This early Arena Football franchise played five seasons in North Carolina, splitting dates between the massive, NBA-scale Charlotte Coliseum and the smaller Independence Arena. The franchise was owned by motion picture financier Allen J. Schwalb, who backed some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980’s, including Rambo, Rain Main, Moonstruck and Thelma & Louise.
During the Charlotte Rage’s first season in 1992, the team signed Joe DeLamielleure, a perennial All-Pro offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills during the late 1970’s. 41 years old at the time, DeLamielleure was seven years removed from his last NFL game in 1985. He played in a handful of games for Charlotte in 1992 before retiring for good. DeLamielleure remains the only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to play Arena Football.
After a promising start in 1992 (13,248 average attendance for five dates), attendance plummeted to below 7,500 per game in 1993. At some point, Schwalb’s relations with AFL Commissioner Jim Drucker and his fellow owners appeared to sour. In July 1996, the Charlotte Business Journal reported that league officials were pressuring Schwalb to sell the franchise. Schwalb had discussions with groups in Salt Lake City and Long Island, but ultimately folded the team in late 1996, taking an $850,000 payout from the league to turn in the franchise. Schwalb would later file a $200 million Sherman anti-trust lawsuit against the league, asserting that his former business partners unlawfully scuttled his efforts to sell and relocate the franchise and coerced him to sell the team back to the league for a below market price. The suit seems to have been resolved in the early 2000’s, but it’s not clear what the resolution was.
Arena Football replaced the Rage in the North Carolina market with the Raleigh-based Carolina Cobras in 2000. The Cobras would later move to Charlotte in 2003 before going out of business in late 2004.
More than 50% of the CISL’s original franchise owners were investors in NBA or NHL franchises. Vipers majority Felix Sabates was an original investor in the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and co-owner Carl Scheer was a long-time ABA and NBA exec and the former President of the Hornets. NASCAR legends Richard & Kyle Petty were also limited partners in the group.
The Sabates-Scheer group also owned the popular Charlotte Checkers minor league hockey team, which debuted nine months before the Vipers in the fall of 1993. Like the Checkers, the Vipers played in the 9,500 Independence Arena in Charlotte. After several ownership changes – including a second term for Sabates in the early 2000’s, – the Checkers continue to play in Charlotte today.
The Carolina Vipers, by contrast, were a major misfire in the summer of 1994. Under Head Coach David Irving, Carolina was one of the worst clubs in the history of the CISL with a 3-25 record. Fans stayed away in droves. The Vipers ranked 12th out of 14 clubs with announced attendance of 3,034 per game. The club quietly folded after the 1994 season ended that September. The CISL folded three years later in December 1997.
The Carolina Lightnin’ were a popular 2nd division soccer club that played three seasons in Charlotte during the early 1980’s. They were the first pro soccer franchise ever established in the Carolinas.
Founded as an American Soccer League expansion club in December 1979, the club debuted a year-and-a-half later in April 1981. In the interim, the Lightnin’ made a key acquisition, signing recently retired English soccer star Rodney Marsh as Head Coach in September 1980. Marsh, a long-time star for Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City, came to the United States in 1976 to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League. The Rowdies were a big draw at the time and Marsh’s shaggy hair and magnetic personality made him a media star, by the modest standards of American pro soccer at the time. Marsh even had his own Miller Lite TV spot in 1980:
Marsh retired as a player in September 1979 following the Rowdies loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps in Soccer Bowl ’79. He decided to stay in the States and become a coach, hooking on with New York United of the American Soccer League in 1980. United were attempting an ambitious move in to Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets, that summer. It was an odd venue for an anonymous minor league soccer team and United played to acres of empty grandstands. Marsh separated from the team at mid-season, but latched on with Carolina a few months later and found a much happier circumstance.
The Lightnin’ took advantage of the American Soccer League’s annual disarray and financial distress to pilfer other clubs for many of the 2nd division’s top players. Carolina landed Mal Roche, the league’s top scorer in 1980 whose previous club had disbanded. Playmaking midfielder Don Tobin was a league All-Star but, like Roche, he was available when his former club folded. Goalkeeper Scott Manning was the best netminder in the ASL in 1980, but Carolina snatched him away from the Pennsylvania Stoners franchise nonetheless.
The club’s most remarkable find was Tony Suarez,a Cuban who moved to Charlotte at age 16. Suarez came to the team on a tryout with no previous pro experience. He failed to make the team but as a consolation was offered a job as the team’s bus driver and gofer. Injuries eventually open a roster spot for Suarez, who promptly scored 9 goals in his first 12 pro matches. He ultimately led the Lightnin’ in scoring in 1981 (and finished 5th in the league) with 15 goals and 4 assists. He was named the ASL’s 1981 Rookie-of-the-Year.
The Lightnin’ won their division with a 16-9-3 record and made it through the playoffs to earn a date with Marsh’s former team, New York United, in the 1981 ASL Championship Game. United should have hosted by virtue of having the league’s best record at 19-5-4. But their attendance continued to be dismal in New York, while expansion Carolina led the ASL with average crowds over 4,000 per match and a couple of late season gates in excess of 8,000. The league voted to move the September 18, 1981 championship match to Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium.
