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History Buffs Unveil 1974 World Football League Trading Card Series

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Helmet logos of the 12 original WFL franchises circa 1974

Forty years ago, four young boys were among those transfixed by the announcement of a new professional football league.  The World Football League and its brash young Commissioner Gary Davidson conjured visions of a worldwide sports organization, with teams one day spanning the globe from London to Tokyo.  (For the WFL’s inaugural season in 1974, fans would have to be satisfied with a 12-team league that spanned the country from Jacksonville to Anaheim).

The WFL offered bold colors, such as the Southern California Sun’s retina-scorching Magenta & Orange uniforms, innovative scoring system and rule changes, and a salary war with the NFL that was perhaps more entertaining than the action on the field itself.  The WFL provided a form of exceptionally high-risk free agency for NFL stars that were otherwise bound in perpetuity to their clubs by the Rozelle Rule.  Big name stars like Larry Csonka, John Gilliam and Paul Warfield jumped leagues.  The whole thing went bust in less than two full seasons, but the cult of the WFL lives on, thanks to historians, collectors and young boys now long grown who got their first taste of big-time professional football when the World Football League briefly blew through their town.

Now, decades later, four of those men have banded together to issue an eye-catching 40th anniversary trading card set covering the WFL’s debut season in 1974.  Greg Allred, Richie Franklin, Bill Jones and Willie O’Burke combined photo archives culled from 20 years of networking with former players, officials and team photographs and curated this 70-card collection, which evokes the classic Topps bubble gum issues of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  Fun While It Lasted got an early look at the card designs and an opportunity to quiz the creators on this unique set.

 

FWIL:

Can you each explain how you came by your fascination with the World Football League?

Greg Allred:

As a 12 year-old in the state of Alabama, I was already a football fan in 1974, so when the WFL announced that Birmingham would have a team I was excited.  I had never been to a professional football game, so actually getting to go to a couple of the Birmingham Americans games was something that I would never forget and it gave them a permanent place in my heart and memory.

 

Richie Franklin:

I remember hearing about the WFL in October of 1973 when they announced the formation of the league.  I was 12 years old. I followed their 1974 WFL College and Pro Drafts.  It was the new logos, team nicknames, colorful uniforms, and the star NFL players making the jump to the new league.  I loved the TVS Sports Network’s promos.  The Florida Blazers trained at Madison College (now JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I live an hour away, and a guy from our hometown, Don Ratliff tried out for the Blazers and made the team.  I was also a huge fan of the mustard brown football with the orange stripes made by Spalding.  The WFL created a lot of excitement in 1974.

Willie O’Burke:

My dad was a big-time American Football League fan.  He loved the “underdog” quality of that league and passed that on to me.  We lived in Houston.  When the WFL came out and we found out Houston was getting a team, we were instant WFL fans.

Bill Jones:

I was raised in Anaheim, California.  When the Sun came to play at Anaheim Stadium, my father took me to my first professional football game.  I was hooked.  It was fan friendly, affordable, and colorful.  As I grew older, the concept of starting such a business venture, the behind the scenes actions and the historic similarities to the American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association became very interesting to me as well.

 

FWIL:

Color photos from the WFL are rather rare.  Can you describe the process of pulling the photos used in the set together over the years?

Richie Franklin:

Yes, color photos are very rare, and we used as many as we could find.  Sometimes you may have a great WFL photo, but we couldn’t use it because we did not select that player for the set.  Over the years I have met a lot of former players and coaches from the WFL.  I also met a few team photographers.  I have been fortunate enough to receive photos from their collections.  We compiled photos and as a committee chose the best action shots or still pictures we had for each player.

Greg Allred:

It’s always been such a long search for photos of any kind that relate to the WFL, so when we find a color photo it’s a really big deal.  For me this has been a 20-plus year search for photos, so sometimes there are spans of time with no success, then there are spans with quite a bit of activity and fruitfulness…it’s always exciting to find something new.  Willie, Bill, Richie, & I just basically decided to open our collections to each other and see what we had to work with. It a lot of was fun.

 

FWIL:

Do each/any of you have a “wish list” player you wanted to include, but couldn’t because there were no quality photos?

Richie Franklin:

Yes, unfortunately that did happened with a few players. There were many players we did not make cards for that were good WFL players, but quality photos are just as rare for black and white as they are for color pictures. We are starting to see more photos pop up on eBay and from private collections. Hopefully, we will locate a few quality photos for our Traded set and include cards of players we missed in Series I.

Bill Jones:

Not really.  If it were up to me, we would have had more Southern California Sun players, but I think all 4 of us have our favorite teams.  I think we came up with a very balanced representation of WFL players that made an impact in 1974.

