Spirit on brink of folding March 30 goal set for 2,500 season tickets

March 05, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

The Spirit's owner says his money-losing professional indoor soccer team will go out of business unless it gets corporate and fan commitments to buy 50,000 tickets for the 1998-99 season by March 30.

"I don't believe we have any viable alternative," owner Bill Stealey wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. He said that in an attempt to spread chronic losses he has been absorbing, "Investors and limited partners have been pursued, and no one has stepped forward."

The Spirit's general manager, Drew Forrester, elaborated in an interview Tuesday that Stealey, a former Hunt Valley businessman whose primary interest is his computer software-making business in Raleigh, N.C., has lost an average of about $500,000 a year during his six years of club ownership.

"It's about $3.2 million out of his pocket," Forrester said, adding that the team has never been profitable. He said the team's most successful financial season may be this one, for which the books close on May 31.

But Forrester said the franchise has been struggling particularly because it must play in the unfashionable, Baltimore Arena, which opened in 1962 and in terms of amenities for fans pales in comparison with newer, larger and more lavish facilities in many other cities, some smaller than Baltimore.

The search for help

Forrester said the quest for additional investment help -- someone, or several individuals, with clout in the Baltimore business community -- has gone on unsuccessfully for about seven or eight months.

As a result, he said, he recommended to Stealey that before going out of business, the team try a concentrated ticket sales effort, which would mean selling the equivalent of 2,500 20-game ticket packages at $240 by the time the team's National Professional Soccer League regular season ends March 30.

The team would be happy to reach its goal not only by selling season books, but also through companies buying blocks of seats for specific games to promote company nights for employees, Forrester said. Buyers will be asked to commit to buying tickets -- discounted to $12 a game -- but would not have to put up the money until later.

However the 50,000-ticket sales goal is reached, Forrester said those commitments would assure the club $600,000 heading into next season, enough to continue Stealey's ownership.

Stealey wrote to Schmoke that "reaching 2,500 season tickets would provide me with the comfort of knowing that a professional indoor sport is still important to the City of Baltimore and Maryland and that my effort over the last six years will not have gone to waste."

By that, the general manager said, the owner was referring to the team's promotion of Baltimore, numerous personal appearances and summer camps.

Alonzo Williams, a spokesman for Schmoke, said yesterday that the mayor was unavailable for a comment on the Spirit's plight.

With the Arena as its only indoor facility capable of housing pro sports at any level, Baltimore has lost an NBA franchise, four pro hockey teams and the Spirit's predecessor in indoor soccer, the Blast. The city at one time lobbied for an NHL franchise, as well, but lost that bid because, among other reasons, it was said, the then-commissioner sat in an upper-deck seat from which one goal was hidden.

The only other sports team using the Arena now is the Thunder, an indoor lacrosse team that plays six home games a season.

Gary Handleman, vice president of Centre Management, which operates the Arena for the city, said that "we're sympathetic to [the Spirit's] plight. It's a shame, because the team's a good product, and it's an exciting sport."

Forrester said the Spirit has about 700 season-ticket holders this season, during which the team has struggled with young players and remains in last place in the East Division of the 13-team NPSL. The team has only a slim chance of making the playoffs that begin early next month, although if it does qualify and the ticket effort fails, Forrester said, it would play out that commitment.

If the club is to survive, Forrester said, increased revenue is the only way to go. The team's expense budget, which at about $1.4 million a year, is about average in the league, is lean, he said. The team's Arena lease, which extends through 1999-2000, is not a problem, either, he added.

The club's primary vehicles for ticket sales have been through businesses and groups, such as youth soccer organizations. Walk-up ticket purchases by individuals on game nights "have never been a big factor in indoor soccer in Baltimore, dating back 18 years," said Forrester, whose only jobs have been with the city's indoor soccer teams.

Attendance has been averaging nearly 5,000 a game this season, better than in some years and about average for NPSL teams. Commercial sponsors and summer camps generate other revenue.

The club, which has written its season-ticket holders about the situation, will target area companies in its sales drive, Forrester said.

Little attraction in Arena

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