In October, 1978, the Diplomats were purchased by Madison Square Garden Corporation, a subsidiary of Gulf & Western. The visionary at the helm of MSG was Sonny Werblin, who had developed a reputation for having the Midas touch after decades of success in the business world. Just 26 months later, in December, 1980, Werblin pulled the plug on the Dips and the franchise folded.
Over a series of four posts entitled “The Sonny Saga,” this blog will look back at what lead to MSG purchasing the franchise to its ultimate demise under Werblin’s watch. This first post will deal with the chaotic end to the 1977 season and conclude with the purchase by MSG.
As the Diplomats prepared for the 1977 season, management pondered a major change in venues. For the previous three seasons, the franchise had slowly built a loyal fan base while playing at Woodson Stadium, a high school field in suburban Virginia. Newly hired general manager John Carbray and team president Steve Danzansky decided the time was right to move all home games to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, in southeast Washington, D.C.
Local soccer demographics revealed encouraging statistics that made such a move logical. 45,000 local youths were playing soccer in organized leagues located in Northern Virginia and Maryland. This mass of potential customers would become larger when parents were taken into consideration. League wide, attendance had risen 34.7% from 1975 to 1976.
That optimism would be short lived. Viollet was fired after a 6-9 start, and the team finished 10-16. In their analysis at seasons end, The Washington Post’s Donald Huff and John Feinstein were brutally honest in their assessment. “The 1977 soccer season, which started with high hopes from the Dips, has ended in total failure. Mediocre players were signed, although good ones were available.”
The news was not as disheartening at the turnstile, but rather a mixed bag. “With their 10-16 record, the Diplomats easily broke their attendance records, drawing an average of 13,058 per game…although many tickets were given away or sold at discount prices.” A September, 1979, article stated that during the ’77 campaign, “less than half of… (those) tickets were paid for.” Huff and Feinstein concluded, “On the field, the team has gone backwards this season. Turning it in the right direction is going to be a difficult task.”
Yet, the organization did just that. In the fall of 1977 Gordon Bradley was hired as the Diplomats third head coach. He came with a reputation as a proven winner with a tireless work ethic. When Bradley was announced as the team’s new coach, it was regarded as “the first move the Dips made in months that was applauded by soccer people not only here but around the league.” An NASL insider stated, “If Gordon Bradley can’t get the job done in Washington, then there probable isn’t anyone who can.”
Bradley got the job done. The Dips won their first 5 matches and eight of their first 10, exponentially increased their offensive production (scoring 55 goals as opposed 1977s total of 31), and made the playoffs, losing a sudden death heartbreaker to the Portland Timber. One would think that team management would have been jubilant.
A prominent headline in the July 29, 1978, Washington Post sports section announced, “Dips Confirm Heavy Loss, May Be Sold.” The adjoining article detailed how the team had amassed financial losses of more than $500,000 for the second straight year. Despite the overall upgrade of on-field personnel, despite the vastly improved offense, despite the fact that the team was a winner and obviously playoff bound, attendance had dropped an average of roughly 2,000 persons per game.