Several weeks ago, the Washington Diplomats' marketing department made a deal with a local restaurant chain to import the San Diego Chicken to RFK Stadium. The Chicken has a $5,000 fee, and the Diplomats were delighted when the restaurant agreed to pick up the tab in return for some free publicity.

Last Sunday, the Chicken performed as scheduled at RFK. Several days before the game, however, the restaurant chain reneged on its sponsorship. Since nothing had been put in writing, the Dips had no alternative but to pay the Chicken.

"It isn't like we're giant corporation," General Manager Duncan Hill said. "We need to manage our money intelligently."

The incident, minor as it is, illustrates a point. The old Washington Diplomats were owned by Madison Square Garden Corp. Madison Square Garden, in turn, is a subsidiary of Gulf and Western. The $6 million lost here in two years before the team folded last year was little more than a tax writeoff to Gulf and Western. Money was spent freely.

The new Diplomats, who travel to Minnesota to play the Kicks at 9 tonight, are not a small tentacle of a giant corporation. They are the major investment for Hill; his father, Jimmie, and their partner, Gerrit B. Lemmen. Not one dollar is spent without thought and there is a limit to the number of dollars available.

"We'd love to have a superstar on this team like a Trevor Francis or a Kevin Keegan," Duncan Hill said the other day, sipping coffee in a Capitol Hill restaurant. "But to get players like that, you're talking $2 million. Right now, we're not in a position to think about spending money like that. Maybe down the road, but not yet."

In fact, shortly before they moved the franchise from Detroit to Washington, Hill and his partners sold their brightest young star, Pato Margetic. The 20-year-old Argentinean with long, blond hair and a flamboyant flair for the game might have been a draw.

But Margetic demanded $250,000 for two years. For a superstar, this is not a huge salary, but Margetic was young and inconsistent. With the Detroit coffers nearly empty, Hill decided to sell him to Chicago, picking up $200,000, instead of committing himself to what he thought was an exorbitant salary. Now, he wishes Margetic were a Diplomat.

But at the moment the sale was made, the owners of the team were about ready to get out of the NASL. They had lost well over $1 million during three years in Detroit and several of their limited partners wanted out. Hill admitted: "At best, we would have gone through one more year in Detroit, then taken a hard look at the situation."

Then came a call from a friend who told Hill that a group of Washington investors was interested in buying the team. Hill flew to Washington, his initial intent being to discuss a sale. Instead, he found himself in an atmosphere where he thought soccer could go over big. Rather than selling the club, Hill petitioned the league to allow him to move east.

"If soccer can't make it here, I don't know where it will make it," Hill said. "You've got the youth participation; you've got a wonderful facility to play in; you've got media interest.

"Looking back now, there are two things I would have done differently after we made the move. First, I would have been more aggressive in trying to acquire former Diplomats.

"I didn't realize until recently just how strong an identity they had built up with the fans. Players like Alan Green, Tommy O'Hara, Joe Horvath were really favorites here. We came in with good players, but totally strange faces. Our most popular player, by far, is still Paul Cannell, and he isn't even playing.

"The other thing I should have done is made the ticket prices higher. Just because our predecessors ran their team as if it were a corporate toy and all but gave tickets away doesn't mean we should. Our prices are still relatively cheap in this market and compared to the rest of the league.

"Soccer is a good game. We believe that. If you believe that, you ask people to pay a reasonalbe dollar to watch the game. If you're running a business, you run it like a business, not a toy."

The Diplomats need money. Ken Furphy, who has been the coach all four seasons of the franchise's existence, readily admits he checks attendance figures before discussing acquisition of personnel with Hill.

"Acquiring players depends a lot on attendance; I know that," Furphy said. "If we can draw crowds of 20,000 or more consistently, that's going to make it easier for all of us, because there will be more money to work with."

That situation is in direct contrast with that of the old Diplomats, who in less than a month last year spent $800,000 for Juan Jose Lozano and $1.5 million for Johan Cruyff. The new Diplomats don't have that kind of money, nor do they have the desire to spend it that way if they did.

"I think if I'm happiest with one thing we've done, it's proving that you don't have to spend huge sums of money to put a good team on the field," Hill said. "One of the strengths of our team on the field is that we don't have a superstar, so everybody plays together.

"Certainly, in terms of team identity, it helps to have a superstar. But you have to sign the right one at the right time."

Hill insists that, although money is tight, the Diplomat are not in danger of failing financially. But he conceded that the team will need an infusion of money, some of it from outside investors, at season's end.

There are several reasons additional money is needed. One is the status of starters Trevor Hebberd, Malcolm Waldron and Ross Jenkins. All three were acquired prior to the season from Coventry City, the Hill-run English League team with which the Diplomats have a working agreement.

Under terms of the acquisition, the three are, in effect, loan players, even though the Diplomats own their contracts. All three contracts were purchased at a very low price for one year. At season's end, if the Diplomats wish to keep all or any of the players, they will have to make a far more substantial offer to Coventry in order to bring them back. What's more, the players have the option, if unhappy here, to veto a permanent move.

Adding a star -- a Francis or a Keegan, or someone less expensive, like Green -- will cost even more.

But the Diplomats' losses this year will not come close to the losses incurred by Madison Square Garden during its two years of ownership here. Last year's payroll ranked second in the league to that of the Cosmos. This year's payroll, according to Hill, is somewhere between eighth and 10th in the league. The old Dips spent huge sums on television advertising. The new Dips do no TV advertising, although they have advertised on radio and in the newspapers.

There is a significant difference in attendance. Last year's team drew 19,205 per game, compared with this year's 11,874. That difference will be made up in part, Hill says, by the increase in ticket prices and the new Dips' refusal to let people in at discount prices or on family plans, as the old Dips did.

"We'll average somewhere close to $5.50 per person in the stadium," Hill said, "Last year, the average was about $3.50 per person."

Hill says his goal is to get the franchise to a break-even point by the end of three years in Washington, although he is unsure whether the move here will pan out, despite favorable circumstances.

"I wouldn't have suggested the move here if I wasn't convinced that this was an excellent market for soccer," Hill said. "I can't predict what will happen. When the 12-year-olds can drive for five or six years from now is when we'll really find out about soccer in this country. In the meantime, we just have to keep working."

The Kicks, tonight's opponent (WWDC-AM-1260), are traditionally one of the league's better teams and are currently 6-6 for 46 points, good for third place in the Central Division. The Dips are 8-4 for 63 points, second in the East; they trail the Cosmos by 27 points but have two games in hand . . . From Minneapolis the team goes to Jacksonville Friday and Chicago next Sunday . . . First-round draft pick Bobby Zipp, 18, a recent Seattle high school graudate, is in town training with the team. Coach Ken Furphy wants a close look at him before deciding whether to offer him a contract . . . Backup goalkeeper Dale Baxter, 19, still recovering from injuries incurred in an auto accident, recently sold his pet parrot for $500. What did he use the money for? A down payment on a $4,000 water bed.