Thursday, June 3, 2004

Upstart Teams Face Uphill Climb


But owners confident they can avoid pitfalls

By Colleen Kane
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dave Galus said he wasn't quite sure how it happened.

One day he was a guy who just loved soccer, having played and coached for 25 years. The next day he was working to jump-start a new team in a new league.

CAME. PLAYED. CONQUERED?
Cincinnati's professional sports teams since 1975.
Basketball
*Slammers, 1984-87, Continental Basketball Association
*Stuff, 1999-2001, International Basketball League
*Kentucky ProCats, 2001-02, American Basketball
Association
#Blaze, 2004, ABA

Hockey
*Stingers, 1975-79, World Hockey Association
*Tigers, 1981-82, Central Hockey League
*Cyclones, 1990-2004,
International Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League
Mighty Ducks, 1997-present, American Hockey League

Arena Football
*Rockers, 1992-93,
Arena Football League
*Swarm, 2003-04,
arenafootball2 league

Baseball
Cincinnati Reds, 1869-present, Major League Baseball
Florence Freedom, 2003-present, Frontier League


Football
Cincinnati Bengals, 1968-present, AFL/NFL
Sizzle, coming 2005, National Women's Football Association

Soccer
*Kids, 1978, Major Indoor Soccer League
*Cheetahs, 1992-93, U.S. Interregional Soccer League
*Leopards, 1995, U.S. W
Interregional Soccer League
*Riverhawks, 1998-2003, USL A-League
Ladyhawks, 2000-present, USL W-League
*Silverbacks, 1996-98,
National Professional Soccer League
*Northern Kentucky TC Stars, 2001-03, USL W-League
#Excite, 2004, American
Indoor Soccer League

Softball
*Suds, 1977-82, American Pro Slow Pitch League
*Rivermen, 1980, North American Softball League

*Indicates operations have ceased
#New team this year
From Cincysports.net, compiled by Colleen Kane.
Galus is the owner of the Cincinnati Excite, a professional soccer team in the rebuilt American Indoor Soccer League. The Excite are one of two new minor-league teams that will begin play late this year in Cincinnati. The other is the American Basketball Association's Blaze, coached and managed by former Wright State coach Ralph Underhill. Another team, the Florence Freedom, of Frontier League baseball, is in its second year but will be playing its first games in its new 4,500-seat stadium.

As with any business venture, starting a minor-league team is risky. But in Greater Cincinnati, there are more cautionary tales than not.

The Cincinnati area has had at least 16 minor- or mid-major-league teams come and go since 1975. In the last year alone, four minor-league teams collapsed - the East Coast Hockey League's Cyclones, the arenafootball2's Swarm and the United Soccer Leagues' Riverhawks and TC Stars.

Reasons stretch from poor league structure and management problems to financial instability and a lack of interest from the city's already booked sports fans. TC Stars owner Kevin Molony experienced the last one first-hand.

"Cincinnati has big-time pro franchises, big-time college programs and extreme support for youth sports. There just doesn't seem to be a niche for mid-level semi-pro or minor-league teams," Molony said. "There's such fabulous support of high school games. You go on Saturday and Sunday, and all the fields are packed. Where is there room? Where's the niche?"

Why here?

The owners and GMs, many of whom are from Cincinnati, have heard plenty of warnings, but they still think their hometown is a place they can make their teams work.

Underhill pointed to this region's high interest in basketball to show the Blaze can succeed.

"This is a hotbed for basketball in the U.S. I don't know why you'd want to go anywhere else," Underhill said. "The past this and that, I don't pay any attention to it. I've been at colleges in the past where they might not have had outstanding programs, but we built them to be champions."

Galus said Cincinnati has the fourth-largest soccer population in the country and pointed to several indoor facilities that are operating successfully hosting indoor soccer, though not at the professional level.

"Is there a financial commitment? Yes, there is," Galus said. "Am I taking a risk? Yes, but it's a risk I'm willing to take because of my love of soccer. I think Cincinnati needs professional soccer. The city deserves a professional soccer organization run the right way, and I think I'm the person to do that."

