Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Hot Winter Nights" - Chapter 4--An Abridged History

In this installment, I will explore the history of the original Kansas City Comets indoor soccer franchise (mostly off-the-field) in order to provide a little background on why it was so successfuland why it all fell apart too...

Dr. David Schoenstadt brought his struggling San Francisco Fog franchise to K.C. in the summer of 1981 and re-christened it "Comets".  While we do get fog here on occasion, somehow "Kansas City Fog" just wouldn’t have cut the cheese.  Steve Merz, who was known as "Mr. Soccer" around K.C.—he laid much of the groundwork for youth soccer in the area and was once equipment manager for the Kansas City Spurs of the old North American Soccer League.  Merz died in 1993 at age 90.

Unlike "Dr." Bill Cosby, Schoenstadt really was a doctor (a retired anesthesiologist, to be exact--i.e., a gas passer!) and he had lots of money, although you couldn’t tell he was a millionaire by his appearance—he wasn’t exactly GQ material with his sloppy attire and unkempt hair, making him almost resemble late entertainer Tiny Tim at times.  This photo of him appeared in one of the Comets annual team yearbooks—note the pack of cigarettes sticking out of his shirt pocket—real classy!  But Schoenstadt was still a decent enough duck as he was also co-founder of the Discovery Zone children's indoor playground facilities.  DS wisely chose the Kansas City market for the Fog's new home, noting its close proximity to MISL franchises in Wichita and St. Louis and the built-in geographic rivalries they provided.  And in a rather daring—yet very astute—move, he hired two young pups, brothers Tim and Tracey Leiweke, to run his soccer club, and in spite of only being in their 20s, these two had the smarts not only about how to market the team, but how to put on a show for the fans in the process.  Using catchphrases and slogans like "Too Hot To Handle" and “Hot Winter Nights” (hence the name of this series), it didn’t take the Leiwekes long to generate a buzz about the Comets.  About the only real blunder they made in the early going was hiring control-freak head coach Luis Dabo, who lasted all of 11 games that first year.  The Leiweke Bros. would both eventually climb the sports executive ladder after their Comets days, and Tim is currently president of the powerful AEG sports and entertainment group that manages numerous stadiums and arenas nationwide, including the Sprint Center here in K.C., which, by the way, I would love to see house an indoor soccer team someday.

The first regular season game in Comets history on earth in this hemisphere took place on November 13, 1981 (a Friday, oddly enough) at McNichols Arena in Denver, a 5-3 loss to the Avalanche (not the hockey team of the same name).  Ivair Ferreira notched the first goal in Comets history 2:28 into that game.  Two weeks later, the first home game in Comets history also resulted in the first win in Comets history, a 5-4 overtime victory vs. Wichita in front of a near-sellout crowd of 15,925.  Marco Antonio Abascal scored only one—count it—ONE goal in his illustrious MISL career, but it was the game-winner in OT on a feed from Clive Griffiths (@ 1:03 of this video), thus Comet-Mania was born.  Apart from a brief cup of coffee in the NASL with the K.C. Spurs in the late ‘60s, this town had precious little outdoor soccer history, and absolutely none with the indoor variety to that point, so it was astonishing how quickly the Comets caught on like wildfire here.  The fans took to the team immediately, and the Comets drew huge crowds at Kemper Arena right out of the chute that first season, even though the team pretty much sucked on the field in 1981-82, finishing 14-30 and enduring an MISL-record 14-game losing streak therein.  The Leiweke brothers were brilliant at marketing both the game and the players, and they made sure to get those players out into the community to really sell the sport.  It also helped that ticket prices in 1981-82 were quite reasonable, ranging from $4.00 to $8.50.  Hell, $8.50 won’t even cover the price of a nosebleed seat at any sporting event today!  You also have to factor in the impact of the legendary pre-game lazer shows and player introductions complete with flashing lights, disco mirror balls, fireworks and pulsating music to add a little sizzle to the mix.  By the way, you can’t tell me that my favorite band of all-time, Kiss, wasn’t a MAJOR influence on how sporting event pre-games and halftime shows are staged, both then and today.  The game itself was a strong enough draw on its own for me, but the league was smart to add a little pizzazz to get the attention of the casual fan, and people were flocking to the stockyards in droves to see this mini-spectacle/sporting event.  I remember one night my friends and I decided to go to a Comets game on the spur of the moment during those early days, only to be turned away at the Kemper box office because all that remained were scattered single tickets.

