EPISODE #62: The Whaler Guys

It’s been 21 years since the National Hockey League’s Hartford Whalers abruptly bolted for the (supposedly) greener pastures of North Carolina and a rechristened life as the Carolina Hurricanes, but don’t tell that to superfans Peter Hindle and Jerry Erwin – the self-professed “Whaler Guys” – who have made it their personal mission since 2011 to keep the memory of the franchise they love alive,  and, with any luck, bring top-tier pro NHL hockey back to the Nutmeg State.

As the hosts of their eponymous weekly Hartford Public Access TV show, Hindle and Erwin are not only passionate about remembering what the Whalers used to be, but also relentlessly focused on virtually every aspect of local civic development that might help someday return the city of Hartford to the ranks of “major league” status once again.

We get into all things Whalers past (the legendary “Brass Bonanza” theme song, the iconic logo); present (XL Center renovation updates, the Guys’ Whaler-themed Connecticut state license plate initiative); and future (what current NHL markets are prime candidates for relocation, where Hartford stands against other potential franchise cities like Quebec, Houston, Kansas City, or Seattle) – as well as the Guys’ thoughts on the Hurricanes’ sudden rediscovery/re-embrace of the team’s heritage in its previous incarnation.

PLUS: why the Coyotes, Panthers and even (ironically) Hurricanes would all do better in Hartford; why Whaler jerseys remain so popular; the vision of original (WHA New England) team owner Howard Baldwin; and the two most unsung heroes in Whaler history – Peter Good and Jacques Ysaye (aka Jack Say).

Our appreciation to Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Podfly for their sponsorship of this week’s show!

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EPISODE #61: Sports Promoter Doug Verb

If someone ever decides to build an American sports promotion Hall of Fame, the inaugural class will undoubtedly be led by this week’s special guest, Doug Verb.  In a career spanning more than 40 years in professional sports management, Verb’s remarkable career has included spearheading marketing, promotion, publicity, and television for some of the most innovative and memorable leagues and franchises of the modern era. 

One of the founding executives of both the pioneering Major Indoor Soccer League (along with sports entrepreneurs Earl Foreman, Ed Tepper, and previous podcast guest Dr. Joe Machnik), and the frenetic Arena Football League (with the sport’s inventor [and past two-part guest] Jim Foster), Verb additionally  served as president of pro soccer’s legendary Chicago Sting from 1982-86 – which, incredibly, drifted between playing in two separate leagues during his tenure (for one year, simultaneously) – the outdoor North American Soccer League and the indoor MISL. 

In our longest and more anecdote-filled episode to date, Verb vividly recounts the highs and lows of launching new teams, leagues and even sports themselves from whole cloth – with nary an operational blueprint or career roadmap to be found.  Buckle up for a wild ride through the woeful 1976 NASL Philadelphia Atoms, the “Rocket Red” pinball-like MISL, soccer for all seasons in the Windy City, and birthing indoor football. 

PLUS:  Kiddie City to the rescue; Earl Foreman’s “Brother-in-Law Effect;” getting paid in soybeans; and the curious one-game history of the Liberty Basketball Association! 

AND:  Verb reveals plans for a first-ever Major Indoor Soccer League reunion later this year in Las Vegas!

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EPISODE #60: Baseball’s League That Never Was: The Continental League with Professor Russ Buhite

By the summer of 1959, the absence of two former National League franchises from what was once a vibrant New York City major league baseball scene was obvious – and even the remaining/dominant Yankees couldn’t fully make up for it.  Nor could that season’s World Series championship run of the now-Los Angeles Dodgers – a bittersweet victory for jilted fans of the team’s Brooklyn era. 

Fiercely determined to return a National League team to the city, mayor Robert Wagner enlisted the help of a Brooklyn-based attorney named William Shea to spearhead an effort to first convince a current franchise to relocate – as the American League’s Braves (Boston to Milwaukee, 1953), Browns (St. Louis to Baltimore, 1954), and A’s (Philadelphia to Kansas City, 1955) had recently done.  When neither Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or even MLB Commissioner Ford Frick, could be convinced by the opportunity, Shea and team moved on to an even bolder plan –  an entirely new third major league, with a New York franchise as its crown jewel.