Greg Allred:

I would like to have better photos of Tim Delaney of the Hawaiians. He is included in the set, but I sure would like to see a quality color photo of him. I am always amazed when we find photos that folks have had in their basements, attics, etc. for years. It gives me a little hope that there are more out there just waiting to be uncovered.

 

FWIL:

Have you heard reactions or reviews from any former players?

Richie Franklin:

I have heard from Upton Bell who was the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Jere Brown, who was a linebacker for the Hornets, signed the guestbook on our Web site, along with Bob Rush of the Florida Blazers, Rick Cash of the Philadelphia Bell (1974) and San Antonio Wings (1975), and Don Van Galder of the Portland Storm. I also received a nice message from Bob Paschall of the Bell and Gary Wright who worked in the front office for the Southern California Sun in 1975. The overall reaction from everyone has been extremely positive and complimentary.

 

FWIL:

Are your plans for a 1975 Series and a Traded Series definite, or does that depend on the response to this first set?

Richie Franklin:

Yes, the Series II set is in the planning stages right now.  We are currently selecting players and gathering photos.  The big name NFL players who jumped to the WFL will be in Series II along with the top 1975 WFL rookies, such as Anthony Davis and Pat Haden. When we started this project we were looking to find ways to celebrate the WFL’s 40th anniversary. The cards were something that we ourselves would want to collect in celebration of the WFL.

Willie O’Burke

This project is a labor of love for all of us, so I see us finishing series 2 & 3 regardless of series 1 sales.

 

FWIL:

The production design, front and back, is striking and really evokes the classic Topps issues of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Was there a particularly set from the past that inspired the design elements of your set?

Bill Jones:

We had at least a dozen designs that we considered.  Ultimately, we wanted a classic, Topps-inspired design.  It was important to have team logos on the cards, and we really wanted to have a classic card stock look to the backs.  I think we accomplished all of that with this set.

Richie Franklin:

We took our time and exchanged many, many e-mails to come up with the best retro feel of the 70’s. It was a total team effort and I think as a group we hit a homerun.

 

==Links== 

1974 WFL Trading Cards are available at WFLFootballCards.com

World Football League History Site curated by Richie Franklin & Greg Allred 

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“That Poodle Could Cover Our Team’s Payroll For A Month” – The Story of the WABA’s Atlanta Comets

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We’ve done a few articles before about the all-but-forgotten Women’s American Basketball Association.  The WABA was an effort to launch a women’s pro league against the platform of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where the U.S.A. was expected to triumph.  The American women did their part, taking home the Gold in a boycott-weakened field.  But things went horribly, ludicrously wrong from the get go for the WABA, which is the reason you’ve likely never heard of this league.  Start to finish, the WABA lasted just two months, from October to December 1984.

The WABA was the creation of Bill Byrne, a long-time sports promoter out of Columbus, Ohio.  Byrne was best known in women’s basketball circles as the founder and first Commissioner of the pioneering Women’s Professional Basketball League (1978-1981), the first nationwide pro league for female basketball players.

The downfall of both the WPBL and, later, the WABA was Byrne’s troublesome habit of launching franchises as a means of generating free publicity and then crossing his fingers that the actual financing would materialize later.  There were horror stories of starving, unpaid players playing for ghost ship clubs in both of Byrne’s leagues (see also our articles on the Philadelphia Fox and Washington Metros), but perhaps none stranger than the saga of the WABA’s Atlanta Comets.

There’s virtually nothing about this forgotten team on the interwebs, so I wanted to bring the story of the Atlanta Comets into the digital era.  Fortunately, we were able to  track down Kara Rehbaum.  Kara is currently the Assistant Athletic Director at Hilbert College in Hamburg, New York, but back in 1984 she was known as Kara Haun and she was the last player to make the Comets roster out of training camp.

Kara spins a remarkable tale about the very early days of women’s pro hoops – deadbeat owners, home made uniforms, bizarre travel arrangements and, ultimately, a team of unpaid young women staring covetously at a diamond necklace worn by the poodle of the league’s greatest star.

What also comes through is the joy of competing professionally, despite the most absurd and trying of conditions.  What follows in an excerpt of our January 2013 interview with Kara Rehbaum.  You can download the full transcript here.

 

Photo courtesy of Kara Rehbaum

FWiL:

Kara, how did you wind up in the Women’s American Basketball Association in the fall of 1984?

Rehbaum:

I was drafted by New York, which was one of the franchises that never ended up fielding a team.  I was home for Easter break during my senior year at college.  Our sports information director at Canisius College called and said “You’ve been drafted”.

I had no idea what he was talking about.  They weren’t drafting women for the army so I knew it wasn’t that!  I had no knowledge about a women’s league forming or any aspirations about playing after college.  Then he explained it a little more and that I’d been drafted by the New York team.

