Dips Fan Day

Dips Fan Day

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Sonny Saga, Volume II

Previously in The Sonny Saga http://washingtondiplomats.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-sonny-saga-volume-i_19.html

The knowledge that Sonny Werblin, President of Madison Square Garden, Inc. (MSG), which purchased the Diplomats in October, 1978, was now personally involved with the franchise infused much enthusiasm into the Dips loyal fan base as well as the local press. After all, this was the same man who took on the National Football League with the New York Jets a decade earlier and came out the clear victor.

What steps would be initially taken in his quest to make "the Diplomats the best soccer team in the world as soon as possible," as he stated when introduced as the team's new CEO? "Werblin's past history suggests an aggressive marketing campaign," the Washington Post predicted. "He has believed in spending money to make money." The team's forthcoming 1979 season ticket mailer (right) more than met this expectation. The 1978 version had been a tri-folded, double sided piece of card stock. MSG upgraded the 1979 edition to a ten page booklet containing color photography of the team in action and color graphics.

Another important departure from previous years was MSG's decision to make Sunday afternoons the prime choice for home games. Previously, Saturday nights had been thought of as the best time.
In 1978, the team hosted three games on Sunday afternoons, all in April, and nine Saturday evening starts. In 1979, all home weekend games were scheduled for Sundays at 2:30.

On January 23, 1979, the club hosted a lunch that included front office staff and Coach Gordon Bradley. While there, Werblin spoke with Washington Post columnist Ken Denlinger as to why this was the right time for MSG to get involved in American soccer. The writer started his piece with what seemed to be a few words of caution directed squarely at the boss:
“A lot of men with fine minds and fat wallets assumed that because America was fascinated with the 1966 World Cup on televisions it soon would view soccer with the same passion as nearly every other nation. They were wrong.”
Denlinger then shared Werblin's mindset as to entering the world of soccer at this point and time. "Soccer will go for three reasons: 

  • First of all, mothers would rather see their boys play soccer than football because there aren’t as many injuries.
  • Then the economy comes into it. Soccer is relatively cheap, and schools are getting to the point where they can’t afford football (the economic boom of the Reagan years was still an uncertainty). 
  • Finally, everybody can play. Ordinary men. And you can see the faces of soccer players.” 

After declaring his studies revealed that many in the D.C. area
did not know how to get to RFK Stadium, each copy of the teams
1979 pocket schedule included a map and directions.
What about Werblin's opinion of Washington as a sports town? "One of the things our studies show is that a whole lot of people don't know how to get to RFK Stadium. They know it's in Washington, but where? We want (the Dips) to be family entertainment," which echoed the philosophy John Carbray had introduced two years previous. "And we have absolutely no thought of leaving. We might start if we lost a couple of million. But we bought this team as an investment, not to leave town. We did not come in as carpetbaggers."

As the Dips, and MSG's first, season opener approached, there was a buzz about the franchise that was palpable in the area. The Washington Star noted the atmosphere with the following headline:
The article noted, "The Dips...profess to be going big-time. Changes are evident on the roster, in the locker room and in the minds of the club's players and coaches." Gordon Bradley reflected, "The thing I've noticed most different about the club is its organization. We're here to stay, you might say." Oh, the irony.

The season started off well. Through their first eight games, the club had a record of 6-2 and were outscoring their opponents 21-10. However, for the second straight spring, the DC area was in the throws of Bullets fever. Washington's basketball franchise was defending their 1978 championship, and the NBA playoffs coincided with the first weeks of the NASL season. On Wednesday, May 16, the Dips were scheduled to host the Memphis Rogues at 8 pm. The Bullets were also playing in San Antonio in a must win to stay alive contest, which would be broadcast on local television.

In their article previewing the match, The Washington Star detailed the economic toll the Bullets playoff run was having on the Diplomats. "They (the Dips) are averaging 11,782 per home date, but are about 4,000 below that average when the Bullets play. A recent television survey showed one million people , from an area of roughly three million people, watched a recent Bullets game on WDCA-20. That caused one Dips official to say of tonight's draw: 'If we get 5,000 I'll be very satisfied.' "

Team management was well aware of the Bullets conundrum and had tried to get Memphis to agree to play the game the following night. "We thought it would be good for the community but Memphis wouldn't cooperate," GM John Carbray told the Star. "I proposed it 10 days ago, but they said that they couldn't change because of radio commitments and that they already had purchased airline tickets. I thought that excuse was rather light." The team official who expressed satisfaction with a crowd of 5,000 was content. The Dips won, 4-1, in front of a crowd of 5,223. The Bullets season finally came to an end on Friday evening, June 1, a full two months into the Dips season.

