The Washington Diplomats have until Sept. 15 to post a $250,000 performance bond or the franchise will cease to exist, again.
And so, Diplomats II are right where Diplomats I were last November. The difference is that the old Diplomats had money, but Madison Square Garden chose not to spend it after losing $6 million in two years; the new Diplomats are underfinanced and must sell or fold.
Although General Manager Duncan Hill said yesterday that there are several investors seriously interested in buying the franchise, the Dips are faced with the same problem they were faced with last year: a lack of time.
"It is a race against time," said Hill. "The Sept. 15 deadline is misleading because the thing has to be sorted out in the next seven days. If we can't finish the deal in time we would tell the league we will not participate in the NASL in 1982 and resign our membership."
"It's a disappointing situation," NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam said yesterday. "I still have complete faith in the Washington market. The potential is unlimited."
Potential. Disappointment. Possible investors. Lack of time. All have become familiar terms to Washington's soccer fans in the last nine months.
Those closest to both the old Dips and the new Dips say it did not have to be this way. Even Duncan Hill concedes that now.
Dating back to last Feb. 27 when the Detroit Express officially became the Washington Diplomats, Hill has steadfastly refused to listen to advice from many of those who have been connected with soccer here over the years.
That, as much as anything, has caused today's familiar refrain: the Diplomats are out of money and running out of time.
Last March, shortly after he had moved the Detroit Express to Washington, Duncan Hill had lunch with Steve Danzansky, who had been president of the old Washington Diplomats. It is known that the two men went to a restaurant and discussed soccer and Washington, two subjects with which Danzansky is intimately familiar.
Hill asked for advice. Danzansky made four points:
Try to recreate the marketing approach the old Dips used in 1980 when they averaged 19,205 fans per game. Hire the Diplomats' old advertising agency and have it pick up where it left off, pushing soccer as family entertainment.
Don't go ahead with the plan to raise ticket prices and to eliminate specially priced tickets and family plans. This is a good soccer town, but it's not Europe. A lure is still needed for the fans.
Find a way to get Gordon Bradley involved in the franchise. If you can't see yourself removing Ken Furphy as coach, find a job for Bradley, who symbolizes soccer in this town.
Find the money to get Johan Cruyff. He keyed the old Diplomats' rise in 1980 and, with a team full of unfamiliar names, Cruyff is the team's one chance to have a real drawing card. Also bring back as many former Diplomats as possible.
Hill listened to Danzansky. Apparently, he also ignored him. That set a pattern. From day one, according to many who dealt with him, Hill was convinced he alone knew what was best for the Diplomats.
Hill convinced Woosnam to let him move his team, which had struggled in Detroit for three years, to Washington largely because Woosnam wanted a franchise here at any cost after the success of the old Diplomats.
Only one league executive, Clive Toye of Toronto, spoke out against the Detroit move. "I am sick and tired of our franchises chasing around the bloody country looking for stadiums in which to alight," Toye said last May. "There aren't many cities left for us to befoul.
"I think the league would have been strengthened . . . by keeping some foreign team out of Washington that would go back to square one."
Members of the current Diplomat staff agree with Toye. They say the league was foolish to let Detroit move here, especially since Woosnam was aware that the Hills were leaving behind numerous debts.
Toye's concerns about a "foreign" (i.e., unfamiliar) team proved to be correct. Not only were the new Diplomats unfamiliar to Washington's soccer community, the new management, led by Hill, did little to overcome that problem.
"The budget absolutely hurt our sales and marketing efforts," said Diana Mergen, a Dips marketing assistant. "We couldn't get even basic information out to the public."
The old Diplomats had cultivated their relationship with the business community, vital to group sales and advertising. The new Dips never even got started in that area.
"They also consulted die-hard soccer people in the community," said Larry Dunn, a season ticket holder for five years whose company had 25 season tickets. "But they never went out and solicited business people. They tried to run it like soccer is run in Europe. You can't do that here. Americans have too many diversions in the summer.