I got in touch with Bill Byrne who founded the league.  Eventually Bill broke down and said, well, New York isn’t fielding a team after all but Atlanta has a roster spot if you want to fly down there and give it a go.  I think I flew down on a Wednesday and I was told on a Friday or a Saturday that I could stay and be a part of the team.  And I think we had our first game within that first week.

Our first game was in Ohio against the Columbus Minks.  All I remember from that trip is that the game was in a barn or an agricultural building where maybe they held horse shows.  We had to walk over a bridge over the horse area so we didn’t track the dirt and animal debris onto the court.

FWiL:

You were coming out of Division II, and now you’re facing players like Nancy Lieberman and Molly Bolin and Pam and Paula McGee.  Who struck you as the most talented players in the WABA?  Were you in awe of these players or did you feel you were on an equal footing?

Rehbaum:

Was I in awe?  I was in awe of their names and their reputations, and then their skill level was tremendous.  But I know for sure there were many other women who were equally talented that I just didn’t know about because there was no exposure back then for women’s sports.  I grew up idolizing Ann Meyers, but I couldn’t have told you any of Ann’s teammates on those Olympic teams she played for.

The level of exposure for female athletes back then is just no comparison is what it is now.  Most of the other players were incredible, but I didn’t know who they were, so I couldn’t be in awe of them.  I just played.  I certainly was not one of the top seven or eight or nine people on our team in terms of talent.  I just got by because I was a hard worker who would grind it out and get the dirty work done.  I didn’t have the confidence that some of the other women had because of their exposure and experiences.

Lieberman and the McGee twins are really the three that stick out in my mind.  After the league was over, I could mention those three names and a lot of people would know them and understand the quality that was in that league.

FWiL:

What were the crowds like for your games?

Rehbaum:

We represented the city of Atlanta, but actually we played out in Marietta, Georgia in Cobb County.  It was more of a white neighborhood rather than an inner city neighborhood, so the people that might have supported us from the city couldn’t really get out there to watch the games.

If there were a 100 people at a Comets game, that was a big crowd.  We had more fans at Canisius College for our games than we did in Atlanta for the Comets.  Also – we practiced at the Zoo!  We were actually on zoo property in this funny little building.

But when we went to Columbus, Ohio for the first game, the game was being televised on cable TV.  I remember the cameraman on the court weaving in and out of players stretching and I was really caught up in that.  I hadn’t been a part of anything like that before and that was exciting.  When we went to Dallas, I recall it being pretty well attended.  In Virginia, I think we played at the Norfolk Scope, which was a big arena.  In Chicago we played at a community college or something.  I think the Chicago folks also had to come pick us up and drive us around in vans, because we were such a mess.  We were just barely alive and the other teams had to provide for us.

FWiL:

Did the Comets owner Forace Watts spend much time around the team, or did he try to hide from you all as much as possible, given that he wasn’t paying anyone?

Rehbaum:

He was the gentleman that picked me up at the airport when I flew in from New York.  My most naïve question to him was if we were near the ocean.  I really didn’t know where Atlanta was in the state of Georgia.  So I remember him laughing at me for that.

We did have an office location that he was at and involved in.  He issued our contracts and explained the contracts, but then at a certain point he disappeared, definitely.

 

Photo courtesy of Kara Rehbaum

FWiL:

I went to college in Atlanta.  I remember reading an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the Comets in the Emory University library.  And – maybe I’m remembering this wrong – but I think I remember that the Comets had no actual uniforms and you had to play in left over uniforms from another team?

Rehbaum:

Not quite.  It‘s true that we did not have uniforms. We had an assistant coach named Beverly Page and she stepped up and went to a Champion retail store and bought ten pairs or shorts and ten pairs of white t-shirts and she had red numbers screened on them.  She paid out of her own pocket, I assume.  They didn’t even say “Comets” on them.  She handed them out and those were our uniforms.

I still have my uniform and my kids absolutely die over it.  The thought of wearing a pair of shorts that probably were 7” long from the top of the waistband down to the bottom of the short.  They were your typical Daisy Dukes.   They weren’t top notch.  They weren’t what you expected from a professional setting.

FWiL:

For some of the other players, I imagine that was a major reality check.  Even if the payroll problems hadn’t cropped up yet.  I imagine you and your teammates must have been looking around saying ‘What is going on here’?

Rehbaum:

They were.  And it was the majority of my teammates.  Again, they were all Division I athletes – in college they had multiple pairs of sneakers during the year, they had sweat suits, they had special practice gear.  They had the things that maybe I had at Canisius, but I didn’t have three pairs of sneakers and two sets of warm ups.  I had one.  They were just from a different level.  I was that poor kid that didn’t have anything growing up and you give me one pair of sneakers and I’m happy.  We did wear AVIA sneakers in the WABA.  When we each got one pair of sneakers, the questions were: ‘Where’s our second pair? Where are our kick around sneakers?  Where’s our shooting shirts?’