   A simple Rene Breevort pass produced a visible spray that
   demonstrated how dismal  the weather conditions were 
on June 3, 1979. Most attending fans abandoned seats near
 the field for those with cover farther way from the action.
Two days later, Sunday, June 3, would be the Dips first weekend home game without competing with the Bullets for local sports fans attention. Perhaps MSG anticipated this as the Dips true coming out party for 1979. In any event, the weather was not conducive for an outdoor party, or any other outdoor activity. The high temperature in DC that day was 71 degrees, and the dew point was 67 degrees. Donald Huff of the Post noted, "a game-long downpour that turned the field into a swamp."

For most, common sense would dictate a large number of people would not choose to attend with such weather, seeing that there were still eight home dates left. Yet 11,450 fans attended. Still, MSG representatives were not impressed.

After the match, MSG VP Jack Krumpe openly grumbled about the Dips attendance figures after seven home games. "I'm disappointed with our (MSG) ability to stimulate the fans in this market. Maybe I'm an impatient fellow, but we'd been hoping to see the rewards of the stimulation we've used quicker than we  have so far." 

"The thought of moving the club hasn't even crossed our minds. That doesn't mean if someone makes us a great offer to move to Boise tomorrow, we wouldn't take it." Huh? Krumpe did note that the money from team ticket sales had risen impressively from 1978. "The (attendance) numbers aren't as important as the dollars, and they (the dollars) are doubled."

The Post noted, "In some ways yesterday's crowd of 11,450 had to be encouraging to the Garden. According to the Dips, 3,050 ticket holders stayed at home, indicating the crowd would have been closer to 16,000 or 17,000 had the weather been better."

To some the glass was half full. To others, it was half empty.

Frustration and confusion were clearly reigning in two camps. MSG was frustrated with smaller than anticipated attendance numbers and confused about how to fix the situation. The second group was the local press, who were frustrated with contradictory quotes coming from high ranking MSG officials and confused as to how they bode for the Dips future in DC.

The situation came to a head on June 24, when Werblin spoke with the press prior to the Dips match against the Philadelphia Fury at RFK Stadium. "If there is not growth by the end of two seasons for us with the club then we'd have to sit down and seriously think about moving," Werblin said. "I don't mean that as an ultimatum or anything." It turns out MSG was already quietly exploring new cities for their team. 

MSG hoped that Sunday afternoon matches would attract large crowds. The
Dips had three of these scheduled in June, 1979, on the 3, 17 and 24. As the
historical record attests, the weather did not cooperate. Despite great
  business success, Sonny Werblin's clout did have its limits.
Werblin stated that he was "disappointed" by the fans' reception of the 1979 team, while still acknowledging legitimate, and uncontrollable, reasons. "We've been stymied by a combination of the Bullets and the weather (right), I know that. I mean they are like a buzz saw together." Adding insult to injury, Werblin admitted that the Diplomats most likely would have moved to New York and played in Shea Stadium had it not been for the Cosmos insistence of a $12 million indemnity fee. Yet Werblin seemed to be forgetting that Jack Krumpe had recently acknowledged that money from ticket sales had doubled from the previous season.

Fans took Werblin to task. "You can't intimidate people in Washington into coming out to the games," said fan Linda Twitty. "I've been to a couple of games because I was curious and was interested in learning the game of soccer. I certainly won't go back because someone threatened to move the team. I'll go because I want to go and when I want to go; it's as simple as that."

One anonymously quoted team employee said Werblin's comments were "tasteless." Adding, "if it wasn't an ultimatum, what was it?" Jim Steele did speak on the record, calling Werblin's remarks "unbelievable."

Both The Post and The Star seized this opportunity to expose MSG's contradictory rhetoric and hypocrisy. In a June 27 column, Ken Denlinger put the onus of the Dips attendance problems squarely on Werblin.

He started his piece reprinting Werblin's January "We did not come in as carpetbaggers" statement, directly followed by Werblin's contradictory comments of June 24. Then, he went for the jugular.

