Thunder makes move to Pittsburgh official

Baltimore Arena cited as main problem by team officials

July 17, 1999|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Thunder is bolting to Pittsburgh with more of a whimper than a boom.

Baltimore's professional indoor lacrosse team, which has played here since 1987, is moving 220 miles northwest because of apathetic fan support and an inadequate arena, club general manager Jim Ulman announced yesterday. Baltimore and Philadelphia are the only two cities in the country to have had indoor lacrosse teams for the past 13 years.

The National Lacrosse League team failed this decade to restore the once-rabid following here, playing before a half-empty Baltimore Arena most nights.

The world's hotbed of lacrosse turned out only an average of 6,953 fans last season despite the fan-friendly attractions of a championship-caliber team, the league's top superstar in Gary Gait and the highest scoring team in the NLL.

But owner Dennis Townsend, who built the Thunder into the winningest team in the league after taking over in the 1998 season, said the actual paid attendance was usually about half the announced total and ranked last in the NLL. As a result, he lost in excess of over $2 million since buying the franchise and found himself forced to look at other markets.

"The idea was to give Baltimore a first-class team," said Townsend, a Towson businessman. "I wanted to give Baltimore an exciting and winning team. And I've done that. But if it's so important, then why aren't more people showing up? So I start sitting here and saying,`Then why am I doing this?' "

After purchasing the league's last-place team, Townsend immediately began luring top-notch talent to transform the Thunder into the NLL's runner-up in his first year as owner. Still, the revitalized club only attracted 4,854 fans per game, which ranked fifth in the seven-team league.

This past season, the Thunder became the city's only winning professional team with an 8-4 record and again fell 2,000 below the league's per-game average. Ticket prices ranged from $10 to $22.

Feeling the financial strain of competing with the rest of the NLL, Townsend said publicly in January that he would have to move the team if the club's attendance didn't double. Possibly saturated by lacrosse, the city's sports fans virtually ignored him as the numbers increased only by a couple thousand.

However, the rest of the league's fans flocked to their arenas when the Thunder came to town, making it the NLL's best road draw with an average crowd of 10,281.

"We did all we could to turn it around," Ulman said. "To bring a quality team here like we did, it's very frustrating that the city overall didn't care."

The frustration peaked on the Thunder's April 17 semifinal game against Rochester. The announced attendance was 6,325, but Ulman confirmed only about 1,700 tickets were actually sold.

"We basically believe that was a clear indication of how much of an uphill battle we had," Ulman said. "It's sad Baltimore can't support a professional lacrosse team. It's going to be really sad when there are 15 to 20 teams in the league in a few years and Baltimore doesn't have one."

Thunder officials said most of the problems lead directly to Baltimore Arena. The nearly 40-year-old site appears to be an antique when compared to Philadelphia's First Union Center and Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena, which combined to have eight games with crowds of 10,000 or more this season.

Ulman said the deteriorating facilities and the lack of an instant-replay scoreboard with state-of-the-art baseball and football stadiums just a few blocks down the street soured many fans.

"We have been as flexible as possible with them," said Edie Brown, a spokeswoman for the Arena. "They did have good dates, and we held them as long as possible. We hoped they would continue here."

Townsend and Ulman decided to explore moving options as soon as the season ended, first inquiring about Washington's MCI Center. That route faced a road block when the MCI Center wouldn't lower its per-game fee in exchange for profit-sharing opportunities.

The Thunder then shopped itself to Hershey, Pa.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Norfolk, Va.; and Cleveland before Nashville, Tenn., and Pittsburgh became the favorites. Pittsburgh gave the Thunder the opportunity to market to a town that supports football and hockey, following the successful trend in Buffalo and Philadelphia.

The Thunder, which will change its name upon moving, will be Pittsburgh's first indoor lacrosse team since the Bulls, who disbanded after playing from 1990 to 1993 in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League. Although the Pittsburgh Civic Arena is just as old as the Baltimore Arena, the Thunder views the larger capacity of seats at 17,000, the chance to cross-promote with the NHL's Penguins and the possibility of working out a television deal with the Fox Sports Network affiliate there as too many incentives to pass up.

Ulman expects most of the Thunder players to remain with the team, and there has been discussions that the team could still practice in Baltimore and travel to Pittsburgh only for games. Over half of last season's team either played high school or college lacrosse in the Baltimore area, and players said the move has brought mixed emotions.

"In a business sense, something had to happen," said Gait, the league's reigning five-time MVP who will follow the Thunder to Pittsburgh. "We all love to play in Baltimore, but we gave an honest effort. Baltimore is a great lacrosse town, but it hasn't proven that it can support indoor lacrosse."

Said John Livsey, Jr., the commissioner of the NLL, which added Albany, N.Y., as the league's eighth team this month: "Realistically, Dennis and Jim gave it a good run. They needed to have the opportunity to be economically feasible. Baltimore is an obvious traditional lacrosse market and we would love to have them part of the league maybe down the road."

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