I think I was just so naïve to not realize that this league wasn’t going to survive.

Our original coach was Tree Reece.  He was fired.  Or he probably quit, actually.  I don’t know.  Our general manager was Karen Brown.  Her back was up against the wall.  Here’s the commitment that she made to this team: since none of us Comets were getting paid, she was working overnights in some kind of steel industry.  All I can think of is the movie Flashdance that was popular at the time.  Remember that, with the dancer who was working as a welder?  It was something like that – a woman working in what was typically a man’s field because she needed to make an income and support herself somehow.

Shortly after Karen took over as coach, the Comets went on strike because we never received a paycheck.

FWiL:

I‘ve talked to a number of players who played in the previous women‘s league from the 1970’s that was more successful – the Women‘s Professional Basketball League.  And a number of them said something similar to what you‘ve just said.  The women who played for especially poorly run clubs said, well, there really was no measuring stick of what it meant to be a professional athlete back then, because they were practically the first ones.

And so it’s almost more in hindsight that they are kind of shocked at the conditions they had to put up with, whereas at the time they were more thrilled just to be playing.  Some of their teammates might have been up in arms, but for a lot of them, they didn’t realize what was missing because it was an all-new experience.

Rehbaum:

That is totally my feeling about being in this league.

Our team was bailed out financially.  The only paycheck we ever received actually came from the Dallas Diamonds team.  We only flew one time.  And I believe it was to Dallas.  In the airport, we ran into the Philadelphia 76ers and I remember that me and a few of my teammates were able to get Dr. J’s autograph and I think Maurice Cheeks was with him.  Dr. J was the nicest guy you would ever want to meet, whereas Maurice Cheeks, well, it was clear that we were bothering him.

Anyway, we flew to Dallas and the Diamonds owners and their families picked us up in their town cars and drove us to Southern Methodist University where their arena was.  They helped us out and gave us a paycheck.  Nancy Lieberman was on the Dallas team.  She had her poodle with her, sitting on the bench during warm ups.  The poodle had a diamond necklace on.  Our conversation carried along the lines of “You know…that poodle could cover our team’s payroll for the month”.

My other memory from that trip was we flew on to Norfolk, Virginia for the next game.  After the Virginia game, we bussed home overnight.  I had never done that in college and neither had my teammates.  Anyway, we bussed back to Georgia and the charter bus dropped us off at bus station in Atlanta and we all had to take the MARTA (Atlanta public transit) back to our apartments.

FWiL:

How did you and your teammates find out that it was all over – that there were going ot be no more games and the Comets were out of business?

Rehbaum:

I was home in Rochester.  Maybe there was a break in the schedule.  I received a phone call from someone in the Comets office.  They just said that the league had disbanded.  We – myself and Chris Johnson, one of my teammates – we lived in an apartment complex in Atlanta.  Someone in Atlanta, maybe our athletic trainer, she packed up all my belongings and shipped them back north.  Once I was home, I never went back.

I think I initially had every intention of returning.  But then the apartment complex I lived in – or so I was told – had a fire and my apartment had some damage.  So not everything that I went down with returned.  I guess you could say it was a fitting way to end my association with the Atlanta Comets and the Women’s American Basketball Association.   Everything went up in flames.

I look back at all of these experiences as life experiences that I would never have had otherwise.  As much as people complained and thought these were terrible living conditions, I was one year out of college.  The conditions were very similar to what it was like to be a college student.  On the flip side I was supposed to be happy that I was a “professional”, in quotations, athlete.  I didn’t really feel like a professional, but I was given the opportunity to play with some of the best women’s basketball players of the era.

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==Interviews==

2013 Kara Rehbaum Interview Transcipt (complete)

 

==Downloads==

1984 Atlanta Comets Pre-Season Roster & Draft Picks

1984 WABA Media Guide

1984 WABA Standard Player Contract

 

==Additional WABA Interviews==

2011 Molly (Bolin) Kazmer Interview (Columbus Minks)

2011 Barbara Kennedy-Dixon Interview (Virginia Wave)

 

Breaking Into Sports: Peter Wilt

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I’ve been waiting to do an interview with long-time pro soccer executive Peter Wilt since I launched this blog in February 2011.  I met Peter at the Women’s Professional Soccer Cup in 2009, when he was the President and CEO of the Chicago Red Stars and I was the GM of the Boston Breakers.  He’s a terrific storyteller and has worked in a quite a few leagues that we write about here on Fun While It Lasted.  Frankly, I didn’t want to waste an interview with Peter early on when nobody was visiting the site.  I decided to celebrate the New Year (and much improved site traffic) by finally re-connecting with him.