Financial backers from not only New York, but also eager expansionists in Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Buffalo joined in the effort – christened the “Continental League” – and recruited longtime pioneering baseball executive Branch Rickey to do the collective’s bidding.  In preparation for an inaugural 1961 start, Rickey immediately preached the virtues of parity, and outlined a business plan that included TV revenue-sharing, equally accessible player pools, and solid pension plans; properly executed, it would take less than four years for the new league to be a credible equal of the National and American Leagues.  His plan: poach a few established big-league stars, and supplement rosters with young talent from a dedicated farm system that would quickly ripen into a formidable stream of high-caliber players and, in turn, a quickly competitive “major” third league.  That, plus an aggressive legal attack on MLB’s long-established federal antitrust exemption – designed to force greater player mobility and expanded geographic opportunities.

Suddenly pressured, MLB owners surprisingly responded in the summer of 1960 with a hastily crafted plan for expansion, beginning in 1962 with new NL teams in New York (Mets) and Houston (Colt .45s) – undercutting the upstart league’s ownership groups in those cities, and promising additional franchises in the years following.  Within weeks, the Continental League was no more, and the accelerated expansionary future of the modern game was firmly in motion.

Original Continental League minor leaguer Russ Buhite (The Continental League: A Personal History) joins host Tim Hanlon to share his first-person account (as a member of the proposed Denver franchise’s Western Carolina League Rutherford County Owls in 1960) of both the build-up to and letdown of the “league that never was” – as well as the broader history of the unwittingly influential circuit that changed the economic landscape of modern-day Major League Baseball.

Thanks Audible, Podfly and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for your sponsorship of this week’s episode!

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EPISODE #59: Pro Soccer’s Dean of Media Relations, Jim Trecker

With a career spanning more than four decades, the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s 2017 Colin Jose Media Award-winner Jim Trecker has been part of the American sports media relations landscape since the late 1960’s.  After a chance part-time undergrad job in Columbia University’s modest sports information department, Trecker traded his initial career ambitions in French language education for what ultimately became an unmatched professional journey in public relations at the highest levels of international sports.

After cutting his PR teeth with various post-grad pro sports gigs around New York (including work for the Madison Square Garden-owned New York Skyliners [actually Uruguay’s C.A. Cerro] of the 1967 United Soccer Association), Trecker helped manage media relations for the “Broadway” Joe Namath-era AFL-then-NFL New York Jets – a whirling dervish of major league sports information management that transfixed both the Gotham and national press corps, especially in the wake of a surprising Super Bowl III championship.

But it was the arrival of international soccer superstar Pelé to the fledgling New York Cosmos in 1975 that ultimately took Trecker – and the steeply ascendant North American Soccer League – into a stratospheric professional orbit, as the increasingly star-studded team, league and sport exploded onto the local, national and global sports scenes during the latter half of the decade.  Soccer’s first true international “super club,” the Cosmos became nothing short of an international sports and cultural phenomenon, and Trecker’s job was to manage all of the media’s intense interest in everything related to them – no easy feat.

Trecker joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of the most memorable events during the heyday of the Cosmos, as well as his subsequent PR leadership roles with the NASL’s Washington Diplomats, the league office itself, and his mega role as head of media relations for the wildly successful USA-hosted 1994 World Cup.  PLUS: we discuss Trecker’s role behind the upcoming NASL 50th Anniversary, to be held in conjunction with the re-launch of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, TX on October 16-18, 2018!

Thanks to Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Podfly for their support of the show!

EPISODE #58: The Intersection of Sports & Art with Artist/Designer Wayland Moore

Internationally acclaimed multi-media artist/illustrator/designer Wayland Moore joins the podcast from his studio in suburban Atlanta to discuss his nearly six-decade career as one of America’s most recognizable commercial artists – including some of his most notable works in the realm of professional sports.  

Designer of such iconic team logos such as pro soccer’s Atlanta Chiefs (National Professional Soccer League, 1967; North American Soccer League, 1968-73 & 1979-81); and, most legendarily, New York Cosmos (NASL, 1971-85) – Moore is also known for his extensive promotional artwork for baseball’s Atlanta Braves, including the design and color scheme for the team’s 1974 season uniform, in anticipation of the worldwide attention surrounding Henry Aaron’s eventual record-breaking 715th career home run on April 8, 1974 – forever memorialized in “Hammerin’ Hank”’s Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit.