By the Comets’ second and third seasons here, the turnstiles at Kemper were spinning like Joe Pesci’s tires in that Alabama mud in My Cousin Vinny, as they were just packing the place every night.  By way of comparison, for five straight seasons, the St. Louis Steamers averaged bigger crowds than the NHL’s Blues during the early ‘80s, and likewise, the Comets were smoking the NBA’s Kansas City Kings at the gate—like a great big marijuana joint!  Hell, the Comets even gave the then-woeful Chiefs a run for their money too—the Comets actually drew 4,000 more fans to their game on a Friday night at Kemper Arena in December, 1983 than El Chiefos had the same weekend at Arrowhead Stadium.  Keep in mind also that this all occurred during the NBA's Larry Bird/Magic Johnson era when most NBA teams enjoyed a healthy resurgence in popularity, but the Kansas City (and/or Omaha) Kings were totally clueless about how to capitalize on that.  True, the Kings drew well when Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers (as well as Dr. J’s 76ers) came to town, but crowds for other league opponents were mediocre-to-pathetic.  The Celtics or Lakers would bring in a crowd of 16,000 one night, but only 4,800 might show up for the next home game vs. Utah or Cleveland.  It also didn’t help matters that the Kings farmed out some of their home dates each season to St. Louis (including one with the Lakers that drew over 19,000 to The Arena there in 1983), and the Comets just trounced the Kings at the box office during the four years they shared Kemper before the Kings bolted for Sacramento in 1985, just prior to the Michael Jordan-era where interest in the NBA vaulted into the stratosphere.  The average home attendance numbers Kings v. Comets are fascinating…

1981-82:  Kings—6,644; Comets—11,508 (2nd-highest in the MISL)
1982-83:  Kings—8,076; Comets—14,962 (2nd-highest in the MISL)
1983-84:  Kings—9,030; Comets—15,786 (Highest in the MISL)
1984-85:  Kings—6,411; Comets—12,917 (2nd-highest in the MISL)

[NOTE:  These numbers are from team media guides and in the Kings’ case, aren’t official because I did not count the Kings “home” games played in St. Louis as part of their average.]

That 15,786 average for the Comets in ’83-’84 was only about 500 short of Kemper Arena’s full capacity, to wit, they practically sold out every game that season!  15 out of their 24 home dates that season were indeed sellouts, and the team was a hot commodity, with many players doing endorsements for local retailers.  The attendance spike for the Kings in 1982-83 was a residual effect from their unexpected 1981 playoff run during which they just missed advancing to the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, but they failed to fully take advantage of the bounce they got from it, even though the early-‘80s Kings were a fairly competitive squad with the likes of Phil Ford, Joe C. Meriwether, Eddie Johnson, Larry Drew and Reggie King, et al.  You can easily make the case that the Comets’ success at the gate was as responsible as anything for running the Kings right out of this town.  That, and bonehead general manager "Clueless Joe" Axelson, who capriciously traded away star players/fan favorites like Ford, Otis Birdsong and Scott Wedman and got bupkis in return for them.  Also, from what I remember, the Kings and Comets had a fairly acrimonious coexistence in their respective offices in the bowels of Kemper Arena during that four-year stretch, clearly a case of sour grapes coming from the bassit-ball side.  Not too many Kansas Citians were crying in their beer over the departure of the Kings, and they really haven’t been terribly missed in the quarter century since they left here, as the University of Kansas men’s team virtually supplanted them as K.C.’s local "pro" basketball franchise anyway.  The Comets were only too glad to see the Kings leave too—their departure made the soccer team the primary sports tenant at Kemper and freed up those coveted prime Friday and Saturday night slots on the schedule.

The Comets continued to draw well until the late ‘80s when the MISL fell on hard times after the novelty of indoor soccer wore off.  It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when the wheels started coming off, but unfortunately, the league got a little too ambitious and tried to expand too rapidly without first making sure its existing franchises were healthy.  Salaries spiraled out of control as the MISL fought to keep big-name players from jumping to rival leagues and/or lure star players from outdoor leagues to play indoors, thus flagship teams that were once stalwarts of the league like the St. Louis Steamers and Cleveland Force were suddenly hemorrhaging money and both folded in the summer of ’88, replaced (to much lesser impact) by the Storm and Crunch, respectively, in 1989-90.  By that time, the league’s coast-to-coast presence had morphed back into a more regional footprint as those 3:00AM tape-delayed game telecasts on ESPN somehow failed to generate national interest, for some reason.  I wonder why...