Peter has run franchises in men’s, women’s and indoor soccer, highlighted by eight years as the founding President and General Manager of the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer.  He has won a MLS Cup (1998) and was instrumental in the construction of Toyota Park, the soccer-specific home of the Fire, in Bridgeview, Illinois.  As the chief executive of five franchises, he has launched countless careers in the sports industry, which made him a perfect fit for our Breaking Into Professional Sports interview series.

Only I didn’t want to talk about soccer.  Peter began his own sports career in 1983 as a Public Relations assistant with the Milwaukee Admirals of the rough and tumble International Hockey League. Peter was kind enough to share his memories of the 1980’s Admirals, along with  what he looks for (and guards against) when hiring people into the sports business.

The following is an excerpt of our complete interview with Peter Wilt.  Click here to read the full piece.

FWiL:

Can you tell me how you landed your first job with the Admirals in 1983?

Wilt:

After I graduated, I couldn’t find a job.  For about eight months I was working on a book which was really a way to stall things and convince my mother to continue sending me money for rent.  It was a book about the history of trades in baseball.  Anyway, I then got a notice in the mail from the Assistant Dean of the journalism school at Marquette who was helping me try to find a job.

It was a notice for a general assignment reporter at the Kankakee, Illinois newspaper and I had zero interest in it.  But, serendipitously, on the back was a job notice for the Milwaukee Admirals of the International Hockey League hiring a PR assistant.  So I said to myself, I don’t want to go to Kankakee, but the Admirals job is exactly the type of job that I am looking for.

I called up several times and eventually got an interview with Phil Wittliff, the Admirals GM.  Phil was really curious about my usher’s job at the Milwaukee Brewers.   I’m sure he was disappointed when I quit the Brewers job a couple of months later and took away his opportunity to sneak into County Stadium.

It was a jack-of-all-trades position, which was exactly what I needed because I didn’t go to sports management school.  That barely existed as a concept when I was in school.  I had the strong desire to go into the business, but I didn’t have the formal training.  With the Admirals, which was a very small organization of seven employees at the time, I really got the opportunity to learn the business from the ground up.

FWiL:

When you got to the Admirals in the mid-80’s, where did you think they stood on the totem pole of Milwaukee sports at that time?

Wilt:

The only team below them was the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team that started in 1984.  In Milwaukee, you had the Packers, the Bucks, the Brewers, Marquette and the Badgers over in Madison that were all bigger deals.

Interesting thing about the Admirals – we were maybe the only pro team in history to have five beer sponsors.  This was back when Milwaukee was truly a brewery city.  We had Pabst, Budweiser, Schlitz, Miller and Old Style.  We only averaged about 3,500 a game at the MECCA Arena.  The Bucks were playing there at the same time and selling out just about every game at about 11,000 fans a game.  And we were selling more beer each night than the Bucks!

FWiL:

Who were some of the more memorable or outsized personalities who were involved in the IHL in that era?

Wilt:

The Admirals had a player named Barry Scully and we traded him.  I drove him to the airport.  Back then there was no security.  We were late for the plane and I was trying to get him to run, but he refused.  And he also refused to get onto a propeller plane.  He kept saying to me ‘this isn’t a propeller plane is it’?  And he finally got to the gate agent and demanded to know if they were trying to put him on a propeller plane.  And the agent looked at him with a straight face and said ‘No, it’s a turbo prop’.  And that calmed him down and he didn’t realize a turbo prop and a propeller plane were the same thing until it was basically too late.

Then there was Danny Lecours.  He was a five-foot nothin’ Frenchman who was a superstar at the IHL level.  He scored 75 goals one year in the IHL!  He could never get a call up to the NHL because of his size.  Great guy.  And his career basically ended because of the Blackhawks affiliation.  He had scored 57 goals for the Admirals the year before the Blackhawks came in, but they didn’t want him.

His wife Jan was from Milwaukee and had a good nursing job in the city, so he couldn’t really relocate to another city.  So he ended up getting a construction job building the Bradley Center, the new arena in Milwaukee.  The Bradley Center was built with money donated by Jane and Lloyd Pettit, the Admirals’ owners. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it was built as a hockey building.  They wanted an NHL expansion team, but once they saw the going price they lost interest.  Not that they didn’t have the money, but they just didn’t think it was a good investment and they kept the Admirals instead.

But Danny Lecours went from a star player on the Admirals to literally building the new arena for his team.

FWiL:

You mentioned that Mike Wojciechowski was your mentor at the Admirals.  What lessons did you take from Mike – or self taught lessons perhaps – that you have applied in your subsequent jobs in the sports industry?

Wilt as Abraham Lincoln, circa 1985

Wilt:

In general, the lessons I learned from Wojo were about how it all revolves around sales.  He essentially told me to follow the money.

Later on in my career I was working with the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team.  I had an opportunity to move to the Cleveland Crunch of the Major Indoor Soccer League for a pure public relations position for considerably more money.  And I turned it down because it didn’t have a sales aspect to it.  I remembered that Wojo told me that to grow in sports, you need to be tied to the revenue stream.

