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Marketing begins to click for Spirit at the turnstiles Late-season flurry of fans complements team's success


After a late start and a first half of the season in which attendance was disappointing, the Spirit might be turning the corner.

On the field, the team has been a success from the outset. Despite a three-game losing streak going into tonight's game against the Milwaukee Wave, the Spirit leads the National Professional Soccer League's American Division with a 22-11 record.

Until mid-January, however, attendance lagged, averaging 4,369 for the first 11 home dates. In the past five games, the average is 7,140.

"I feel good about this," Spirit owner Bill Stealey said. "We've made progress. We've established that we're a capable team on the field and an organization that knows how to market its product."

The Spirit will not break even in this, its maiden season in the NPSL, "not by a long shot," said Stealey, who would be no more specific than adding the first year's loss will be "a big number."

Indeed, the Spirit didn't approach the season expecting to break even. With the demise of the Major Soccer League, the Spirit was a team with a new name, an expansion franchise in an unfamiliar league, with mostly new players.

"We knew we couldn't just open the doors and have people come in, 8,000 or 9,000 a game," vice president Drew Forrester said.

The Spirit has drawn an average of 5,234 for 16 home dates. It projects crowds ranging between 6,000 and 8,500 for the final four regular-season games, which would raise the overall average to 5,600.

"We hope next season we can break even," Stealey said. "We've got to raise average attendance by at least 1,000 to do that. What we'll need is more fans early in the season."

Perhaps even more than a winning team that has been all but invincible at home (14-2), the key for the Spirit has been a strong marketing effort.

It didn't start until mid-August, after the MSL folded. The first three days, the Spirit sold 500 season tickets.

"That told us there was an interest in soccer in Baltimore," said Forrester. The final season-ticket total was 1,600, plus 165 mini-plans, he said.

Stealey met several times a week with club officials and with what president/coach Kenny Cooper calls an "unofficial advisory board" of Richard Sammis, Mike Gill and Donna Homa, business people who are team sponsors.

"We formed a marketing and image strategy and carefully worked out a plan," Cooper said.

Home Team Sports agreed to televise five games. Players Jason Dieter, Brian Hartlove and Steve Nichols went out into the community almost daily, handing out brochures, selling tickets and talking about the Spirit.

At Stealey's urging, the Spirit advertised. The centerpiece of the effort was a television commercial filmed in a Johns Hopkins fraternity house in which players kicked over lamps and furniture in announcing, none too subtly, that indoor soccer was back and it was going to be fun.

The Spirit spent more than $200,000 on advertising and promotion, Forrester said, either in cash or by bartering with radio stations, exchanging air time for tickets or poster signs at the Baltimore Arena.

The Spirit has staged giveaways, the most notable of which was 5,000 NPSL balls. The Spirit drew their largest crowd (10,385) that Saturday night and their second-largest (8,040) two weeks later, when 3,500 fans came back with their soccer balls and other items to be autographed by the players.

Saturday nights are the choice dates. The season's top five crowds, from 5,730 to 10,385, were on Saturday nights and averaged 6,595.

"We have eight Saturday night dates this year," Forrester said. "If we can get 12 next season, we could make a serious run at breaking even."

The game's scoring system seems to have allure. In the MSL, it was one point for a goal. In the NPSL, goals are worth one, two or three points, resulting in higher scores.

"It's more exciting," said Nancy Neukam, a 12-year season-ticket holder for indoor soccer. "A team can be down 11 or 12 points and still not be out of the game. The Spirit proved that in the opener in Milwaukee when it was down 0-9 and came back to lTC win in overtime. You can't play a slowdown defense like you could in the MSL, because you can get caught from behind."

Even as the season heated up, the Spirit never stopped promoting.

Coaches and players make dozens of appearances at schools -- playing volleyball using only their feet and heads against faculty teams, and usually winning -- and hand out brochures, sign autographs, sell tickets and scout young players.

The Spirit has a head start on next season. Summer soccer camp brochures have been out only three weeks, and already 150 kids have signed up. Sponsorships have been sold. Talks with radio and TV stations have been initiated with the hope of having games aired.

This is the first time in four years that Cooper and Forrester have felt safe in proceeding full steam with next season's plans. In the MSL, shaky in its final years, they didn't dare do that.

Spirit attendance

Date.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Opponent.. .. .. .. ..Att.

Nov. 17.. .. .. .. .. ..Chicago.. .. .. .. ..6,471

Nov. 21.. .. .. .. .. ..Buffalo.. .. .. .. ..5,730

Nov. 28.. .. .. .. .. .Harrisburg.. .. .. .. 3,396

Dec. 6.. .. .. .. .. ...Detroit.. .. .. .. ..4,062

Dec. 13.. ... .. .. .. ..Denver.. .. .. .. ..4,196

Dec. 19.. .. .. .. .. .Cleveland.. .. .. .. .4,750

Dec. 27.. .. .. .. .. ..Canton.. .. ... .. ..4,075

Jan. 2.. .. .. .. .. ...Dayton.. .. .. .. ...4,228

Jan. 10.. .. .. .. .. .Cleveland.. .. .. .. .4,099

Jan. 13.. .. .. .. .. .St. Louis.. .. .. .. .3,060

Jan. 16.. .. .. .. .. ..Buffalo.. .. .. .. ..3,989

Jan. 23.. .. .. .. .. ..Wichita.. .. .. .. ..6,563

Jan. 30.. .. .. .. .. .. Dayton.. .. .. .. ..5,518

Feb. 13.. .. .. .. .. .Cleveland.. .. .. ...10,385

Feb. 20.. .. .. .. .. ..Canton.. .. .. .. ...5,195

Feb. 27.. .. .. .. .. .Kansas City.. .. .. ..8,040

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