is the situation really that bleak? Well, the league will survive—but there will be scars.
The biggest crack in the league's image and credibility may become visible as early as the first day of the meetings, at which time the Madison Square Garden Corporation (which is owned by Gulf & Western) is expected to return its certificate of ownership of the Washington Diplomats to Woosnam. When a well-heeled, corporate-backed club in a prestigious city decides to fold, that's trouble. Although Washington is a potentially lucrative market—and average attendance rose to 19,204 last summer from 11,973 in 1979—the franchise has lost $2� million in the two years MSG has owned it. MSG President Sonny Werblin cites the recession, bigger operating expenses and a geometrical leap in acquisition costs and salaries for players. Dutch star Johan Cruyff, a big gate attraction, alone commands $500,000 per year.
Neither the Houston Hurricane nor the Rochester Lancers have posted their $150,000 annual performance bonds with the NASL. They face an "Involuntary Termination" hearing in Chicago. "We couldn't go on much longer, anyway," says Lancer President Pat Dinolfo. A deal to sell the Hurricane to investors assembled by the California-based Athletes In Action, a religious group, fell through, and Houston's fate is expected to be the same as Rochester's.
Nor could what happened to the Minnesota Kicks in the off-season give the owners much cause for cheer. For years during the league's upward surge, the Kicks, owned and vigorously promoted by a group of Minnesota food executives, were one of NASL's showcase teams, successful on the field and second only to the Cosmos in attendance. But last season the team sagged, and so did attendance; three weeks ago the Minnesotans sold out, and the Kicks are now owned by a British group.
And the NASL's relocation game has resumed. The Memphis Rogues are now the Calgary Boomers, owned by Nelson Skalbania, the Canadian sports entrepreneur. The Philadelphia Fury moved to Montreal, with the Molson Brewery as its new proprietor. And Lipton's Teamen, unable to settle scheduling and parking disputes with Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., have become the Jacksonville, Fla. Teamen.
The net effect of these failures and transfers is to leave the league with only two teams, Atlanta and the Cosmos, the latter perched outside New York in the New Jersey Meadowlands, on the East Coast between Montreal and Jacksonville—a truly gigantic void.
But embattled owners are adamant about cutting their losses and regrouping. Clive Toye is president of the Toronto Blizzard and has been a pal of Woosnam's from early NASL days. "It's not like 1969, when no owner had success or saw any hope," he says. "Now we've gained a beachhead, but it's a tangled one. To put it simply, we bit off more than we could chew when we expanded from 18 to 24 teams in 1977. We all spent too much on players without a parallel jump in fan appeal or the quality of the game. We're paying the price now. The price is contraction."
The tide of owner opinion has now turned against weak sisters. Bob Bell is a commodities broker who has poured $5 million into the San Diego Sockers in the past two years. "It's sink or swim. We're not a socialist group, we're businessmen," he says. "If an owner can't make it, we won't go to the well for him any longer." Jack Daley, president of the Seattle Sounders, is equally hard-nosed. "After the novelty of owning a sports team wears off, it's a bottom-line business," he says. "If your car dealership fails, you close up. It's the same in the NASL now."
Somewhat surprisingly under the circumstances, the league's many problems haven't produced a coherent anti-Woosnam movement. The Welsh-born commissioner, who was the eloquent apostle of expansion, has been regarded as vulnerable to a what-we-need-now-is-a-hardheaded-American attack. While Seattle's Daley is often mentioned as a possible successor, insiders believe that Woosnam is sufficiently sensitive to the owners' new mood to turn from super-salesmanship to retrenchment. Says one owner, "Phil's duties will be changing. He'll be a consolidator, not a front man."