With attendance skyrocketing and the team finally performing near its potential, the Washington Diplomats' management was in an estatic mood this week, with General Manager Andy Dolich delaring: "I'm 100 percent certain this team will be in Washington next season under Madison Square Garden management."
But while Dolich and his colleagues in Washington were exuding confidence, Madison Square Garden Chairman Sonny Werblin threw in a note of caution.
"There's no question that our attendance is way up, that the community has responded to this team," Werblin said. "But at the end of the season, we'll sit down, go through the books and find out just how much it cost us to get that kind of reaction. Then we'll make a decision about next year."
Translation: Werblin has to report to the Gulf and Western board of directors. The company has spent millions of dollars on the team this year and Werblin wants to keep all his options open.
"Why should we discuss next year when this season isn't even over yet?" said Jack Krumpe, Garden executive vice president. "Why are we always being asked about our commitment to this team? I think our commitment is obvious by the amount of money we've spent this year."
Madison Square Garden spent more than $1 million to purchase Johan Cruyff and is paying him another $500,000 in salary. It spent $800,000 in purchase fee and salary to get Juan-Jose Lozano. It spent another $500,000 on Wim Jansen. Thus, no matter what the rise in attendance this season, no matter how well the Dips do in the playoffs, the final dollar figures for the year will be in the red.
"You can't say anythig definite about any franchise that's in the red," team President Steve Danzansky said. "I think the way we all look at this thing is like a construction project. It cost a lot of money to purchase the land and to start building. Now we feel as if the building is about one-third to one-half leased and we're making progress. But our bottom line is still in the red."
Which means that Gulf and Western could decide to get out at the end of this season and try to recoup its losses by getting a good price for the team, now worth far more than the $1 million the corporation paid for it in October 1978.
Sale of the team would not necessarily mean it would not be in Washington, however. Reportedly, there is a clause in the original purchase agreement that gives Danzansky first refusal rights should the club be sold.
Asked about the clause Danzansky said, "That's a private matter between Madison Square Garden and myself and I'm not going to comment."
Danzansky added, however, that he feels confident the Garden will retain ownership and remain in Washington next year.
"We've come so far with this thing I think they'll want to stay in it," Danzansky said. "Their commitment to the team and the organization is obvious. Right now, we're on the verge of really making it in this town. It takes several years for a team to get into the lifeblood of a city. I think we're just starting to do that."
The Dips are averaging 18,661 fans per game going into tonight's 8 p.m. game with the Toronto Blizzard, a game for which they are hoping to draw more than 20,000 if the weather is good.
Last year, the team averaged 11,973 per game for 16 home dates. The 18,000 figure represents a 56 percent increase in attendance, virtually all of it paid, including a crowd of more than 53,000 for the Cosmos game in June. The club is sixth in the league in attendance. Last season, it was 11th.
"I think, aside from some of our early disappointments on the field, the entire season has been an unmitigated success," Dolich said. "We've exceeded our expectation in almost every area of our operation.
"To me, the Cosmos game was a revelation. I didn't think we could do that yet. In fact, I didn't think we could do that for another 10 years with soccer. I was truly amazed."
The huge attendance increase is expecially encouraging in light of the fact that the team has not performed anywhere near expectation in spite of its current five-game winning streak. Last year, Werblin complained frequently that the town was not responding to a winning team. This year the town has responded to a team that was under .500 until Wednesday, when it reached 13-13.
"Johan Cruyff," said Dolich. "There are other reasons why we've succeeded this year but he's unquestionably the No. 1 reason. Even when he hasn't played superbly, he's created tremendous interest in our whole team.
"Johan is controversial. He's incredibly intelligent. He's outgoing and a good talker and, as his play lately has shown, he's probably the most exciting player in the world, even at age 33, when he's healthy.
"We went to Garden management during the offseason and told them we thought this team needed a superstar to turn the corner. Cruyff was the most gettable and the best available, we thought."
There has been talk that because of injuries, his salary and because he and Coach Gordon Bradley were not getting along, Cruyff would not return next season.
Recently, in fact, Krumpe complained to a reporter he thought was being too lavish in his praise of Cruyff after the Dutchman had led the Diplomats to a 3-2 upset win over Seattle, the victory that started the current winning streak.
Dolich: "We need Johan back next year. We need for him to finish his career here. He's changed our whole image in the eyes of the community, in the eyes of the media, in everyone's eyes."
Danzansky: "We spent six years sowing the seeds so we could get to this season. But there's no question what Cruyff has meant to us. We want him back next year badly."
Werblin: "I would hope Cruyff will be back next year. We'll sit down and talk about it when the season is over." Werblin always keeps his options open. Cruyff has a one-year contract, with options for two more seasons.
Dolich is certain the Garden will stick with the Dips next season; Danzansky is confident, Werblin and Krumpe are noncommital.
One option appears to have been dropped however: there is no talk of moving the franchise, either to New York -- where Gulf and Western would have to pay a multimillion-dollar indemnity fee to Warner communications, owners of the Cosmos -- or elsewhere. Either the Diplomats will make it here, or Gulf and Western will get out of soccer.