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Money tough to tackle, but APSL still kicking


Sometimes it seems that if it weren't for bad publicity, the American Professional Soccer League would get no publicity at all.

So, recently, when the APSL made possibly the most important announcement of its short existence, it was met with the same media and public indifference that has accompanied its soon-to-be-completed 1991 season.

On Aug. 29, the APSL said it had paid the $100,000 entrance fee and two days later would officially join the professional division of the United States Soccer Federation. A two-year lobbying effort of the national governing body culminated in the APSL's becoming the first outdoor league to be part of the USSF since the North American Soccer League folded in 1984.

Anticipating the milestone, a July 23 meeting of the league's owners in Denver produced commitments from the eight remaining franchises to proceed with a bigger, better APSL in 1992. In addition to doubling operating budgets, some teams, such as the Maryland Bays, would have to upgrade stadium capacity and field conditions to meet USSF requirements. Such optimism, fueled also by remarkable progress on the playing field in most cities, does not alter one disturbing fact. Without solution of the league's habitual financial and promotional woes, a 1992 APSL season is by no means a certainty.

Groups from Seattle, Boston and Dallas have inquired about fielding teams for next season. Each team must post a $100,000 performance bond by the next league meeting, Nov. 9. The future of the APSL will become clearer then.

"What we have is a low-budget, semipro league in many cities doing a lousy job. Why should we expect people to show up?" asked Clive Toye, APSL commissioner and co-chairman. "If the job isn't done better in 1992, we will fail. Damn good soccer is being played. We need a professional staff, professional sales, professional promotion to let people know.

"The decision was to go into this season very gently with the intention of letting the USSF give us the key to the door, which they did. If the job in 1992 is done properly, the league will be in good shape. It requires investment and hard work. If that doesn't happen, the certification by the federation means nothing."

Improved play has done little to capture the public's imagination. Attendance around the league is so bad that APSL weekly releases no longer list crowd sizes with game summaries. It is impossible to gauge league-wide financial losses, but no APSL club ever has come close to breaking even.

Bays attendance increased 66.5 percent from last season, from 1,465 to 2,439. But despite following its APSL championship with a best-ever 19-2 record, scoring a record 53 goals and featuring league Most Valuable Player Jean Harbor, the Bays have sold out only one game -- drawing 3,812 at 3,500-capacity Cedar Lane Park for an exhibition against British League Cup champion Sheffield Wednesday.

As is an annual occurrence, some clubs had in-season money crises. The Salt Lake City Sting folded at midseason. Respected coaches with the Penn-Jersey Spirit and Miami Freedom were fired after protesting to management that their players weren't getting paid. Penn-Jersey got new owners and Miami additional operating capital.

Possibly, the fiscal picture of the Bays, considered one of the league's model franchises, would give perspective on the amount of red ink. Bays owners John Koskinen and John Liparini reported the team's deficit this season to be in the $200,000- $250,000 range. Koskinen said he lost between $700,000 and $750,000 operating the Washington Stars in Fairfax, Va., for three seasons before his team merged with the Bays for this tTC season. Liparini said his shortfalls with the Bays were similar.

"Substantial [losses] makes it sound like it's worse than it is. It's operating at the usual deficit we've had over the last four years, which we'd like to quit doing one of these years," said Koskinen. "But, yes, it's real money."

Liparini said: "We look at it as a loss when we give up, when we throw in the towel. John and I look at it as an investment. The willingness to invest is necessary. I'm committed to making it. I'm confident we're creating something of value."

The American Soccer League, which formed in 1987, joined with the Western Soccer League for marketing purposes and an interleague championship game in 1989. In 1990, the APSL was created as a formal structure for that arrangement. After that season, the league dwindled from 22 teams to nine.

In addition to giving it a claim to legitimacy, USSF certification signals a warming relationship between it and the APSL since the new USSF leadership of president Alan Rothenberg and secretary-general Hank Steinbrecher assumed office in August 1990. Under the previous regime, the USSF barely acknowledged the APSL. Now the U.S. national team roster lists its players' American team affiliations, and national team matches are sometimes packaged with APSL team appearances.

Closer marketing ties between the USSF and APSL, Koskinen said, as the United States prepares to play host to the World Cup in 1994, will increase attention on the country's only outdoor professional league.

Nobody expects profitability any time soon. But the hope around the league is after the World Cup is completed, the league can maintain the momentum of the nation's soccer movement to produce reasonable bottom lines.

In the meantime, a minimum operating budget of $800,000 is set for 1992. For the first time, the APSL will have full-time professionals working to shed some light on the only outdoor league ever to use primarily American players. And many of the players, most of whom are now paid $200-$500 per game, will be paid enough to shed the jobs they must keep to support their soccer.

"The heartening thing is the game has taken hold [in the United States] and it won't go away," said Toye, a pioneer of the NASL. "But we have to work hard at it. I used to say when I came to America: 'It will take 10 years to make soccer in this country.' That was 1968."

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