The Thunder appears set to roll out of Baltimore.
The 13-year-old professional indoor lacrosse team is "96 percent certain" that it will move to Pittsburgh, a source close to the team said yesterday.
Jim Ulman, the National Lacrosse League team's general manager, confirmed the talks with the western Pennsylvania city and said the final decision will be made this morning. Team owner Dennis Townsend, who was in Baltimore yesterday, did not return phone calls.
"We're in the 11th hour with Pittsburgh and Baltimore right now," Ulman said.
Hailed as the hotbed of lacrosse, Baltimore has failed to embrace the indoor game this decade, and the Thunder has felt the strain of competing financially with teams drawing nearly double its attendance.
Fielding the game's premier superstar in Gary Gait and finishing second in the regular season last winter, the Thunder averaged 6,953 fans, just over half Baltimore Arena's 12,000 capacity.
Fifth in the seven-team league, that was 2,000 below the league's per-game average for a team with Gait, five times the league's most valuable player, Jesse Hubbard, the league's rookie of the year, and at 8-4 was the city's only winning professional team.
In 1998, the Thunder advanced to the championship game but averaged only 4,854, also fifth in the NLL. That championship series' first game attracted 9,795 in Philadelphia, but a day later in Baltimore, the second game drew just 3,427.
Townsend said he lost more than $1 million in his first year as owner.
The Thunder opened the 1999 season before sparse crowds of 4,123 and 5,738, prompting him into an ultimatum in January.
"I didn't expect to make a profit, but I'm not prepared to lose the quantity I have now," Townsend, a commercial real estate businessman based in Towson, said in January. "We need to double our attendance on a paid basis this year to have a team here. There's a lot of cities out there that would love to have a team."
Over the final five games, attendance did increase, growing to an average of 7,728. But those numbers included complimentary and discounted tickets, another source said.
In fact, the Thunder's semifinal crowd of 6,325 against Rochester on April 17 was deceiving, because only 1,700 fans actually bought tickets, a source said.
The source also said Townsend, who played at Johns Hopkins in 1965, tried to keep the Thunder nearby and inquired about moving to Washington. But that idea stalled when the MCI Center's per-game fee was too high.
The Thunder was then shopped in Tennessee before Pittsburgh became more serious in its discussions.
Baltimore and Philadelphia are the only two teams remaining from the Eagle Pro Box League that began in 1987.
The Thunder, which has not won a championship in a decade, played in front of near sellouts in the late 1980s and attracted crowds of at least 10,000 every season until 1993.
The craze forced a 1990 game against the Detroit Turbos being delayed 40 minutes because of nearly 4,000 walk-up ticket buyers.
But when the Thunder followed an appearance in the 1991 championship game with six straight losing seasons, crowds dwindled. From 1992 to 1997, the team won just 29 percent of its games, losing 37 of 52 contests.
The Thunder, though, expected a renaissance when Gait arrived in 1998 and transformed a last-place team into a title contender.
It didn't happen. Season-ticket sales increased to just 575 this past season, dwarfed by Philadelphia's total of 7,000.
The league's big three in attendance -- Philadelphia, Buffalo and Toronto -- packed in crowds of over 10,000 nearly every night, reflecting a trend of marketing teams to cities with large hockey followings.
Traditional lacrosse locales of Baltimore, Syracuse and Long Island, N.Y., have the NLL's three lowest drawing teams.
But the Thunder stands out more, because it was the only one of this group to make the playoffs and maintained an estimated team payroll of $250,000, one of the NLL's highest.
Many field lacrosse fans seemed turned off by the indoor version, comparing the contact to hockey and the continual up-and-down action to a pickup basketball game.
So moving the Thunder to Pittsburgh has some logic because the NHL's Penguins have a renowned, hard-core fan base. Pittsburgh hasn't had indoor lacrosse since the Bulls, who logged in four forgettable seasons from 1990 to 1993 in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League and disbanded.
Thunder's 1999 attendance
Date.................. Opponent.............. Att.
Jan. 2 ................Rochester ..........4,123
Jan. 9 ................Toronto ...............5,738
Jan. 30 ..............Philadelphia ......10,125
Feb. 12 ..............New York ............7,023
Feb. 27 ..............Buffalo ................8,203
April 3 ................Syracuse .............7,132
April 17 ..............Rochester* ..........6,325
Pub Date: 7/16/99