The MISL’s original commissioner from 1978-85 was a man named Earl Foreman, who once presided over the infamous American Basketball Association in the early ‘70s, and he was brought back to try to rescue the league in 1989.  The MISL experienced tremendous growth for during his first tenure, with none of the shenanigans that took place in the ABA (secret drafts, ambush player signings, hand-me-down team uniforms, sub-standard venues, rinky-dink game promotions, et al), but in his second stint, the damage was already done and Foreman was unable to stabilize the situation, thus the Major Indoor Soccer League—or Major Soccer League, as it was known toward the end—was doomed.  Merger attempts failed with the rival (and somewhat small-time) American Indoor Soccer Association, which later changed its name to the National Professional Soccer League (are youse all confused yet?), and the MISL/MSL limped along on life support with seven teams in its final season and folded for good in the summer of ’92.  Ironically, three franchises wound up joining the NPSL anyway—the Wichita Wings, Cleveland Crunch and Baltimore Blast.  The latter was renamed the Baltimore Spirit, but the name eventually reverted back to Blast again, and they are the only franchise from the original MISL still in existence today in the modern-day MISL, Mach III.  In 1992, the Dallas Sidekicks and San Diego Sockers joined the new Continental Indoor Soccer League, which was partially subsidized by some NBA owners.  Ironically, the erstwhile-dominant Sockers failed to win a championship in that league, for some reason.  Meantime, the St. Louis Storm and Tacoma Stars simply ceased to be when the “Missle” disbanded, with St. Louis joining the NSPL in 1992-93 as the Ambush (transferred from Tulsa) and the Stars were in effect replaced later by the Seattle franchise in the CISL.

The bitter end for the Comets took place one season before the rest of the league folded.  In spite of finishing either first or second in the MISL in average yearly attendance in every year of their existence, and in spite of fielding a consistent winning team toward the end, the Comets were losing money hand over fist as the team’s average attendance dwindled from 10,474 fans in 1989-90 to 7,103 in 1990-91, a drop of 35%.  The league was down to eight teams by this time (the Comets, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, St. Louis, San Diego, Tacoma and Wichita) and interest in the MISL was fading like Mel Gibson’s film career across the board, not just in Kansas City.  On top of that, during that final season in 1990-91, the Comets had to compete with a new “enemy” of sorts, their new co-tenant at Kemper Arena, the International Hockey League’s Kansas City Blades.  Although the Blades didn’t make the same spectacular initial splash the Comets made a decade earlier, long-suffering K.C. hockey fans (me included) who’d been starving for over 11 years without pucks in this town embraced the new team right away, and there just weren’t enough sports dollars in this city to support both franchises simultaneously, thus trouble was brewing for the Comets.

Uncertainty reigned about the team’s future during the 1990-91 postseason as both the Comets and the Major Soccer League were teetering on the brink.  Schoenstadt sold the club in the summer of ‘87 to a group of local investors headed by Chris Clouser, but as the league struggled to keep teams afloat, the Comets’ ship was taking on water, and by March of ’91, Clouser publicly asked for three more investors for the ownership group or the team would fold after the season, plus there was no guarantee the league would survive anyway, as Dallas, San Diego and Tacoma were threatening to fly the coup too.  No one knew it for sure at the time, but the last game in Comets history took place on May 4, 1991 in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals against the Cleveland Crunch at Richfield Coliseum, and I was there to witness it in person.  The final goal in Comets history was scored by Kevin Hundelt, a sixth-attacker goal at 11:55 of the 4th quarter to bring the Comets within one point, but Cleveland held on to win the game 7-6 and the series four games to three.  In spite of the loss, the players and we fans were buoyed by some hopeful news from the day before the last game that the team’s future had been secured after all, as local business entrepreneur Delbert Dunmire had stepped forward to pursue those three ownership units in the team.  It proved to be false hope, however…