In this very intriguing conversation, Moore reflects on: his most memorable commissioned pieces from major sporting events like US Hockey’s 1980 Winter Olympics “Miracle on Ice” and 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes” between tennis legends Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King; his curious sports Impressionism “rivalry” with LeRoy Nieman; and his experiences in the age-old economic tension between art and commerce that most pointedly and persistently presents itself in the business of professional sports. 

Moore also shares his surprising advice for well-intentioned nostalgia lovers faced with opportunities to purchase newly-reissued items of memorabilia featuring his formerly trademarked designs, from which he no longer financially benefits.

Thanks to SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, Podfly and Audible for their support of the podcast!

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EPISODE #57: The Pro Football Life of Upton Bell

Upton Bell grew up at the knee of the National Football League’s second-ever commissioner – his father, the legendary Bert Bell – who not only saved professional football from financial ruin in the aftermath of World War II, but also became one of its greatest innovators.  Originator of the iconic phrase “on any given Sunday,” the senior Bell created lasting contributions to the NFL, such as the first pro football draft, scheduling parity, television revenue-sharing, and sudden-death overtime.

For the junior Upton, it was a priceless childhood amidst pro football’s formative years – begun while watching his father draw up the league schedule each year using dominoes at the kitchen table – steeped in the personalities, lore, and economic pragmatism of a game that would ultimately dominate the American professional sports landscape like no other.

In a seemingly preordained career, Upton Bell (Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America’s Game) has been an owner (the wacky World Football League’s Charlotte Hornets), a general manager (the NFL’s New England [née AFL Boston] Patriots), a player personnel director (the 1960s NFL-dominant Baltimore Colts), and long-time sports commentator/talk radio host – remaining a true and insightful “football guy” throughout.

In this very revealing conversation, Bell joins Tim Hanlon to discuss his personal and professional journey through the sport he loves; the lessons learned and insights gleaned from his unique purview into the pro game’s coming-of-age era; the current state of the NFL and where it might be headed; and heretofore untold stories about the stranger-than-fiction WFL.

This week’s episode is brought to you by SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, Audible (where you can listen to the audiobook version of Present at the Creation!) and Podfly.

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Intro audio & numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's Charlotte Hornets Football Network website - visit here

EPISODE #56: The Players’ League of 1890 with Professor Bob Ross

With Major League Baseball finally back in full swing, we dial the Wayback Machine all the way back to the year 1890, when the professional version of America’s Pastime was still nascent, its business model was largely unproven, and the players of the day seethed at their team owners’ increasingly restrictive operating practices – to the point of dramatic and open revolt that ultimately set the contentious tone of owner-player relations for baseball and all of US pro sports for generations to follow.

Global cultural studies professor Bob Ross (The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the short-lived professional baseball league controlled and owned in part by players themselves – a response to the dominant National League’s salary cap and “reserve rule,” which bound players to one team for life.  Led by curveball-pioneering and first-ever sports labor union-founding (and eventual baseball Hall of Famer) John Montgomery Ward, the Players’ League was a star-studded circuit that included most of the National League’s best players, who bolted not only to gain more control of their wages, but also to share ownership of the teams.

Lasting only one season and spanning eight major markets (Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), the league impacted both the professional sports and the labor politics of athletes and non-athletes alike.  Though it marketed itself as a working-class entity, the players were badly underfunded; ironically, they had to turn to wealthy capitalists for much of their startup capital outlays – including, in many cases, new ballparks – which, along with baseball’s best talent, helped the Players’ League initially outdraw the National League at the turnstiles.  But when the National League retaliated in the press by overinflating its attendance and profits, the backers of the upstart league pulled out at season’s end, and the unionized players’ bold experiment folded.

But a clear message had been sent – and the business of baseball and American professional sports would never be the same.