The reason I left the Admirals in 1987 was that I had nowhere to move up in the organization.  The only logical job for me to take was Wojo’s and it didn’t seem like he was going anywhere.  And I was right.  That was 1987 and now it is 2011 and he is still there!

And, of course he taught me that sports was entertainment.  There was a year when we tried to have a mascot for every single game, beyond the Admirals normal mascot.  One or both of us would dress up almost every game.  If Disney On Ice or Sesame Street Live was coming we would get the costumes shipped in advance and borrow a couple.  For President’s day I dressed up as Abraham Lincoln and he dressed up as George Washington and we had him pop out of a birthday cake at center ice.  My dad was a Lincoln-o-phile and I think his proudest moment during my career was seeing my out on the ice dressed as Abe Lincoln refereeing the Pee Wee hockey game between periods.

 

Mike Wojciechowski & Peter Wilt 2011

FWiL:

Last question.  Later in your career, you’ve been in a position to provide a lot of first jobs into the sports industry.  What are some things you consistently look for in a job seeker trying to get their foot in the door and conversely what are a few red flags that a job seeker might put out that would cost them an opportunity to work for a Peter Wilt organization?

Wilt:

For better or worse, when I interview people I know within two minutes if I want to hire them.  The rest of it is a song and dance to justify their time with me.

The things I look for are personality, character, intelligence, desire.  To delve a little deeper, experience is important.  I really don’t care about are education.

As far as red flags, I don’t like Notre Dame grads and I don’t like attorneys.  I hate getting resumes from attorneys who are convinced that they are ready for a life altering experience and job and I’ll be fortunate to hire them.  You get a lot of those.  I’d rather have a hungry 22-year old than a fat and sassy 35-year old.

Click Here For The Full Interview

Written by andycrossley

January 17th, 2012 at 3:52 am

Behind the Scenes at FC Gold Pride with Ilisa Kessler

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Several weeks back, I ran a retrospective on FC Gold Pride, a Women’s Professional Soccer franchise that had a Jekyll & Hyde existence during its brief two-year lifespan.  During FCGP’s first season in 2009, the club was barely competitive, finishing dead last with a roster that some WPS observers derisively referred to as “FC Old Pride”. 

In early 2010, the club engineered a massive reboot, highlighted by the hotly debated $500,000 acquisition of FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. The 2010 FCGP team won the WPS Cup and can make a strong argument to be considered the most dominant women’s club side ever assembled.  But red ink and disinterest sank the club less than two months after its great triumph.

Former FCGP forward Tiffany Weimer contributed an interview, which I hoped to pair with a behind-the-scenes account from FCGP’s former General Manager, Ilisa Kessler.   It took a while to connect with Ilisa and the piece ending up running without her participation.  Too bad, because when we finally got together she turned out to have some killer stories.  I thought the highlights deserved to run here as their own post. 

FWiL:

You worked for three seasons for the San Jose CyberRays of the WUSA before that league abruptly folded in 2003, which must have been traumatic.  When new owners came into the same market ready to try again with women’s soccer in 2008, how did you feel when they asked you to lead the new organization?

Kessler:

First off I was honored to even be asked.  Taking this position was a very difficult decision to make.  I knew the history of women’s pro sports in the Bay Area, I lived it, and it always ended the same way – and the emotional rollercoaster was traumatic.  I learned this as early as being with the San Jose Lasers (American Basketball League) as an intern.  When that folded I was heartbroken.  For the Pride, professionally, I was leaving a stable job in broadcast TV and personally I was in a new place in life because I had a family.  I also knew besides risk, how much work it was going to be to start a business in less than 6 months.  I knew that was going to be taxing, and maybe even impossible.  But again, I was honored, and there are not many opportunities to be a General Manger of a pro sports team, and to be in the sport I love, so how could I say no?  Most importantly, there are not a lot of opportunities for women to be at the General Manager level in sports, and so taking the role, I looked at it as a very serious responsibility.  I hope in the end, I represented women and the sport well.

FWiL:

What was the difference in the reaction of the Bay Area – the media, the soccer community, sponsors – between the arrival of the CyberRays in 2001 and the arrival of FC Gold Pride in 2009?

Kessler

Honestly, I don’t think much changed, at least for the mainstream media and the Bay Area community.  For the Pride, the difference was that there were more avenues for us to try and get exposure – particularly with bloggers (who were great to us from the beginning), Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.  But, in the end, we talked to the same people over and over.  Look at the Big Soccer message boards and the WPS chat on Twitter.  It’s the same voices – which are important voices, but not new voices.

