Second game from the pro career of former UCLA star and U.S. Olympian Ann Meyers, one of the great early legends of women’s basketball. Meyers was a national celebrity in the fall of 1979 thanks to the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, who signed her to a $50,000 pro contract that September. Meyers didn’t last long in Pacers’ training camp though and by the time the Women’s Professional Basketball League was set to open it’s second season in November, Meyers was the newest member of the New Jersey Gems franchise.
Earlier on the day of this very game, Meyers was featured in a segment on NBC Sportsworld seen by viewers nationwide. But despite Meyers’ notoriety, the Gems didn’t see a big spike at the box office after signing her. Barely 1,000 spectators turned out in Elizabeth, New Jersey on this Saturday night to see the Gems take on the Chicago Hustle.
Those who showed up saw an end-to-end, high scoring affair that confounded the common stereotype of the slow-paced, dull women’s game. Meyers (28 points, 8 assists) matched Chicago’s Rita Easterling (27points, 8 assists), the Most Valuable Player of the league’s inaugural season, point-for-point. Meyers also led all rebounders with 13 boards from her guard spot.
The supporting casts made the difference, as the Gems had six players in double figures including forwards Debra Comerie (21) and Wanda Szeremeta (20) both going over 20 points. The Gems beat the Hustle 114-95.
This program and the accompanying materials were acquired from the collection of women’s basketball historian John Molina. Check out the Downloads section below for some colorful original press notes and other Gems memorabilia from this game.
The Cook County Cheetahs were a low-level independent pro baseball team in Crestwood, Illinois, a south suburb of Chicago. The team’s origins trace back to the Will County (IL) Claws (1995) of the obscure North Central League, who were later renamed the Will County Cheetahs (1996-1997).
In 1998 the Cheetahs, now playing in the shaky Heartland League, were lured from Romeoville, Illinois to Crestwood with the promise of a new $3.7 million, 2,500-seat baseball stadium. The team adopted the Cook County Cheetahs name with the move, but construction on Hawkinson Ford Field was not complete in time for the season, so the Cheetahs played the 1998 season at a temporary facility, Howie Minas Field, in Midlothian. That summer the Cheetahs won the last championship of the Heartland League, which barely managed to complete the season and folded soon afterwards.
In 1999 the Cheetahs joined the Frontier League, a much more stable and reputable Midwest-based independent league that began play in 1993. Hawkinson Ford Field opened and the Cheetahs hit an attendance peak of 86,248 fans for the 1999 season.
Attendance dwindled in subsequent seasons. Crestwood mayor Chester Stranczek, a former minor league baseball player from the 1950’s and an early champion of building Hawkinson Ford Field, began to publicly criticize the management of Cheetahs’ owner David Arch. During the summer of 2003, Stranczek announced that he would not renew the team’s lease when it expired following the 2004 season. In September of that year, Arch sold the Cheetahs for a reported $700,000 to a group led by former State Senator Patrick O’Malley. O’Malley had been another early proponent of building Hawkinson Ford Field and helped secure state funding for the project in the late 1990’s.
The new ownership group re-branded the team as the Windy City Thunderbolts prior to the 2004 season, bringing the Cheetahs era to an end. The Thunderbolts continue to play in Crestwood today.
Undrafted Australian pitcher Chris Oxspring (14 appearances, 2000) was the only Cook County Cheetah to go on to play in the Major Leagues. He appeared in 5 games for the San Diego Padres in 2005.
Chicago had two pro indoor teams at the time. Although the popularity of the Chicago Sting of the Major Indoor Soccer League had begun to dip substantially, they were still in existence and vastly overshadowed the Shoccers, who were essentially a minor league club playing in second rate venues. The Shoccers played their first season at the tiny Odeum Expo Center arena out in suburban Villa Park. For their second and final season, the Shoccers moved into Chicago proper and the UIC Pavilion.
