The Washington Diplomats spent $1 million to purchase international soccer star Johan Cruyff's contract from the Los Angeles Aztecs and another $1.5 million to pay him. Now, the club is trying to sell him -- to Washington-area sports fans.
Sunday, Cruyff will appear in a Dip uniform for the first time at RFK Stadium when Washington hosts the Philadelphia Fury in its home opener at 2:30 p.m. More than 8,000 tickets have been sold and club officials are expecting a crowd of more than 20,000.
Hoping to fill some of those seats that rarely have been used for soccer since the team started play there in 1977, the Dips have launched an allout campaign to make the team a household name in the community.
With a substantially increased budget, the club hired the Abramson-Himmelfarb advertising agency to market the team in general and Cruyff in particular. Club officials say the move will be well worth the money, if fans respond.
"We've definitely seen results from our added publicity," said Andy Dolich, executive vice president and general manager. "We're not looking for an overnight success story. We've increased our marketing efforts and interest is building. Our budget has been significantly increased to sell the team, and we're doing that."
Club officials insist the team's poor start will not affect Sunday's attendance. Already hurt by injuries, the Dips lost their first two games on the road.
"Sure, I'd rather be 2-0 or 1-1 than 0-2," Dolich said. "But I'm still very positive. Obviously, it's important to do well in our next two (home) games. Our players are up for the opener. We haven't gotten a sustained team effort yet, but you have to remember we have a lot of players who weren't here last year.
"Look at Vancouver, the Soccer Bowl champions. They made a lot of changes, like we did, and they're 0-2 also. Tampa Bay and tulsa are tough to beat on the road.We've gotten a lot of positive phone calls and we know we'll improve when our injured players return," Dolich said.
Cruyff, who has suffered minor injuries in both previous contests, has a sore foot but will be in the starting lineup Sunday. Striker Alan Green, the Dips' leading scorer last year and the early leader this season with two goals, has a severely sprained ankle and is 50-50 for the home opener.
In addition to those two players, Washington has been forced to convert midfielders Carmine Marcantonio and Gary Darrell to defense to fill holes created by the injuries to three of last year's starters.
"Well, at least we don't have the Bullets or the Caps to contend with," said one club official. "We're the only show in town now. The only problem we might have is rain. Last year, I think someone had it in for us and sent us rain every Sunday. Maybe we have kicked the jinx this year."
Despite concentrated marketing efforts during the offseason, the Dips sold only about 3,000 season tickets (a club high). However, club officials have been encouraged by the number of businesses showing interest in promotions, by the tripling of the Booster Club members (now 1,500) and by the dozens of phone calls that come into the office each day for ticket information.
"Businesses are much more receptive to us now," said Roger Moskowitz, the team's director of marketing. "We're giving them more exposure and they, in turn, are doing the same for us. We have promotions planned at 11 games (16 home dates). These promotions don't necessarily cost us more money, because the sponsors are picking up the costs.
"We have every reason to be encouraged so far. All of the promotions look like they will be a success. The front office has given us the opportunity to use our creativity. We had many of these activities planned even before Johan joined the team. Once we signed him, more people wanted to get involved with us."
Ted Ward, who handles the account for Abramson-Himmelfarb, agreed.
"A lot of people are interested in the Dips," Ward said. "People are getting behind them. We need a summer sport and Washington, which has a very competitive team with the new acquisitions, can fill that void very nicely."
Dips' officials also say they hope fans don't judge the club too prematurely.
"Those two TV games didn't show much," said one club official. "We didn't play well and Johan got hurt both games. Green didn't play at all in the Tulsa game. But a lot of people will come out just to see Cruyff play. At least we hope so.
"If you remember, the Dips drew 35,000 to see Pele one year (35,620 in 1975) and many of them have never seen a soccer game before. Just curiosity. We hope Cruyff can bring them here like that."