I always thought we had a great website, but great doesn’t mean anything if people are not looking at it.  We tried, but it was hard to break through in such a busy world.  I remember a TV station telling us that they needed “a hook” to cover us for the 2010 WPS Cup championship match.  Obviously bringing a championship to the Bay Area – the 1st since the 2002 San Jose Earthquakes, didn’t mean much.

For the soccer community, well, that’s an interesting paradigm.  I may be generalizing a bit, but from my experience, I found that a majority of the “soccer community” loves soccer if it is about their kid, or their adult rec game.  For them, soccer is  recreation, not entertainment.  There is a difference.  I remember walking soccer fields with <French National Team midfielder> Camille Abily to promote the championship match.  Most said, “we can’t make it, my kid has a game”  or “I have an adult rec game”.  I asked one guy if he wanted to pass with Abily (he was warming up for his match).  He just shrugged and kept passing to his teammate.  I thought, these people are nothing but weekend warriors.  They don’t love soccer.  They just love getting exercise and socializing.

Sponsors are hard to determine – I think they were weary on two fronts – those that knew the history of women’s soccer stood by with a wait & see attitude.  Is it really worth an investment?  And then those that just need to invest in something that will guarantee a return on investment – mostly because the economy has just been so horrible – women’s soccer isn’t that.

FWiL:

What (approximately) was the dollar value of corporate sponsorships that FCGP was able to attract in 2009 and 2010?

Kessler:

We pretty much missed every budget cycle for sponsorship in 2009.  We maybe had $30K in cash and about $165K in barter/in-kind.  The cash didn’t even pay for the operations of one home game.  The hole was so deep from the on-set, it was impossible to dig out of it.  2010 was better.  We got in the sales cycle and realized for us cash is king but offsetting operational costs with barter works for us too.  We got creative.  Our cash went up 857%, and barter up 44%.  We had our medical bartered out – that saved us hundreds of thousands a year in medical and worker’s comp claim costs.  We got all our port-a-potty’s through a sponsorship deal, saving us over $24K.  Even our game program was bartered out – otherwise, we were not going to have one in year 2.  Like I said, we got creative.

FWiL:

In 2010, FC Gold Pride acquired Marta, who was the highest paid female soccer player in the world, at a reported $500,000 year.  Can you explain how her contract was structured?  What was the club on the hook for and how much did sponsors like Amway have to contribute?  Or did they provide sponsorship tied into Marta’s presence that partially offset what you paid out in salary?

Kessler:

Marta’s contract was a 3-year guaranteed contract.  Meaning someone had to pay her – if not a team, then the league itself.  Why there would be a 3-year deal agreed to when the league knew <Los Angeles Sol owner> AEG was only in it for one year, I don’t know….I wasn’t part of that negotiation.  I do know how difficult of a negotiator Marta’s agent is, and the league seemed desperate for credibility in the start and felt that we needed the best female player in the world in the league.  I also know that a player like Marta needs the US too…especially for competition, media and sponsors.  But in the end, she definitely won out.

Amway, has a separate endorsement deal with Marta, and it has nothing to do with the teams.  When we acquired Marta, we had to negotiate with Amway to be a sponsor, which was not easy because they were already in the market with the Earthquakes.

“The Marta Effect” as I like to call it, does not exist off the field.  Her salary does not justify any new business.  It’s not like a Beckham signing where you get incredible ticket sales, sponsorship and jersey sales.  The biggest sale of Marta jerseys went to Marta, she bought a slew for family and friends.  You can’t do any huge media campaign around her because of her limited English.  Reporters are not excited to do an interview with an interpreter, it’s just not the same.

I remember when we picked her up – prior to the Los Angeles Sol dispersal draft day, we created an entire ticket sales plan and staffed heavy in the office – longer hours, etc. to handle the phones.  When it was announced she was coming to the Pride, we sat for an entire day staring at each other waiting for the phones to ring.  When I came in the next morning, I said, new plan – outgoing phone calls start right now. Let’s hit up season ticket holders who haven’t renewed, large groups, teams, everyone, & let them know who we just signed.  At that moment, I thought, crap, she isn’t going to move the dial like we had hoped.

FWiL:

Talk a little about the behind-the-scenes decision to bid on Marta’s contract.  What roles did you, your Head Coach Albertin Montoya and the NeSmith family play in that conversation?  Was it a consensus?  Were any of the veteran players on the team involved in the discussion?

Kessler:

I don’t remember discussing Marta with the veteran players – Albertin may have.  I know throughout, Albertin did discuss with certain players the addition of new players – some we didn’t pursue because of their feedback.