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EPISODE #55: Russ Cline and the Birth of Modern-Day Indoor Box Lacrosse

Our first-ever (and long-overdue) exploration of the sport of professional lacrosse begins with a conversation with one of the godfathers of the modern indoor game, Russ Cline – founder (along with partner and fellow Kansas City sports promoter Chris Fritz) of 1987’s seminal four-team Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League (soon renamed the Major Indoor Lacrosse League) – and the progenitor of today’s vibrant National Lacrosse League that spans 11 cities across the US and Canada.

Cline walks obsessive inquisitor Tim Hanlon through: the duo’s rationale behind choosing lacrosse as the focus of their entrepreneurial efforts; the slow-growth approaches to expansion beyond the lacrosse-rich Northeast and national television coverage; the business model battle between single-entity and individually-owned franchises; and the delicate balance between maintaining the integrity of the sport’s rich history and marketing a hard-hitting, high-scoring, action-packed entertainment product.

Plus: playing surfaces borne of carpet remnants and Coca-Cola; robbing Philadelphia to pay Baltimore; becoming ESPN2’s first-ever scheduled pro league; and turning down a very tempting birthday gift!

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EPISODE #54: Effa Manley & the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles with Biographer Bob Luke

Baseball historian Bob Luke (The Most Famous Woman in Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues) joins host Tim Hanlon to delve into the intriguing story of the first (and still only) woman to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame – and the second Negro National League’s Newark Eagles franchise she successfully co-owned (with husband Abe) and general managed from 1936-48.  

A student of the sport since early childhood with a keen sense of promotion, marketing and player welfare, Manley blended a strong baseball operations IQ with a savvy aptitude for local politics and African-American community issues to become a dominant front office force in the Negro Leagues, and a persistent champion of player integration that ultimately transformed the white-male-dominated National and American “major” leagues in the late 1940s. 

Manley’s Eagles teams consistently performed well on the field and at the gate, and her deft management style culminated in a Negro World Series championship for the Eagles in 1946, and fueled the careers of no less than six eventual baseball Hall of Famers (Larry Doby, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Monte Irvin, Biz Mackey, and Willie Wells), as well as dozens of other players who soon found their way into the majors after the demise of the team and the Negro Leagues in the early 1950s.   

Manley, herself, gained Hall of Fame induction in 2006 – albeit posthumously – alongside a number of her fellow Negro League pioneers.

Thanks to Podfly, Audible and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for supporting this episode!

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EPISODE #53: NHL Hockey’s Minnesota North Stars with Author Adam Raider

In this week’s episode, we skate back to the National Hockey League’s 1967 “Great Expansion,” when the league ambitiously doubled in size from its “Original Six” to incorporate a half-dozen new franchises – including the seemingly most obvious and overdue market of all: the hockey-mad state of Minnesota and its cultural epicenter, Minneapolis-St.Paul. 

With a skilled management team led by amateur hockey pioneer Walter Bush, the Minnesota North Stars fielded a team-minded and quickly respectable squad of NHL journeymen, castoffs and amateurs that immediately won the hearts of the hometown Met Center faithful. 

By the mid-1970s, however, the North Stars had fallen on hard times, with perennially poor records and few playoff berths – until 1978, when, in an unprecedented arrangement, Cleveland Barons (née California Golden Seals) franchise owner-brothers Gordon and George Gund acquired the team and merged them.  Bolstered by an immediate influx of quality Barons like goaltender Gilles Meloche and forwards Al MacAdam and Mike Fidler – plus savvy acquisitions and draft picks like eventual Calder Cup-winning forward Bobby Smith, 1980 US Olympian (and Minnesota native) Neal Broten, and future Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli – the North Stars reeled off five straight winning seasons and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1980-81.

Author Adam Raider (Frozen in Time: A Minnesota North Stars History) joins the show to recount the club’s rise to championship contention, and subsequent relapse in the later 1980s/early 1990s – that ultimately saw: the Gunds trade for rights to a San Jose expansion franchise; Calgary Flames owner Norman Green opportunistically swap his interests for the North Stars; and, despite the addition of Mike Modano and a 1991 Stanley Cup Finals run, Green achieve villainy status (“Norm Sucks!”) by moving the team to Dallas in 1993.

If you are a fan of today’s NHL Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars or even San Jose Sharks, the story of the North Stars is an important part of your hockey education!