The Shoccers featured quite a few ex-Sting over their two seasons, including Arno Steffenhagen, Dave Huson, Elvis Comrie, Mike Lashoff, Greg Ryan and Mike Glenn.
The Shoccers folded after the 1986-87 AISA season.
A little more than a decade earlier, back in August 1974, the Miami Toros and the Los Angeles Aztecs met in the NASL championship game. The Toros won the right to host the match at the Orange Bowl, but the uncertainty of who would advance through the playoffs to host the final left promoters scrambling to sell tickets. The Toros were never a strong draw to begin with and organizers pinned their hopes on a massive discount coupon effort which papered the city of Miami with hundreds of thousands of ticket vouchers. August in Miami isn’t a great time to be outdoors at 3:30 in the afternoon and the resulting crowd of 15,507 was considered a major disappointment.
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam decided that the league needed a neutral site championship game, modeled on the NFL’s Super Bowl. With a host city selected months in advance there would be plenty of time to promote ticket sales. Thus the Soccer Bowl concept was born in 1975, with San Jose’s Spartan Stadium hosting the league title match between the Portland Timbers and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. By the late 1970’s, the Soccer Bowl was consistently drawing over 50,000 fans to first class venues such as Giants Stadium and RFK Stadium.
Then came 1982. The NASL was in major trouble, having shrunk from 24 active clubs to just 14 in two years with more departures on the horizon. Midway through the 1982 season, exasperated league owners effectively replaced Woosnam by hiring former industrialist and government official Howard J. Samuels as the new President and CEO of the League. One of Samuels first impressions of the NASL was the misfire of Soccer Bowl ’82, hosted by the San Diego Sockers organization at Jack Murphy Stadium. For the first time in three years, the Soccer Bowl was not carried on network television. And the live attendance was an embarrassment – only 22,634 showed up for the game, despite the fact that the hometown Sockers had advanced as far as the semi-final round which should (in theory) have goosed advance sales. It was by far the smallest Soccer Bowl crowd since the concept debuted in 1975.
Samuels drew the exact opposite conclusion as Woosnam had eight years earlier. Neutral site championships were a “disaster” for the league in 1981 and 1982, Samuels told The New York Times. Samuels envisioned a best-of-three series between the finalists, with matches in their respective home cities, drawing 50,000 fans per match. It would be two years before Samuels could implement the idea – Vancouver would get to host the 1983 Soccer Bowl before Samuels could toss the neutral site model onto the trash heap once and for all. (Naturally, Vancouver drew 53,000 for the 1983 match – 2nd highest in Soccer Bowl history – despite the fact that the local Whitecaps failed to reach the final).
Howard Samuels finally got his desired format in 1984. The Chicago Sting and the Toronto Blizzard met in a best-of-three championship, now re-branded as the “Soccer Bowl Series ’84”. Fan turnout was far below even the “disaster” levels of the 1981 and 1982 Soccer Bowls. Only 8,352 fans turned up at Chicago’s Comiskey Park for Game One. Strangely, the crowd was even smaller than Chicago’s modest regular season average of 8,376.
The game itself was exciting and somewhat strange. Blizzard defender Bruce Wilson opened the scoring in the 16th minute with an outlandish goal. Wilson collected the ball about 40 yards out from the Sting goal and chipped a high lob back into the penalty area. No one was in the vicinity except for Sting goalkeeper Victor Nogueira who waited calmly in front of the descending ball…and then shocked the Comiskey faithful by allowing it to nutmeg him and roll unmolested into the Sting net. Nogueira writhed on the ground in abject humiliation. But the Sting keeper dusted himself off and shutdown the dangerous Toronto trio of David Byrne, Roberto Bettega and Ace Ntsoelengoe for the rest of the evening.
The Blizzard carried the 1-0 lead into the locker room at halftime. But the second half was all Chicago. Pato Margetic even the game in the 51st minute, the first of three goals for the young Argentinean striker in the 1984 Soccer Bowl Series. Chilean midfielder Manny Rojas, a midseason acquisition who scored only one regular season goal for the Sting, notched the game winner in the 85th minute.
