How does a soccer team die?

Specifically, how could the Washington Diplomats increase attendance 65 percent in one season and draw 53,000 people in the stadium for a game and not make it?

The answer is not that complicated when considered within the framework of the North American Soccer League, an entity whose 24 franchises lost about $40 million during the 1980 season.

Put simply, the Diplomats, Houston Hurricane and Rochester Lancers, all of whom will cease to exist (barring a miracle) Monday, are merely the first victims, priced out of existence by a league that has been self-destructing for three years while labeling itself the sport of the future.

There are several basic reasons why operating an NASL franchise in the 1980s is a no-win proposition financially.

From its nadir in '69, when all but five of the original teams went out of business, until 1977, when the Cosmos, with Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, moved into the crowds of 75,000, the league was on an upward spiral, albeit a slow one.

At that point, the league had 18 teams, probably about six too many. What happened? The NASL overreacted to the success of the Cosmos, decided soccer had arrived and expanded to 24 teams. Soccer had not exploded, the Cosmos had. The move was disastrous.

Consider the six expansion teams that year. Houston is about to die. The Philadelphia franchise moved to Montreal. Colorado shifted to Atlanta where the club still draws poorly. Memphis will try again in Calgary. New England is fleeing to Jacksonville. Only Detroit remains, although no one in that town would blink if the Express departed.

One of Madison Square Garden Chairman Sonny Werblin's major complaints was that the league was too big. The strong teams were forced to support the weak -- which weakened them -- and travel costs were sky high because the league was so spread out.

When the league did finally get a national TV contract with ABC-TV prior to the 1979 season, it had to divide the money 24 ways. The contract wasn't very lucrative to start with and the ratings have been terrible. Next year, only playoff games will be on national television. Madison Square Garden was well aware of that when it decided to get out.

The bottom line is all that matters for a corporation such as the Garden -- especially one that has to report to a parent organization like Gulf and Western. Not one team in the NASL finished 1980 in the black.

Even the super-rich Cosmos cannot possibly break even because they spend astronomical sums to purchase players. But Warner Communications uses the Cosmos as a tool to gain entree into foreign countries where it wants to do business. Gulf and Western never reached that point with the Dips. The losses were too heavy too soon.

If the Dips had been in New York, their fate might have been different. But they were on the outer fringes of Sonny Werblin's empire, which includes the Knicks, the Rangers and heavy involvement in cable TV.

If the Dips had consistently sold out RFK Stadium and won championships, Werblin could have justified flying back and forth between New York and Washington. But they didn't and he came less and less as this season progressed, spending much of his summer with a 2-year-old horse he owns. In short, the Dips gave Werblin more headaches than happiness. And, because they were losing money, they created problems for him with the Gulf and Western board.

"Our decision to get out was our own," said Jack Krumpe, his top assistant. "But if we hadn't made the decision, the Gulf and Western people probably would have told us to get out, anyway."

From the beginning, Werblin and Krumpe were disgusted with the way the league was run: with being forced to share playoff profits, with the cross-country travel schedule, with the TV contract, with the terribly unsettled union situation. Warner would not let them move the team to New York.

On Nov. 3, they informed the team president, Steve Danzansky, of their decision to get out of soccer. Undoubtedly, they knew earlier, but no one could make a move until the Garden made it official.

Since the Diplomats' second year of operation, Danzansky has played a major role. He was president of the club when it was owned by San Juan Racing Inc. and he convinced Werblin to take a chance with the team two years ago when San Juan decided to get out. Werblin asked Danzansky to stay on as president so MSG would not look like a carpetbaggin, out-of-town operator.

Danzansky's role in policy decisions the last two years has been minimal. But when the Garden decided to get out, it is likely that the team would have died quietly if not for Danzansky's determination to save the team. In the last three weeks, he has spoken with dozens of potential investors, trying to convince them to throw in with him financially.

But, Danzansky also has offered potential buyers a realistic -- and bleak -- prospectus. For any new owner, the bottom line will be red, this year, next year and for an indefinite period in the future.

Operating an NASL team right now is impossibly expensive. There are not enough American players to stock the league and the purchase price of foreign players has become astronomical. Juan Jose Lozano, a player who was constantly hurt and never contributed to the team, cost the Dips $1.1 million. c

Because of a change in the tax laws, only operations like Madison Square Garden can use a soccer team as a tax shelter. Until 1976, a stockbroker making $1 million year could use a loss on a soccer team as a tax writeoff. No more. Now, only those making money in sports can use losses related to sports as a tax writeoff.

"Washington is one place where people should be willing to invest," insisted NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam, who has tried desperately to help keep the franchise alive here. "You can legitimately point to what they did this season with their attendance, with credibility, with everything, and say they were a major success. And will be in the future."

True. But a large portion of that success was due to the presence of Johan Cruyff, who now is the property of the Cosmos. Even if, by some magic, Cruyff came back next season, he would cost a new owner more than $1 million. Half of that would be necessary to get him back from the Cosmos and at least another $500,000 would be necessary for this salary. What noncorporate owner can afford that?

Still, soccer should have a future in Washington. In a league filled with teams on the verge of extinction, someone is bound to have the bright idea of moving their team here within a year. The Washington soccer community is splintered but large. A team moving here would have to rebuild interest, but clearly there is potential.

What's more, Woosnam believes it essential to have a team here if his grandiose plans for international play in this country are to come true in the future. At the first sign of failure next season -- which will probably come in preseason -- he probably will be on the phone suggesting a move to Washington. The city will probably be without soccer for a year.

Still, much of the work done in the past year to make the Dips a credible entity has already been wiped out. Soccer certainly hasn't regressed to the days when the Dips played at Woodson High School, but it has lost a lot of ground since that heady June day when 53,000 turned RFK Stadium into an emotional cauldron during the Cosmos game.