Mania folds

investors out $650,000-plus

One ex-team official: `Wool was pulled over lot of eyes'

Soccer

November 09, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Mania, the most recent team to try selling pro outdoor soccer in the Baltimore area, has collapsed after one season, leaving a group of Columbia-area investors more than $650,000 poorer.

Investors voted last week to fold, and the team subsequently released players from their contracts, general manager Sheldon Phillips said. He confirmed that the group -- including a racehorse owner who is retired from the hardware business, a horse trainer, a doctor, and a restaurateur -- considered moving down a competitive notch into the semipro D-3 Pro League next year.

"But there's no money, no sponsors, no time to do it right, and they certainly didn't want to get behind the eight-ball again," said Phillips, who grew up in Columbia and finished law school this spring.

Thus, the Mania joined three incarnations of Baltimore and Maryland Bays, as well as the Comets, as outdoor pro teams that have folded in the area since the North American Soccer League days of the late 1960s.

Asked the financial ramifications of the Mania's demise, Phillips replied: "It's fair to say some of the owners still are wondering where some of the money went."

He and several investors confirmed the approximate amount of money involved, but none would talk specifics, other than to say players and coaches were paid. Phillips said team books will be audited. Thirteen investors -- 10 individuals and three corporate groups -- put up between $25,000 and $100,000 each, another source said.

"An awful lot of vendors and investors are getting hurt," said Ed Miller, a Columbia garden-center owner and investor. Added Chris Cotter, a former team officer and owner of an Ellicott City marketing agency: "The wool was pulled over a lot of eyes, including the public's eyes. It's a pretty sorry situation."

The Mania competed this year in the A-League, pro soccer's top minor league. But dogged by front-office controversy almost from its formation two years ago, the team never established a fan base and won three of 28 games, the 30-team league's second-worst record.

Denied political approval last year to play at Columbia's Cedar Lane Park, where the Maryland Bays, with nice fan support, won a national title in 1990, the Mania opened play at UMBC Stadium, but abruptly switched at midseason to Anne Arundel Community College.

Mania founder A. J. Ali said in May the team needed about 2,500 fans a game to meet its budget. But the Mania never drew 1,000 for a home game and routinely inflated, several times by double, the number of fans in the stands.

The franchise went through more than two dozen players and three coaches, the first of whom hanged himself in London after a scandal involving an Ellicott City teen-age boy; the second was fired after one game. The Mania's season ended in anonymity with its third coach, one-time Blast star Paul Kitson, doing double duty as a part-time player.

Ali, 34, a former Meade High player and entrepreneur, wooed officials and prospective investors for months with talk -- and conceptual drawings -- of a soccer complex he said the team wanted to build in Columbia. The plan included a 5,000-seat stadium, practice facilities, a motel and other services.

He announced his resignation in July, although several sources familiar with the team say he was ousted.

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