So what will be the keys to these new teams' success?

It starts with the league.

League power

Underhill was also coach of the ABA's Kentucky ProCats, Cincinnati's last minor-league basketball team. But when the league had to restructure in 2002, the ProCats also took time off. Majority owner George Spencer died and the ProCats did not return.

The Cincinnati Stuff of the short-lived International Basketball League faltered when that league folded in 2001. And it has been speculated that part of the Cyclones' demise came from the club's move to the ECHL when the International Hockey League broke up.

The Excite's AISL is still in the works with only four teams after branching from the Northeast this year. Galus said commissioner Paul Lapointe would like to see the league be a feeder to the Major Indoor Soccer League.

ABA co-founder Joe Newman thinks his revised league has the right balance, and apparently so do others. Twenty-three teams have signed on as expansions this year, and as many as five more might be added.Underhill said he has "a good feeling" about the ABA this time around.

"We've put something together that is reasonable," Newman said. "If you look at other leagues, the model is no good. If the model is no good, it's like having a McDonald's and selling a burger for $9."

The ABA has taken steps to make the franchises more financially viable than before, with an average team's operations budget at about $450,000-$500,000, almost all of which goes back into the team or city, Newman said. They've reduced the salary cap from $750,000 to $120,000. They've created divisional play in major cities, reducing travel costs. They charge only a $10,000 fee to start a franchise.

And they've looked for more affordable venues for their teams.

Home, sweet home

Underhill's top priority when he took over his team was finding a home.

In the past, teams have struggled based on their venues. The Cyclones foundered when they moved from Cincinnati Gardens to U.S. Bank Arena. The Riverhawks bounced around almost yearly, and coach Nick Ranieri said that might have hurt fan support. The Freedom suffered in Hamilton while their new stadium in Florence was being built.

"Last season was not for business purposes," Freedom general manager Connie Hildebrant said. "I don't anticipate nearly the trouble we had last year."

The ProCats played at Thomas More College, but Underhill wanted a venue with which his new team can grow. The Blaze signed a two-year contract with U.S. Bank Arena because of its central location and easy access. The Excite will play at Tri-County Sportsplex, which Galus thinks is just cozy enough to fit his team.

Then they have to fill the seats, something that hasn't been easy for past teams.

Finding fans

It wasn't finances that stopped the TC Stars from operating, but that so much of their fan base was too wrapped up in its own soccer-playing to support a professional team, Molony said.

The Stars drew about 300 fans a game. Similarly last year, the Ladyhawks averaged 344 fans and the Riverhawks averaged 387, nearly 3,000 off the men's A-League average. The Swarm drew 4,189, 420 off the league average, and the Cyclones drew a league-worst 2,204.

The Freedom averaged just 466 last year, but Hildebrant said about 1,600 season tickets are expected to be sold by their home opener June18.

Matt Dunne, U.S. Bank Arena general manager, said receiving media support and staying involved in the community are the biggest factors in attracting fans.

"Fan support is the core of any minor-league team," Dunne said. "There's a lot going on in Cincinnati, so they have to get out in the community. And the ticket prices have to be very inexpensive to draw in families."

Minor-league teams can offer a cheaper ticket than most major pro and college events. The Blaze will charge between $5-15. The Excite will charge $9 for adults, $6 for children. The Freedom charge $5-9.

"It will cost a family of four what it would cost one person to get into an NBA game," Underhill said. "And prices are cheaper than going to college games, and yet there will be (former) college players from Cincinnati, Xavier and Dayton."

Underhill hopes to draw in local players and will hold tryouts June 26 at Oak Hills High School. The Excite held open tryouts April24 and have taken on some of the former Riverhawks and Silverbacks players.

The coaches hope the local flavor will help college basketball fans and the large soccer population to branch out and buy tickets.

After that, it's all management.

"Cincinnati's a great sports town, and any teams that have gone out of business there, it's the fault of the teams, not the people of the town," Newman said. "The question is if the management will be effective at what it does, and it hasn't been before."

E-mail ckane@enquirer.com




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