I liken the Comets situation to what I/we went through during my radio daze at the “Mighty 1030”, KKJC-AM in Blue Springs in late ‘87/early ’88 when we didn’t know from day-to-day whether the station would be sold to new owners or go out of business (or in broadcasting parlance, “go dark”).  One of my co-horts there had a brilliant analogy for the situation—he stood by a light switch and said, “This is KKJC,” then flipped the lights off (pregnant pause).  “Oh, wait—there’s still a glimmer of hope after all!” and he flipped the lights back on, repeating the scenario several times.  This is pretty much what went on for the Comets in the ensuing weeks after the season ended.  The team reduced ticket prices and tried to sell 4,000 season tickets for 1991-92, so my friend Tom and I did our part by putting a deposit down on a pair, but they never came close to reaching their goal, and just like The Mighty 1030 before it, the Kansas City Comets went dark two months after the ’91 playoffs.  The ownership group sounded (on paper at least) like a very doable deal, but it started to unravel when two investors got cold feet and backed out at the last minute—namely Clouser and Schoenstadt themselves, of all people.  This was eerily similar to what happened with the radio station, oddly enough, as it looked like we had a done deal in place at one point, until one horse's ass decided he wanted a bigger piece of the pie for himself and the whole thing fell apart.  It also didn’t help matters that Clouser had already taken an executive gig with Northwest Airlines during the team’s dying days.  It’s also just as well Schoenstadt got out—he died of cancer five months later on December 15, 1991.

At 11:00AM CDT on July 16, 1991, the original Kansas City Comets officially ceased to be, as the ownership group gave up the fight.  Team VP Robert Hagens said, “Our heads won’t let us proceed, no matter how much our hearts want us to.”  The real shame about it is they were only about $200,000 away from having the necessary working capital to move forward.  Even after the team was euthanized, there were numerous attempts to revive it over the next few weeks, but all proved to be futile.  The league had granted an expansion franchise to Pittsburgh, but their ownership group balked when the league started wobbling, and withdrew their interest.  The MSL players union also agreed to lower the salary cap and such, but it was too little, too late to save the Comets, and the league carried on for that one last season.  Oddly enough in 1991-92, MSL attendance actually rose by 15-20% league-wide over the previous season (depending on who you believed), with St. Louis experiencing an increase of 31% more fans, and there was talk of expansion teams in Phoenix, Buffalo and San Antonio for 1992-93 and possible franchises in San Jose and Anaheim in 1993-94, plus an eventual return to K.C. somewhere down the road, as well.  I attended games in St. Louis and Wichita during that final season after the Comets folded, and the atmosphere at both arenas was certainly still electric.  The St. Louis-Tacoma game I went to was particularly fun because it was played in front of a huge crowd—almost 13,000—and it featured nine former Comets playing between the Storm and Stars, including a match-up of the Comets’ former goalie tandem of Jim Gorsek (St. Louis) and Mike Dowler (Tacoma).  The old barn on Oakland Avenue was still rockin’, and the fans’ enthusiasm there as well as in Wichita a few weeks later gave me hope that K.C. could have a new MSL team soon and that the league might thrive again.  I truly believe if the Comets had fielded a team in that final 1991-92 MSL season, they would’ve survived and joined the lower-budget/lower-overhead NPSL along with Wichita, Cleveland and Baltimore in 1992-93 and the original franchise/organization might even still exist today in the current MISL.  But sadly, it was not to be.

On the hot Sunday afternoon of August 25, 1991, a public auction of the remaining Comets property was held in the north parking lot at Kemper Arena.  It was a surreal event at which my friends and I and approximately 300 other fans came to pick at the carcass of the team and take a piece or two of it home with us.  Everything from player uniforms to unsold souvenir merchandise to office furniture and supplies (right down to the rubber stamps!) was up for bids, even the 5’-high neon Comets logo sign (in this photo) used in pre-game introductions.  I think I heard that some guy in Overland Park snagged that rascal for four-figures, and I’m hoping the new Missouri Comets team might be able to track it down and buy it back from him so they can resurrect it this year, since they are reviving the old Comets logo and colors as well.  Some people were paying ridiculous sums for stuff like office chairs that they could’ve easily gotten cheaper at Office Depot.  Anyway, for a professional auction, this was a very disorganized affair, in which people were able to sift through a lot of the merchandise beforehand as if they were shopping at a flea market.  One woman actually had the effrontery to just grab up the box full of Comets/MISL media guide books (that yours truly just happened to have his eye on to bid for) and try to cart them off to her mini-van.  I pointed this miscreant out to one of K.C.’s finest who was on duty there and he made her put the stuff back, and I was able to bring it all home legitimately after successfully bidding on it.  Those very same media guides have been most helpful in my research for this here blog series, by the way.  I also tried to nab some old North American Soccer League media guides (even rarer than the MISL books) but was outbid by this “Anybody got extra tickets?” scalper schmuck whom we often encountered in the parking lot on the way to the games—douche!  Anyway, the whole thing was a sordid end to a great sports franchise.  How the mighty had fallen…