The NeSmith’s discussed Marta with both Albertin and me.  Of course, best player in the world – who doesn’t want to coach or manage that type of player?  But from a pure business standpoint, Brian NeSmith and I discussed how it was not a good business move.  We figured she would not increase tickets and sponsorship to justify her salary.  We knew we would have to be extremely lucky for that to happen.  But, I am sure one reason why the NeSmith’s bought the team in the beginning included the idea of owning a pro team.  If you have the means, it’s an amazing opportunity to own a pro team – especially in the sport you are passionate about.  And so, once you own a team and you are already pumping a lot of money into it, and coming off a losing season, then, adding the best player in the world to your team could definitely make you enjoy your investment that much more.  If you are already losing a few million, what’s another half?

My last conversation with Nancy before the Board meeting that took place where the owners were to decide who could take Marta’s contract, she told me that they were not going to do it.  The call after the Board meeting was Nancy saying, well, we’ve got Marta.  So just like that, I knew the Pride would be the team that would pick Marta up in the draft <a few days later>.  The other teams were going to pass because of cost.  It was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least since Albertin and I had resigned ourselves to moving on & continuing our player acquisitions without Marta.

FWiL:

Can you share a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment from behind the scenes when you wondered what you’d gotten yourself into?  Start-up sports leagues are famous for these and I figure you might have one or two such stories.

Kessler:

I have quite a few, most I can’t tell, but here’s a sampling:

One of my first decisions as GM was to approve Pounce’s (our mascot) chest size.  The first drawing we got had her at about a D-cup.  I asked for B.  If I ever needed a title for a book about my experiences at the Pride, it would be “From the B-Cup to the Championship Cup”.

Year 2 opening day.  My ops department had a complete meltdown the week leading into it.  They were totally unprepared.  The night before, around 7pm, we realized most of the stadium wasn’t loaded in and we had a ton of issues – no wireless for one.  No wireless means no ticket sales on-site.  We were freaking.  I had my entire staff stay till about 2am to load the stadium – field boards, signage, food product, you name it, it was all off-site at a different location.  The WPS league office showed up game day and didn’t think we were going to be able to open gates for the fans.  My brother came to the Bay Area for the game and I called him at 7am to get him to the stadium to help.  We asked a woman off the street with her kid to help for free tickets.  I had a coach from a rec league go get us corner flags.  We moved more barricade that day than I had my entire ops career.  It was a nightmare.  We made it, but if I didn’t have a background in ops and a staff that was willing to do anything, we probably would have never opened. Fans and the team had no idea – we prevailed.

Puma – they were great for us.  Having a national apparel deal is huge for a fledgling league.  I remember the CyberRays days – 3 apparel sponsors in 3 years.  It was awful and stressful.  Even as great as Puma was to the teams, their “lifestyle” designs got in the way of functionality.  The skort was a personal fight with them.  I refused to have my players wear them – here I was trying to legitimize women as strong, athletic, professional athletes, and they wanted them to play in a skort.  Not on my watch.

Then there was a meeting with Puma where they came to our offices and presented their <original> concept for 2011.  They started the presentation with photos of 80’s style one-piece jumpers.  My heart started pounding and I physically had to restrain myself as I started to realize what was about to happen.  They presented us with the “Uni-Kit”, which they pointed out was their “working title”.  Nancy NeSmith was in the meeting with me and our VP of Marketing and Sponsorship, John Hooper.  We all just about had a meltdown.  John and I couldn’t imagine any player wearing a one-piece uniform.  We brought up injuries to the midsection (how does the doctor treat?), what if blood gets on their jersey?  They have to change the entire uniform?  FIFA – do you think they would approve this?  But the best was Nancy.  She flat out said “how do you expect the women to pee?  They have to completely undress to pee?  No way”.  I just laughed.  It was by far one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in women’s soccer.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE COMPLETE INTERVIEW WITH ILISA KESSLER

Written by andycrossley

November 6th, 2011 at 11:31 pm

“Nothing’s more urgent than saying ‘if you don’t buy a season ticket by Tuesday, I’m gonna shoot your dog”

one comment

This is one of my favorite interviews I’ve done so far for Fun While It Lasted.

In late May, I was fortunate to track down Bill Kentling, the former Commissioner of the Major Indoor Soccer League, as well as a General Manager for the MISL’s small market success story of the early 1980’s, the Wichita Wings.   Kentling’s nine-year odyssey in the MISL from 1980 to 1989 coincided with the quick rise of indoor soccer from obscurity to an attraction that rivaled the NBA and NHL in several Midwestern cities followed by an equally rapid decline from national prominence at the end of the 1980’s.

Bill is a gifted storyteller and my requested 20-minute interview turned into a rambling discussion on my experiences in Women’s Professional Soccer and independent baseball, and his experiences with hurricanes, Hot Rod racing and chemo therapy.  It was both a challenge and a pleasure to cull an hour-long MP3 of our conversation down to a still-overly-indulgent nine-page interview on the pro soccer business.

Click here for the interview and enjoy.

No animals were harmed in the production of this post.

 

Written by andycrossley

June 27th, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Posted in Interviews

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