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EPISODE #52: The Wild & Wacky World Football League with Author Mark Speck - Part Two

We conclude our conversation with WFL researcher Mark Speck (WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League; World Football League Encyclopedia; . . .And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers), as we find the league limping its way through an inaugural 1974 campaign that featured two mid-season franchise relocations (Houston to Shreveport, and New York to Charlotte), two outright team collapses (Detroit and Jacksonville), dwindling attendance and TV ratings, the ousting of league founder/commissioner Gary Davidson – and a championship “World Bowl” between two cash-strapped finalists (Birmingham and Florida) that was only allowed to take place after the IRS agreed to accept the game’s gate receipts as payment for an overdue tax bill.

A return for an improbable second season in 1975 was made possible only by dissolving the league entirely and legally reconstituting into a second incarnation (inexplicably with the same name), under the stricture of resort developer/Hawaiians owner Chris Hemmeter’s eponymous operating plan that called for franchise deposit fees, limited budgets and player revenue-sharing based on business success.  But with no renewed national TV contract (TVS declined the option after Joe Namath spurned the Chicago Winds’ lucrative offer to jump), a now-highly suspicious fan base, and far less press coverage than the previous year’s spectacle, the “new” World Football League fared even worse – folding entirely and for good on October 22, 1975 – after just 13 weeks of play.

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WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League - buy book here

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. . . And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers - buy book here

Numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here

 

 

EPISODE #51: The Wild & Wacky World Football League with Author Mark Speck

Perhaps no defunct league in modern-day professional sports history endured a more ignominious storyline and spectacular demise than that of the World Football League – a uniquely disastrous attempt to establish a summer-into-autumn rival to the National Football League during the mid-1970’s.

Brimming with confidence from his co-founding exploits with two previous (and at the time, still very-much-alive) challenger pro circuits – the American Basketball Association in 1967, and the World Hockey Association in 1971 – WFL founder/commissioner Gary Davidson saw the 1974-era National Football League as the next logical target for his quintessentially anti-establishment sports management ambitions.  While the ABA and WHA both eventually yielded successful mergers of their most viable franchises into their established rivals, the World Football League quickly proved to be quite different – and, ultimately, Davidson’s professional and personal Waterloo.

The WFL initially succeeded in persuading dozens of NFL stars to jump leagues for its hastily-arranged summer 1974 launch, largely because the NFL had no free agency, and the promise of a legitimate alternative offered newfound leverage for players seeking to improve their market values.  Many who did jump, however, signed “futures” contracts that would only take effect after the expiration of their NFL deals – a proposition that became increasingly dubious as under-capitalized WFL franchises seemingly began shutting down almost as soon as they debuted.  And that was just the start of what quickly became a litany of insurmountable calamities (including scandalous admissions of widespread game attendance inflation) that befell and ultimately sank both Davidson, and then the league itself – not once, but twice in just two years.

We begin our exploration of this most head-scratching of professional leagues with the dean of WFL researchers Mark Speck (WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League; World Football League Encyclopedia; . . .And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams, and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers), in a gift of an episode that just keeps on giving!

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WIFFLE: The Wild, Zany and Sometimes Hilariously True Story of the World Football League - buy book here

World Football League Encyclopedia - buy book here

. . . And a Dollar Short: The Empty Promises, Broken Dreams and Somewhat-Less-Than-Comic Misadventures of the 1974 Florida Blazers - buy book here

Numerous photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here

EPISODE #50: National League Baseball’s Detroit Wolverines with Author Brian “Chip” Martin

While the Detroit Tigers hold the record as the oldest continuous one-name, one-city franchise in the American League (debuting as one of the league’s “Classic Eight” charter clubs in 1901), they were not the first team to play major league baseball in the Motor City.  That distinction actually goes to the Detroit Wolverines of the late 19th-century National League, which took to the field for the first time against the visiting Buffalo Bisons on May 2, 1881 in front of a curious crowd of 1,286 at Recreation Park – land now occupied by today’s Detroit Medical Center in the city’s Midtown.