  • "For the first time in a remarkable career, Werblin has complained of lack of support instead of offering compelling reasons for fans to cherish his teams."
  • "Werblin has given Washington nothing beyond a few imaginative promotions. With money available and the inclination to spend it, Werblin's Dips could have given the Cosmos a fierce battle."
  • "Washington fans have been spending more on the Dips than ever, double and triple in some instances. But Werblin, in less than a year in control of the team, is impatient."
  • "Werblin's Sunday threat leads one to wonder whether Gulf & Western ever was serious about giving soccer a serious go or simply jump off at the first sign of danger."
  • "Werblin clearly enjoys a sporting scrap. In Washington, though, he is backing away without offering even one solid jab."
The Star's John Schultz made other valid points about MSG's handling of the franchise. The team 
"draws a young, suburban, middle-class audience. Werblin wants the movers and shakers of Washington. The two worlds couldn't be farther apart. Instead of crucifying Washington as a second-rate sports town, Werblin would do well to look inside the Dips organization and see what's happening.

He is quoted as saying 'your important Washington people leave town on weekends,' yet 11 of the Dips 15 home games are played on Sunday afternoon (a move MSG initiated). He says 'you sell sports as much on the news page as the sports page,' yet the club diligently is seeking an under-18 crowd that really couldn't care less about Washington politics or its people.' " 

Schultz astutely pointed out that Werblin and MSG didn't understand Washington or it's inhabitants. The boss agreed, confiding, "we haven't been able to find the real Washington. Usually we can put our finger on a market and get a pulse for the place. There are a million people (actually three million) out there someplace. We have to find them."

Fortuitously, NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam was in town attending a luncheon on June 27 as the storm over Werblin's words simmered and swirled like a late afternoon DC thunderstorm. His view of soccer in the nation's capital was in stark contrast to Werblin's and MSG. 

"I'm not sure what Sonny was thinking when he said those things", Woosnam said. "My personal feeling is that Washington has come a long way to get where it is today. I think the franchise is ready to take off in the next couple of years. The crowds will come." He expected Washington to have a team in the NASL "for a long, long time," elaborating that "Washington, New York and Los Angeles are the key cities if we (the NASL) want to gain international acceptance." 

News about the Dips television ratings provided something positive during this otherwise tumultuous time. Television ratings giant Arbitron reported that the Dips received an average rating of 4.0 for their first five games during the 1979 campaign that were broadcast on local TV. At the time, ABC’s nationally televised NASL games only had an average of 2.5.

The Dips finished the 1979 regular season with a franchise best record of 19-9. During their last six home games the average attendance was 13, 554. In 1978, they averaged 10,523 over their last six home games. Clearly, progress was being made. However, there are times when two parties may have a different idea regarding the definition of the same word.

Sunday, August 19, arrived as do or die day for the 1979 Dips. They were to play the Los Angeles Aztecs in the second game of their National Conference quarterfinal playoff series at RFK Stadium. Win, and the Dips would force a third "mini-game," which would be played immediately following the first match, to decide who would advance. Lose, and their season would be over.
As if this scenario did not create enough drama for the club's fans, an article appeared in the Post that morning stating that MSG was attempting to arrange a game between the Dips and another NASL team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 29. To quote Sting in the Police song Synchronicity II,
this amounted to "a humiliating kick in the crotch." 

Jerry Saperstein, Chief aid to Sonny Werblin, confirmed that MSG management had been talking to Milwaukee officials about the event. “We’re just trying to keep the team active during the offseason,” Saperstein, who was obviously MSG’s chief distributor of crapola, said. He contended that an exhibition game half way across the continent did not mean that MSG was eyeing Milwaukee as as a possible future home for the Dips.

Officials with the Diplomats were not buying this logic. "They're testing things, experimenting," one said. "They still don't know what the hell they are doing up there." Coach Gordon Bradley was more succinct, "I can't see any reason for playing in Milwaukee." The idea was finally scrapped when MSG could not convince another NASL team to participate.

The match played that day, in 86 degree heat and humidity over 90%, was intense and impassioned. The Dips drew first blood when Bobby Stokes converted a penalty kick just 9 minutes in. Chris Dangerfield and Leo Van Veen of LA netted the next two, seven minutes apart, to give the Aztecs a 2-1 lead. Sakib Viteskic scored his first goal since April to produce a 2-2 tie at halftime. 
Mike Dillon celebrates his game tying goal.