Two nights later, the Sting travelled to Toronto and put the series away with a 3-2 victory. That proved to be the last game the NASL ever played. The league folded in early 1985.
NASL President & CEO Howard Samuels didn’t live to see the bitter end. He died suddenly of a heart attack on October 26, 1984, three weeks after his preferred Soccer Bowl format got its first and only showing.
1st half of the 1984 Soccer Bowl Series Game One between the Sting and the Blizzard at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
The Chicago Sting were an accomplished pro soccer club that enjoyed success both outdoors and indoors during a thirteen-year run from 1975 through 1988. The Sting were formed on Halloween day 1974 as an expansion franchise in the North American Soccer League.
During the Sting’s early seasons under the direction of former Manchester United defender Bill Foulkes (1975-1977), the roster had a dominant British presence. The Sting were not a factor in the NASL championship hunt during this era (despite a division title in 1976) and drew very poorly as the team shuffled games between Comiskey Park, Soldier Field and Wrigley Field each summer. As late as 1978, the Sting had the worst attendance in the entire 24-team NASL, pulling just 4,188 fans per game.
It’s somewhat remarkable that Sting owner Lee Stern, a Chicago commodities broker, hung in during such a long stretch of lean years. In fact, Stern would prove to be one of the most steadfast owners in American soccer, backing the money-losing club for its entire 13-year existence. And as the 1980’s approached, the Sting’s fortunes began to improve.
The 1978 season started disastrously. Under new Head Coach Malcolm Musgrove (another British import), the Sting set a league record losing their first ten games of the season. Musgrove would be fired without ever registering a win for the Sting. But the English-heavy complexion of the club had already begun to shift under Musgrove. 1978 marked the arrival of West German striker Karl-Heinz Granitza, who would become the club’s greatest star, along with fellow German Arno Steffenhagen, another key contributor, and Danish winger Jorgen Kristensen. German assistant coach Willy Roy took over the coaching reigns from Musgrove and improbably led the 0-10 Sting into the 1978 playoffs (thanks to the NASL’s very generous playoff system).
In 1980 the Sting won a division title with the 3rd best record in the league (21-11). Granitza established himself as one of the NASL’s mostly consistently productive scorers. In 1981, the Sting were even better – division champs again with a 23-9 record, tied for the best mark in the league with the defending champion New York Cosmos. Pato Margetic, a dynamic 21-year old Argentinean arrived to team with Granitza up top and spark the most potent offense in the NASL. Margetic became an immediate fan favorite. Sting crowds had tripled since the low water mark of 1978, up to nearly 13,000 per match in 1981.
The team’s growing popularity in Chicago was due in part to the Sting’s rivalry with and uncanny mastery of the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos were an international super club before such a concept really existed, featuring a collection of world all-stars such as Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. By 1981, the New Yorkers had won three of the past four NASL championships. And the Sting absolutely owned them. Cosmos derbies became a big draw in Chicago. A June 1981 regular season match against New York drew a franchise record 30,501 to Wrigley field for a thrilling 6-5 Sting victory. (The Cosmos PR department later produced a short highlight reel of this match calledThe Greatest Game in NASL History.)
In September 1981, a new record crowd of 39,623 came out to Comiskey Park on a cold Monday night to watch the Sting eliminate the San Diego Sockers in Game Three of the playoff semi-finals to earn a trip to Soccer Bowl ’81, the NASL’s championship match. They would play their arch rivals, the Cosmos, at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium on September 26, 1981. Improbably, the NASL’s two highest scoring teams played a scoreless regulation and overtime period. That sent the game into the NASL’s unusual “shootout” format to determine a league champion…
The Sting’s victory in Soccer Bowl ’81 gave the Windy City its first major professional sports since the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963. And if you think calling the Sting and the NASL “major” seems like a stretch, consider this: nearly 10,000 fans greeted the Sting at O’Hare Airport on their return home from Toronto and over 100,000 more lined LaSalle Avenue for a ticker tape parade a few days later.