A strong crowd was expected, but Carolina shocked the American soccer scene when a league record 20,163 fans packed the stadium for the match. The game was deadlocked until the 64th minute when United’s Solomon Hilton beat Manning to give the visitors a 1-0 advantage. But Don Tobin tied the match on a header in the 69th minute to rally Carolina and send the game into overtime. Hugh O’Neill scored the game winner for Carolina in the second overtime period and Carolina had the league title.
In 1982, the Lightnin’ loaded up to defend their title. The club added 34-year Derek Smethurst, a deadly striker who scored 57 goals for Tampa Bay in the NASL, mostly while paired up top with Rodney Marsh. Smethurst’s skills were in decline at age 34 though and he only stuck around Carolina for a handful of games. The other big acquisition was English striker Paul Child. Like Smethurst, Child was one of the NASL’s all-time leading scorers, but was without an employer as America’s top pro league began a severe contraction at the beginning of the 1980’s.
One player who was missing was 1981 hero Tony Suarez. Suarez injured his leg playing indoor soccer with Cleveland Force and missed the entire 1982 outdoor season. His career never recovered and he was finished playing by 1984. Suarez died young at age 51 in 2007.
In 1982, the Lightnin’ could recapture the magic of their debut season. They finished 11-13-4 and their season ended with a semi-final series defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Slickers.
In 1983 the Lightnin’ hired 42-year old Bobby Moore, the captain of England’s 1966 World Cup championship side, as an assistant coach. He later ended up appearing in some games as a player as well. Houston Dynamo and ESPN broadcaster Glenn Davis was a rookie that summer with the ASL’s Pennsylvania Stoners and recalled his shock at finding Moore in the American Soccer League in a 2012 FWIL interview:
“<Carolina> had so many injuries they activated Bobby Moore to play that night against us. Bobby was probably 43 years old and he obviously can’t move. He’s kicking everything and everybody that he can get close to. And we’re just going “Oh my God – it’s Bobby Moore.”
I remember we had a 2-0 lead and we absolutely crumbled in the final ten minutes with their fans going nuts. They had probably about 7,000 or 8,000 fans in this cool little stadium in Charlotte. I think it was called the Memorial Stadium. We totally collapsed as a team and lost 3-2. I remember our owner on the bus back to the hotel and screaming at one of our players. I think a lot of us were just still in shock that Bobby Moore was playing that night.”
The Lightnin’ posted a losing record again in 1983. In early 1984, the entire American Soccer League folded after more than fifty years of operation and Robert Benson withdrew his support for the team. Several ASL teams formed a new league called the United Soccer League and Charlotte did get a get a USL franchise, under new ownership and with a new name – the Charlotte Gold – for the 1984 season. Many former staff members and players from the Lightnin’ continued on with the Gold, who played one season and then went out of business in late 1984.
==Carolina Lightnin’ Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
Very obscure Box Lacrosse entry that lasted for only one season in the centrally-owned Major Indoor Lacrosse League. The Charlotte Cobras were added to the league as an expansion franchise in 1996, but they were badly overmatched. The Cobras lost all 10 of their games and were outscored 186-85 for the season, an average deficit of more than 10 goals per game.
In August 1996 the league decided to shut down the Cobras rather than bring them back for a second season.
Would like to find a logo, pocket schedule or other scrap of memorabilia for this team, but not holding out much hope. Thanks to SkedCentral.com for sending over this rare Cobras pocket schedule (above right).
During the Sting’s early years the club was a regular playoff contender. 2001 was the Sting’s best campaign, but started out as a disaster under new Head Coach Anne Donovan. The Sting lost ten of their first eleven games in 2001 before rallying to finish 18-14 and claim the 4th and final Eastern Conference playoff berth. Charlotte upset the #1 seed Cleveland Rockers and then the New York Liberty to advance to the WNBA championship series for the first (and only) time. The Sting lost to the Los Angeles Sparks in a two-game sweep.
The Sting’s existence came under threat from two sides in 2002. In May of that year, locally despised Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge announced that they were moving their franchise to New Orleans for 2002-03 season. They were not interested in taking the Sting with them. A few months later, the WNBA restructured its business model and contracted for the first time, dropping from 16 to 14 active franchises. The Sting seemed like a prime candidate for elimination, since they no longer had an owner or a local NBA infrastructure to rely on for front office operations. But the Sting managed to elude the executioner’s sword and soon found a new savior in Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson, who purchased a new NBA franchise for Charlotte to replace the Hornets (the Charlotte Bobcats) and soon afterwards decided to purchase the Sting as well.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s arrival on the scene in 2004 coincided with a steep decline in the Sting’s fortunes on the court and at the box office. In 2005, the Sting finished with the worst record in the WNBA at 6-28. Late in the season, the club fired Head Coach Trudi Lacey and replaced her with former Charlotte Hornets fan favorite Muggsy Bogues.
In 2006, the Sting moved out of their longtime home at the Charlotte Coliseum and into the brand new Charlotte Bobcats Arena downtown. Muggsy Bogues was unable to right the ship, as the Sting finished near the cellar again in 2006 with an 11-23 record. The move to the new arena didn’t help either. The Sting averaged 5,783 fans for 17 home dates, which ranked 13th out of the WNBA’s 14 teams in 2006.
In December 2006, Bob Johnson handed the Bobcats back to the league. An investor group expressed interest in buying the Sting and moving the franchise to Kansas City, but they couldn’t put the financial package together and the Sting shut their doors on January 3, 2007.