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Soccer league fizzles, extinguishes city's Blast Last-minute talks to replace teams fail

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Major Soccer League, which struggled financially during its 14 seasons, ceased operations yesterday after negotiations fell through for ownership of a sixth team for the 1992-1993 season.

Commissioner Earl Foreman made the announcement after a 1 1/2 -hour teleconference with the five remaining owners, including the Baltimore Blast's Ed Hale, all of whom voted to fold the league. Dallas, San Diego, Wichita and Cleveland were the league's other remaining franchises.

Mr. Foreman spent the last three days in St. Louis trying to work out an agreement for the purchase of the St. Louis Storm. At the end of this past season, the Storm and the Tacoma Stars announced they would not return to the league.

"Due to the instability of league ownership during the past four years, it has been difficult to expand into new markets and attract new owners, thereby precluding the league from realizing its potential for growth," said Mr. Foreman, who founded the league, then known as the Major Indoor Soccer League, with Ed Tepper.

"The league leaves behind a pretty good legacy," said Mr. Foreman. "We were an exporter of soccer to Europe in recent years, and we were probably a year away from having a truly international league of U.S., Canada and Mexico.

We just couldn't get everybody on the agenda in limited time. We've always called ourselves a major league, but you're not a major league with five teams."

The Blast was one of the league's most stable franchises, with three different owners in its 12-year history. It was a success on the field -- winning the MISL title in 1983-84 and finishing runner-up three times -- and drew 2,486,020 fans during the regular season, an average of more than 9,000 a game.

League all-stars who played for the Blast included Stan Stamenkovic, Scott Manning, Bruce Savage, Mike Stankovic, Keith Van Eron, Richard Chinapoo and Tim Wittman. Kenny Cooper was the only coach the Blast ever had, and he and his players were tireless in promoting the team, making personal appearances and giving clinics throughout the metropolitan area.

Mr. Hale said nearly 35 Blast employees will lose jobs and the city will lose at least $200,000 in amusement tax alone.

"We are certainly sorry to see them go after their fine history in Baltimore," said Barbara Bonnella, director of information for the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public development arm of the city.

Officials with Capital Centre Management, managers of the Baltimore Arena where the Blast played, were unavailable for comment late yesterday.

However, a few weeks ago, when the league appeared in trouble, spokesman Bob Zurfluh said Blast home games have made up 26 of 200 events a year at the arena.

The Skipjacks, of the American Hockey League, have shared the arena with the Blast the last several years, but the demise of the Blast doesn't mean the hockey team will gain more attractive weekend dates, Skipjacks owner Tom Ebright said.

"We already have our schedule for next season, and we're satisfied with it," Mr. Ebright said. "We have generally taken Friday nights and the Blast has taken Saturday nights, which worked out well because we only have a few Saturday dates available to us [because of an AHL arrangement with the Hershey Bears]. My first reaction is to feel sorry for those people, because they had a strong team, and the league fell apart around them."

Mr. Hale agreed.

"I'm obviously disappointed," said Hale, a third-year owner whose team was close to breaking even financially for the first time in its 12-year history. "I worked in the league the last couple years to keep things going. Personally, it was a lot of fun and I'm going to miss it. The thing that's very frustrating is that the trouble is always in some other city, like Tacoma or St. Louis.

"There were events spinning out of control in other cities that made you start out every year in the back of the bus," said Mr. Hale. "The reason I got into this is I didn't want to see Baltimore lose the Blast, because it wouldn't be good for our chances of getting an NFL team. Charlotte and St. Louis are our main competitors. Now it's ironic that St. Louis is responsible for the final straw that broke the league."

Abraham S. Hawatmeh, a St. Louis urologist and limited partner in the previous ownership, spoke with the potential new group yesterday during a conference call. He said the group, which already had $850,000 -- including $350,000 for the league's letter of credit -- was positive at first, only to back off in the last minute.

"I feel extremely, extremely bad," said Dr. Hawatmeh. "The truth is that we could have done it but financially, it would have been very, very tight. I don't think we had enough to make it a good run."

San Diego Sockers owner Oscar Anciera Jr. had been working on assembling an indoor all-star team from Mexico that would have provided the league with another team, and there had been talk about playing several games in Montreal.

Neither project came through.

"It was all kind of fragmented, not all feasible in such a shortime," said Mr. Foreman. "In my heart, I knew we were in trouble."

The league's demise comes just two years before the World Cup, soccer's top event, will be played in the United States.

"I had hoped there would be a game plan to keep the leagustable until the World Cup," said San Diego coach Ron Newman, whose team won seven of the last eight league championships. "I thought if we had reached that point, soccer would have really taken off in this country." Last year the league's salary cap was reduced for the fourth time to $600,000, down from a one-time high of $1,275,000.

In 14 seasons, the MISL and MSL drew more than 27 million people and had 32 franchises. Average regular season attendance was 7,644.

"I could never get the motor revved up again," said Mr. Foreman. "What happened? I don't know. If I had the answer, I'd write a book."

Major Soccer League chronology

1978-1979: MISL co-founders Earl Foreman and Ed Tepper grant charter franchises to teams in six cities -- the Cincinnati Kids, Cleveland Force, Houston Summit, New York Arrows, Philadelphia Fever and Pittsburgh Spirit. The teams play a 24-game schedule.

1979-1980: The St. Louis Steamers become one of 10 league teams and make their home debut at the Checkerdome, drawing a single-game attendance record of 18,005.

1982-1983: In its fifth season, the league now has 14 teams in two divisions, playing a 48-game schedule. MISL makes its network debut on CBS-TV, which carries a Baltimore at Cleveland playoff game on May 7.

1984-1985: After one season with 12 teams, league goes back to 14 members and sets an all-time season total attendance record 3,109,374. MISL founder and commissioner Earl M. Foreman announces his retirement on May 1. Francis L. Dale is named as Foreman's successor.

1986-1987: Twelve teams play an expanded 52-game schedule. ESPN agrees to televise 18 games. League sets an all-time average attendance record of 9,025 per game.

1987-1988: League drops to 11 teams but expands schedule to 56 games. Owners warn that financial troubles could mean the end of the league, so MISL players agree to a 33 percent across-the-board pay cut.

1989-1990: Foreman returns as commissioner after Bill Kentling announces his resignation in May, 1989. Eight clubs play a 52-game schedule. In July, the league drops the "indoor" from

name, becoming Major Soccer League.

1990-1991: The same eight teams -- Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City, Wichita, San Diego, St. Louis, Tacoma and Dallas -- are back. In August, the league and the players' association agree to a salary cap that will reduce team rosters to 16 players with a maximum salary of $60,000 each.

1991-1992: Minus the Kansas City Comets, last season's teams return for a 40-game schedule, with average attendance of 7,851 -- up from 6,566 the year before. MSL office relocates to Baltimore. MSL terminates Tacoma Stars franchise on June 5. On July 10, the league announces it is ceasing operations.

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