As the Sting were developing into one of the NASL’s best outdoor clubs at the dawn of the 1980’s, the league also began to experiment with indoor soccer. The Sting played their first indoor season in the winter of 1980-81 at the old Chicago Stadium downtown. They reached the indoor finals that first season, losing in a two-game sweep at the hands of the Edmonton Drillers.
The Sting quickly became a box office hit indoors. Their league-leading average indoor crowd of 13,322 at Chicago Stadium for the 1981-82 season was better than the average for any outdoor season the Sting ever played. The team’s popularity was due in part to their near invincibility at home. Going into the 1981-82 indoor playoffs, the Sting had an incredible 18-game winning streak at Chicago Stadium. On Valentine’s Day 1982, the Sting beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies 10-9 in an overtime thriller at Chicago Stadium. The standing room crowd of 19,398 was the largest ever to see an indoor soccer game in the United States at the time. As the NASL began to wither – shrinking from 24 clubs in 1980 to just 9 by the beginning of the 1984 season, many began to assert that the Sting were better off simply playing indoors.
By 1984, the NASL was on its last legs. The Sting defeated the Toronto Blizzard to win the NASL’s final championship in October of that year, but the buzz around Chicago was nothing like when the Sting won the Soccer Bowl in 1981. There would be no massive parade with 100,000 fans lining the streets of downtown Chicago. The Cubs were in the playoffs with a chance to win the pennant for the first time in decades, for one thing. For another, Sting owner Lee Stern had already formally pulled his club out of the dying NASL by the time the final whistle blew on the team’s championship victory. The Sting were accepted into the Major Indoor Soccer League in August of 1984. The club’s future was now exclusively as an indoor team.
By the time the Sting moved permanently indoors in the fall of 1984, the club’s moment was already in eclipse. The team finished with a strong 28-20 record and averaged over 10,000 fans for the final time. But a pair of 1st round home playoff losses to the Cleveland Force drew small crowds. The following season the Sting finished with a losing record and the team fired Willy Roy after eight years and two championships. Attendance crashed by 30%. After the 1985-86 season, the Sting left Chicago Stadium for the suburban Rosemont Horizon, citing the deteriorating neighborhood around the Stadium and their belief that the team’s core audience lived in the suburbs. Attendance dropped a further 20% during the Sting’s first season at the Horizon in 1986-87. Karl-Heinz Granitza was suspended for insubordination in early 1987, ending his nine-year run with the Sting.
The Sting mounted one last big counter offensive against the indifference swallowing the club in the summer of 1987. Lee Stern brought on advertising executive Lou Weisbach as an investment partner and hired Chicago Bulls VP of Marketing David Rosenberg to re-energize the fan base. Weisbach and Rosenberg boosted the front office staff to an all-time high of 21 employees and created a marketing campaign around “The New Chicago Sting”. The center piece of the campaign was a reported $1 million investment in post-game concerts for two-thirds of the Sting’s home dates at the Rosemont Horizon. In July 1987, Rosenberg unveiled the line-up of schlocky soft rock and oldies acts and cornball comedians, including the likes of Marie Osmond, Buddy Hackett, Fabian, Susan Anton and Jeffrey Osborne.
Whether the marriage of indoor soccer and live pop music was doomed from inception or whether it was the desperately unhip line-up of acts that the Sting procured, the campaign was a flop. One month into the season, attendance was flat at under 6,000 per game and the Sting began lopping the concerts of the schedule. A Granitza-less last place club under the direction of Roy’s successor Erich Geyer didn’t help matters.
By the end of the season, the Sting were done in Chicago. A possible sale and relocation to Denver was explored and abandoned. The Sting officially folded on July 8, 1988.