Blast also moves up in financial standings

Hale's ban on free tickets is key for team with shot at finally turning a profit

Pro Soccer

December 13, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The question came up one day recently as the attendance at Blast soccer games at 1st Mariner Arena has risen.

How many free tickets does the Blast give away?

If anyone wants to irritate team owner Ed Hale, that's the only question that has to be asked.

The owner, who is a businessman first and a sports fan second, was irate.

"When I took over this team, the tickets had no value," said Hale, who bought the franchise for a second time in 1998. "You'd try to sell your tickets and people would say, 'Why should I buy them? I used to get them for free.'

"Well, we don't give away tickets anymore."

SMG, the organization that manages 1st Mariner Arena, does get a block of tickets as part of its agreement. The management group, in turn, gives those tickets to business associates.

Donna P. Julian, general manager of the arena for SMG, acknowledged SMG's complimentary tickets and also noted the Blast's presence in the building has been improving.

"The MISL [and] Blast are our main tenant here, and when the team is selling well, that's an equal win for the facility," she said.

It is also making a difference to the team's bottom line. For the first time in either of Hale's ownership tenures, he said, he has the chance to make a profit this season because of ticket revenues and advertising.

Hale, chairman of First Mariner Bancorp, acquired the arena's naming rights last year. The city also approved his plan to display exterior signs, causing some controversy.

Hale noted the Baltimore Street billboards are sold and the Hopkins Place signs are ready. "Those have just gone up and, if we can sell those, I'll make money for the first time."

When he purchased the franchise in 1998, Hale set two rules: no more advertising trades - he wanted actual cash sponsorships - and no free tickets.

As a result, the Blast has from 40 to 50 sponsors who account for $1 million in revenue, up from $300,000, and improved ticket sales, which now average more than $50,000 a game. That ticket revenue leads the league.

The Blast has 1,500 season-ticket holders and is averaging 5,811 fans a game, while the average attendance for MISL teams is 5,446. Tickets are $20 and $17 in advance. The team also offers a $14 ticket that is available only at the box office two hours before the game.

"Baltimore has established strict and correct procedures," said MISL commissioner Steve Ryan. "We don't tell teams not to give tickets away, but it's a very strong recommendation.

"I think when Ed came in, he established a benchmark and has made significant progress from there. I think he's got his team headed back to those wonderful days of the 1980s when fans filled the place."

Last Saturday, after back-to-back storms had dropped about a foot of snow on the greater Baltimore area, 6,415 hardy fans came to watch the Blast play the Milwaukee Wave.

"I've been a fan for 20 years - the Blast, the Spirit and the Blast again," said Joe Konopacki of Lutherville. "It's an exciting sport - and the snow wasn't that bad."

Konopacki, who is retired from his dry-cleaning business, said he can see the Blast's popularity growing. "I can see and hear the enthusiasm around me," he said. "The product has gotten a lot better and I can only see it going forward."

Last Saturday's game was a rematch of the MISL championship finals. In that best-of-three series, which Konopacki traveled to see, the Blast upset the Wave to win the title.

Last weekend's game wasn't much different. The Blast, now 8-3, rallied from a five-goal deficit to win, 9-8, in overtime, over Milwaukee.

The Blast has won six straight heading into tonight's home game against Kansas City.

The franchise has been in Baltimore for 20 years. Over that time, it has had at least five different owners, all of whom lost money. Hale, who owned the team from 1989 to 1992, estimates ownership losses over those two decades as "at least $25 million, and that's probably conservative."

In the high-flying 1980s, the original MISL paid salaries in the hundreds of thousands, took three-week road trips in which teams played as few as four games and stayed in first-class hotels. And that was without benefit of television money.

These days, there is a salary cap in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $400,000 per team and, most of the time, the teams play just once a week. An extended road trip is seldom longer than four to five days. But there is rent to pay, staff salaries and travel expenses. And still no TV money.

Hale said his team's budget this season is from $2 million to $2.5 million, plus end-of-the-season variables.

"But we're very close to being in the black," he said. "If we make a little more revenue by any means, we can do it."

A soccer team's income still comes primarily from ticket sales and local advertising. And, most of the time, MISL teams remain in existence because of the largesse of their owners.

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