Playing in what was then one of the best professional ballparks in America – and during a pre-automotive era when Detroit was known more sumptuously as the "Paris of the West" – the Wolverines traipsed through eight seasons of big league ball, including its final three under the brash and ambitious ownership of pharmaceutical baron Frederick Stearns that produced 1887 National League and “World Championship” titles, boasted a gaggle of the sport’s best players (including four eventual Hall of Famers), and rankled competing owners with unprecedentedly aggressive approaches to raiding talent and splitting gate receipts.

The Wolverines were also a product of their time: an era when baseball’s formative transition to professionalism was still rough and uncharted, players were rowdy and roguish, and owners were eager to profit by whatever means necessary – including collusively restricting player movement, a mechanism that would continue to haunt the sport well into the next millennium.

Author/journalist Brian “Chip” Martin (The Detroit Wolverines: The Rise and Wreck of a National League Champion) regales host Tim Hanlon with the curious tale of Detroit’s first and oft-forgotten major league baseball franchise.  Plus: the immortal "Pretzels" Getzein!

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EPISODE #49: “Rock & Roll” NASL Soccer with Author Ian Plenderleith

By many accounts, the North American Soccer League was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon in the history of the world game – and, during its 1970s heyday (although it began shakily in 1968 and ended in shambles after the 1984 season) – a league years ahead of its time.  More than just Pelé and the star-studded, bigger-than-life New York Cosmos, the NASL lured international soccer’s biggest names like Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, George Best, and Franz Beckenbauer to play the “beautiful game” the way it was meant to be played—uninhibited, and with fan-pleasing innovations like sudden-death overtime, a 35-yard-line offsides demarcation, tie-breaking shootouts, and a points system that incentivized scoring regardless of result.

For international players, the NASL provided a bright and shiny alternative (or at least, summertime off-season respite) to the drearily conservative and cynically defensive state of the European game of the day.  Plush modern stadiums, professional cheerleaders, pre-game tailgating, clever promotional marketing – and increasingly attractive, though eventually unsustainable salaries – made US pro soccer an irresistible proposition.  Until, of course, it inevitably crashed back down to Earth like a once high-flying rock star’s private jet – bankrupting not only the league’s investors, but also the sport’s future in America in the process.

Author Ian Plenderleith (Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss all the color and chaos of the world's first truly international league.

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Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League - buy book here

EPISODE #48: How the ABA’s Indiana Pacers Helped “Change the Game” – with Bob Netolicky & Robin Miller

Four-time American Basketball Association All-Star Bob Netolicky and former Indianapolis Star sportswriter Robin Miller join host Tim Hanlon to share some of their most memorable (and heretofore untold) first-person accounts of playing and traveling with the thrice-ABA-champion Indiana Pacers – and promote their upcoming book We Changed the Game, penned in partnership with original team co-founder/owner Dick Tinkham.

Despite three championships, five finals appearances and the strongest fan base in the league, the Pacers – and by extension, the ABA itself – barely survived a number of remarkably close calls and dire financial situations during their collective nine-year pre-NBA-merger existence that nearly sank both the franchise and the league more than once. 

Yet, in the end, the team and the city improbably (and inspirationally) rallied together to keep the team (and the league) afloat – to ultimately become one of the four surviving franchises in the landmark merger with the National Basketball Association in 1976, as well as a source of deep, lasting and transformational civic pride for the city of Indianapolis that lasts to this day.

In this revealing, eyebrow-raising conversation, Miller and “Neto” set the record straight on numerous Pacer and ABA mythologies, and wax nostalgically authoritative on what really happened during the first nine years of the team’s pre-NBA existence.

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EPISODE #47: US Pro Soccer’s 1960s-Era Rebirth with Author Dennis Seese

The history of professional soccer in the United States is richer and far more complex than today’s generation of Major League Soccer fans might realize.  Multiple ethnically-infused pro leagues existed as far back as the early 1900s – but when the American Soccer Association collapsed in Depression-Era 1933, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s when the next serious attempt to bring full-fledged, top-flight Division One professional soccer to US shores was pursued in earnest.

In 1966, suddenly and incredibly, no fewer than three separate groups of well-heeled American sports businessmen coalesced around the same idea, each attempting to draft off of attention-generating events like entrepreneur Bill Cox’s International Soccer League tournaments and NBC’s surprisingly high-rated, near-live national TV broadcast of the World Cup Final from England.

