Believing the time was right for a fresh start, the Blast ended their longstanding relationship with Royal Farms Arena for a newer facility. They'll play the 2017-18 Major Arena Soccer League season at Towson University's SECU Arena.
In conjunction with the university, the team had a news conference Thursday afternoon at its new home, announcing that the two parties agreed to a three-year deal, which was finalized Wednesday night. It ends a 37-year run of professional indoor soccer at the downtown building.
While Blast owner Ed Hale applauded the relationship the franchise had with Royal Farms Arena and cherishes the great memories created there over the years, the appeal of a state-of-the-art arena at a location closer to the team's core audience was too good to pass up. The two-time defending MASL champions will play their first home game there Nov. 10.
"We're looking forward to a fresh start," he said in his opening statement Thursday. "We'll miss certain parts of Royal Farms Arena, but it's time to turn the page and get this into a situation of defending our championship here."
SECU Arena will be able to seat a little more than 4,000 fans for Blast games, considerably less than the 11,200 capacity at Royal Farms Arena. Determining factors for the move were SECU Arena's location, more convenient parking (included in the game's ticket price), cheaper concessions, and upgraded seating and sightlines to bring fans a more intimate experience.
"The people at Royal Farms Arena, previously First Mariner and Baltimore Arena, couldn't have been better to us, but we look forward to a bright future," Blast president and general manager Kevin Healey said. "We have a new arena with new graphics, a new sound system, a new lighting system — things that will create additional energy in the building. The location is fabulous for what we're doing, and we think we're going to bring a great product."
The field will be considerably smaller than at Royal Farms Arena, which will force the Blast to adjust their playing style. The tighter confines will make it harder to play their controlled short-passing game. They are reassured, however, by the fact that they have clinched the past two championships at Soles de Sonora's tiny field in Hermosillo, Mexico.
"The game changes a bit," Blast coach Danny Kelly said. "We like to play a possession style, and that's probably going to change a little bit because it can be very difficult to possess in smaller fields. But we've found ways to be successful — big fields, small fields — and we'll look to do the same here at SECU."
Blast star forward Vini Dantas, last season's championship series Most Valuable Player, welcomes the challenges that come with the team's new home.
"More chances to score goals, more chances to be in front of the net, so that's good for me," he said. "I think the personnel we have is also very positive, a lot of good 1 v 1 players that can take people on, so, yes, I think overall it's going to be a step forward and as we develop into this new arena, the organization is going to continue to be very successful and that's something cool to be a part of."
From a sentimental side, change is often difficult and the city's history of indoor professional soccer at the downtown arena — it was the longest-tenured tenant — is profound. Royal Farms Arena general manager Frank Remesch was out of town Thursday but left a written statement that said: "I consider Ed a good friend and I wish Ed and the Blast success in all their future endeavors."
The original Blast came to then-Civic Center in 1980, playing in the original Major Indoor Soccer League. The franchise's first championship season came in 1983-84 with an announced average attendance of 11,189 — basically sellout crowds for every home game. Games were such a hot ticket at the time that it was common to see Orioles players in attendance.
"It was a special place," said former Blast great Mike Stankovic, a defender on the 1983-84 title team. "For us, it was absolute electricity there because of the full arena and the team being so great. It was just an amazing experience. I couldn't wait [to step on the field]. Every player wants to entertain the crowd, and that was with us."
Since Hale, owner of the original Blast, bought the current franchise in 1998, the Blast have added eight more championships, three that clinched on West Baltimore Street.
"We won eight championships playing out of that arena, so it was a great home for us," Kelly said. "But sometimes change is necessary and I think to a man we're excited about the possibilities of SECU Arena in terms of can we create the same kind of atmosphere and winning tradition we had at Royal Farms Arena. It's just another challenge that's in front of us. Bringing back the core of the team and adding some pieces as always and taking everybody's best shots, we're looking forward to that challenge and I think this is a great place, a great environment to do it."
Here's a look at some important years in the history between Baltimore's professional soccer teams and Royal Farms Arena:
» 1980-81: The Houston Summit moves to Baltimore and becomes the Blast, who averaged an announced 6,540 fans in their first season at the Civic Center.
» 1983-84: The Blast win their first and only championship in the original Major Indoor Soccer League, averaging a near-capacity announced 11,189 fans for home games.
» 1991-92: The MISL and Blast fold after the season.
» 1992-93: The National Professional Soccer League is formed, and the Baltimore Spirit replace the Blast, averaging an announced 5,444 fans in their first season.
» 1998-99: Current owner Ed Hale buys the team and renames it the Blast.
» 2002-03: Now competing in MISL II, the Blast win the league championship to start a run of five titles in seven years, the last one in 2008-09 competing in the National Indoor Soccer League.
» 2012-13: The Blast win Baltimore's seventh indoor soccer crown competing in MISL III.
» 2016-17: In what turns out to be the final season at Royal Farms Arena, the Blast successfully defend their Major Arena Soccer League title for Baltimore's ninth championship, averaging an announced 6,299 fans.