Potential buyers talk with Spirit Team's GM meeting with two local groups, businessman from Va.

March 18, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Two groups of investors from the Baltimore area and one Virginia businessman are talking separately with the Spirit about buying the financially strapped professional indoor soccer team, thus preventing it from folding at the end of this month.

Drew Forrester, the Spirit's general manager, met last night with one of the local groups and will meet with another tonight to go over operational and financial details. He said he and the Virginia man are scheduled to talk on Friday.

Forrester would not identify the participants or talk money, though, explaining, "I've had a number of similar meetings over the last four months, so I'm trying to contain my enthusiasm. But anytime I hear someone say, 'Im interested,' let's talk, that's something positive to act on."

He did say the chances of the team being sold outright seem better than prospective investors taking a minority interest in the money-losing National Professional Soccer League franchise.

Team owner Bill Stealey notified Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in mid-February that, frustrated after months of fruitlessly trying to find additional investors, the team would go out of business April 1, when the current season ends, unless a last-ditch ticket drive works.

The team set a goal of selling 50,000 discounted tickets for the 1998-99 season,the equivalent of 2,500 20-game season books, by March 30, a level of sales that would guarantee the team $600,000 going into Baltimore's 19th season of indoor soccer.

Season and youth-group ticket sales are encouraging, Forrester said, but less encouraging on a important third front -- sales to area companies. What mix of ticket sales and new ownership might save the franchise was a matter of speculation, Forrester said.

"But it's obvious that the more tickets we sell, and the more that reflects support from businesses, the more attractive we are to a potential new owner," he said.

Stealey, a former Hunt Valley businessman who now owns and operates a computer software company in Raleigh, N.C., drew the line earlier this year after having lost, according to Forrester, about $3.2 million in his own money during his six years of owning the team.

The prospective Baltimore buyers would keep the team here, and Forrester said he "made it clear to the Virginia businessman that one of the pre-conditions of ownership is that the team would have to remain in Baltimore through the completion of our current lease" at the Baltimore Arena. That lease is good through the 1999-2000 season.

"His response was, 'It can stay in Baltimore forever if the support is there,' " Forrester said.

Forrester expressed disappointment on the lack of response thus far from the Greater Baltimore Committee and from Mayor Schmoke's office on commiting to ticket sales.

"I realize that both the mayor and [GBC president Donald Hutchinson] have very busy schedules," Forrester said. "Hopefully, I've been able to express to each of them how critical it is that we receive their support and the support of the business community."

He said the club needs 50 companies to commit to buying 300 tickets to one game next season, an expense of just over $3,500 "for one night of entertainment" for company employees, clients or vendors. Tickets also could be donated to youth groups.

Through his spokesman, Clint Coleman, the mayor said xTC yesterday that "in the past we have tried to generate some support for purchasing Spirit tickets, but only a small segment of our business community was interested." The mayor said he would make another pitch at his news conference tomorrow.

Gene Bracken, GBC's communications director, said the group's leadership has been told of the Spirit's objective. "But we're not overly optimistic," he said. "It's really up to our members."

He estimated that only about 150 of GBC's some 600 member firms likely would be able to afford an outlay the size of what the Spirit proposes.

Earlier this month, Forrester said he had been told repeatedly by executives that playing in the Arena makes the team unattractive for business entertaining because the outmoded, 36-year-old facility lacks fan-friendly luxuries that are a given at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the new Ravens stadium.

Forrester said he was encouraged by season-ticket renewals and hopes to reach 1,000 ticket books by March 30. The team, which has 686 season-ticket holders this season, has either sold or received commitments for about 800 books for next season, he said.

Additionally, Forrester said, the club is encouraged by the early response to a new program under which the club will assign one of its players to work with each local youth soccer organization that purchases 500 tickets for the next season.

The goal is to find 30 such clubs. Eight clubs had committed to the program through yesterday, Forrester said, with the Severn Athletic Club having already given the team its check.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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