"We offered sales and marketing help to Duncan several times. But he never responded.
"You have to have business support," Mergen said, "and we didn't have that this year. But you can't blame the businesses for backing off after the first club folded. We had lost credibility.
"We came in so late the major businesses had already allocated their advertising money in January and didn't plan on a soccer franchise being around. There was no money for us.
"As the year went on our budget got lower and advertising got worse."
Several large corporations who had advertised in the past did not do so this year.
The public, accustomed to the old Diplomats, was stunned by the new ticket prices and by the demise of the popular family plan. The old Diplomats had set $6 as a top ticket price; the new team, without Cruyff, without Alan Green, was asking $9. The family plan, which had cost $20 for two adults and three children, now cost $29.
"From a business standpoint, the front office was terrible," said Dunn.
The new Dips had hoped to take advantage of the momentum the old Dips had built in their final days. But the combination of the higher ticket prices and a roster full of unfamiliar players kept attendance well below last season's average in the early going -- except for the Cosmos games.
In June, desperate, Duncan Hill and his father Jimmy, the team's majority owner, finally decided to take advice they had received early on. They went after Cruyff. Getting him back was not difficult -- it took three days to negotiate the deal. But he was damaged goods, having undergone groin surgery in early May.
"The Cruyff deal backfired," Hill says now. "It turned out to be a bad decision. A couple of old Washington players, like Alan Green, would have given us a better identity."
Cruyff's presence in town, but not on the field, created more problems. The Dips advertised his presence heavily, but, time after time, he didn't play. "We advertised Johan so much, but he couldn't play," Mergen said. "When he finally could play, it was like crying wolf. It didn't sink in."
The team started well on the field, winning eight of its first 11 games. But by June, everyone in the organization realized that money was tight. Making the payroll each week became a challenge. Players joked about getting paid in green stamps.
Hill, who had steadfastly insisted that money was not a serious problem, that investors were lining up ready to pump money into the team, began spending almost all his time trying to find someone who would invest in the staggering franchise.
"Raising money and finding investors preoccupied me totally," he said. "I was so wrapped up in that, I had to forget about the next day's game."
By the beginning of August word was out around the league that Washington, Atlanta, Dallas and California were almost certain not to be back next year. Jacksonville and San Jose were also reported to be in serious trouble. As of yesterday, none of those six teams had met Friday's initial deadline to put up a performance bond. Neither had Calgary, but that situation is reportedly merely the result of a paper mixup.
Although the Dips drew 11,500 per game, 11th in the league, and, according to Jimmy Hill, grossed an average of $70,000 per game, sixth best in the league, the team lost more than $1 million this season, according to the Hills.
Now, as the days dwindle and the potential investors back off, Washington is where it was last winter. When the team was moved in February, many people who had been connected with the old franchise shook their heads. Seeing an underfinanced team moving here at the last moment, instead of waiting a year to put a solid franchise in RFK Stadium, upset many people.
Andy Dolich, general manager of the old Diplomats, had one reaction the day the Detroit-to-Washington move was announced. "That's the worst thing that could possibly happen to soccer in Washington. They're going to kill the market for the future."
Six months later, Dolich, now an executive with baseball's Oakland A's, sounds prophetic. With as many as five teams ready to fold there will be no expansion in the NASL next season. There is no interest in moving another team here. By Sept. 15 Washington, which less than 12 months ago hosted the Soccer Bowl before a crowd of 50,000, may be without professional soccer again.
"To go through this twice is just incredible," said Paula Sabo, president of the Dips' 1,300- member booster club, who has missed one home game in five years. "It's just left me empty. It's sad for everybody. There's nothing positive you can say about this."
Yesterday, Woosnam, while still insisting the experience can be a positive one for Washington if a buyer is found, admitted the Hills have little rope left to work with.
"If a club doesn't have financing or a proper management formula," he said, "it is better off not operating."