Chris Dangerfield put home his second tally of the match early in the second half. As precious time ticked off the clock, the Dips played with ferocity and great emotion. The drama got the best of Dips forward Alan Green, who was ejected with 23:31 second left in the game for bumping into referee David Socha.

With the season on the line, playing one man short, the Dips sent everyone to attack the Aztecs goal area. Defender Mike Dillon scored in the 86th minute to tie the match at 3-3. 

Jim Steele, top left, Tom O'Hara, far
left, Carmine Marcantonio, Mike
Dillon and goalkeeper Bill Irwin
(in green) are stunned as their season
came to an abrupt end moments before.
There were less than 30 seconds left in the first overtime period when Johan Cruyff started with the ball roughly 70 yards from the Dips goal. He crossed midfield and dashed to the 35 yard line unimpeded. Nearing the Dips penalty arc he was challenged by, and sidestepped, Jim Steele.

Just inside the penalty box, Mike Dillon, Tommy O'Hara and Carmine Marcantonio seemingly had him corralled, yet he eluded this trio also. His left foot shot from 14 yards out came only 13 seconds before the Dips would have had a short rest to change ends. (View the goal here)  "Only one player in the park  could have scored that goal," O'Hara said, "and Cruyff did."

After the game, Sonny Werblin discussed his plans for the Dips future. He stated the club would "definitely" be in Washington next season, but would not comment beyond that. “I still think soccer will go here. We had a good product this year. I won’t use the word disappointing about the attendance but I had hoped it would have been better.” Werblin had used that exact word to describe attendance while venting to the press on June 24.

Would he consider signing a world class player? Werblin's answer: "I don’t think Washington has proven it deserves a superstar.” The boss did not rule out the possibility of the club buying one, however, mentioning Kevin Keegan by name.


So how did the 1979 Diplomats fare in their first year under MSG ownership? 

  • The average attendance for home games was 12,177. In 1978, that figure was 10,800. 
  • Revenue generated from ticket sales had doubled from the previous fiscal year.
  • On television, the team's local broadcasts were far outperforming ABCs nationally televised games.
  • Recorded a single season franchise best 19 wins.

Did MSG follow through on statements regarding their vision for the Dips?

  • "Make the Diplomats the best soccer team in the world as soon as possible.": MSG balked at the price 1978 World Cup star Daniel Passarella of Argentina was asking for. The roster was upgraded, but hardly on a scale to rival the best teams in the world.
  • "We bought this team as an investment, not to leave town. We did not come in as carpetbaggers." After only seven home games, MSG VP Jack Krumpe said, "...if someone makes us a great offer to move to Boise tomorrow, we (would) take it." That sentiment was followed Werblin's declaration, "If there is not growth by the end of two seasons for us with the club then we'd have to sit down and seriously think about moving." At the time, MSG had only owned the team for eight months.

Perhaps John Carbray best summed up the Dips situation as it stood at the end of the 1979 season. “I think Washington is on the right track as a soccer town. Right now we are right where soccer is at in this country. Soccer is not New York and 70,000 people, and it’s not Philadelphia and 4,000. It’s us, 12,000. I think Washington will make it as a soccer town." He then added a caveat that would prove prophetic, “If the Garden is patient with it.”

Next time in "The Sonny Saga," changes come, but would the franchise stay?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Gordon Bradley Practice

What was a daily workout in the NASL like? In addition to scrimmaging, lots of fitness drills. Doug Dugan explains part of Gordon Bradley's practice regimen.  
Bradley, far left, makes a point during a 1979 practice on the RFK auxiliary field.

"One of Gordon's favorite fitness drills was having us running up the RFK upper level stairs, crossing over, carefully walking down, and then do it again about ten times." 

The steep and narrow upper level stairs at RFK Stadium.

"Or doing laps for speed around the walkway of the upper level of the stadium (half of  which is shown in yellow). Nobody was immune from this torture unless you were injured."

"It's hard to describe, but the training had a different sort of vibe at the professional level.  The players knew they had a job to do, and what their role was going to be, and got on with it."

Some practices were more memorable than others. http://washingtondiplomats.blogspot.com/2014/11/never-dull-moment.html