According to research librarian (and unwitting soccer historian) Dennis Seese (The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days of the United Soccer Association), it was a tumultuous revival that ultimately yielded two hastily-assembled competing leagues the following year – the FIFA-sanctioned United Soccer Association (featuring whole-cloth international clubs pseudonymously representing 12 American cities), and the “outlaw” National Professional Soccer League (boasting a national CBS television contract and a one-month-earlier start for its ten teams) –  that rushed to beat each other to the American public with their pro versions of the “world’s game.”

What resulted was near-disaster: sparse crowds, dubious refereeing, anemic ratings, and a shotgun post-season merger to form a successor North American Soccer League in 1968 – which, despite its inherited broadcast TV coverage and official international governing body approval, sputtered mightily itself.  By the end of the merged NASL’s first season, only five teams remained – and the future of American professional soccer was very much in doubt. 

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The Rebirth of Professional Soccer in America: The Strange Days of the United Soccer Association - buy book here

EPISODE #46: The United States Football League with Author Paul Reeths

For the first time since Episode #11, we return to the brief, but unforgettable streak of pro football lightning known as the United States Football League, with the author of its definitive history, Paul Reeths (The United States Football League, 1982-1986). 

The brainchild of New Orleans plywood manufacturer/car dealer/World Championship Tennis co-founder/Superdome director/art-and-antiques dealer David Dixon, the USFL splashily announced its intention to bring big-league, springtime professional football to 12 major markets, at New York’s famed “21” Club on May 11, 1982.  In short order, the league added its first commissioner (sports cable TV executive Chet Simmons), a landmark marquee player signing (Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker), and, most valuably, national television contracts with broadcaster ABC Sports and upstart cable network ESPN.

In this illuminating episode, Reeths recounts some of the most memorable (and unbelievable) events from the USFL’s subsequent three-season run – and ultimately Pyrrhic antitrust legal victory over the National Football League – including the:

  • Origins of the “Dixon Plan” and its foundational belief in the insatiable fan appetite for pro football beyond the confines of the NFL’s fall schedule;
  • Surprisingly common bond among the league’s deep-pocketed owner-founders, the alarmingly rapid rate with which many bailed after the inaugural season, and the large line of expansion owners ready to replace them;
  • Unwittingly fortuitous 1982 NFL player strike that gave oxygen to the USFL’s challenger narrative;
  • Swift and destabilizing impact of Donald Trump’s arrival to USFL ownership in the summer of 1983 – and the movement towards direct fall competition with the NFL; AND
  • “Successful” restraint-of-trade federal court verdicts that provided way too little, and far too late to save the league from collapse.

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The United States Football League: 1982-1986 - buy book here

EPISODE #45: The ABA’s Indiana Pacers with Sportswriter Mark Montieth – Part Two

Veteran sportswriter Mark Montieth (Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis) returns to the podcast (Episode #41) to help complete the story of the Indiana Pacers’ nine-year sojourn through the American Basketball Association – including its shaky transition into a merger-expanded NBA in 1976.  

Arguably the most stable and successful franchise in the ABA’s short but colorful history, the franchise nearly collapsed under its own weight after its inaugural National Basketball Association campaign – if not for a hastily arranged 1977 Independence Day weekend telethon fundraiser devised by head coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard and his wife Nancy, that miraculously saved the team and cemented its place in the Indianapolis cultural landscape.

Along the way, however, the ABA Pacers made indelible marks on both the city and the basketball establishment, including: barn-burning rivalries (especially with the Kentucky Colonels and Utah Stars); stellar local collegiate talent signings (including Purdue All-American and Sports Illustrated high school cover boy Rick Mount, and Indiana University standout and eventual Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer George McGinnis); a downtown-revitalizing, franchise-stabilizing, state-of-the-art Market Square Arena; and the acrobatic, yet distinctively ‘fro’ed Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, who just may have been able to leap high enough to nab quarters off the top of backboards, according to sportswriter legend.

Plus: Pacers general manager Mike Storen answers his own letter; Bob Netolicky secures a trade, then begs to come back; the WHA hockey Racers nearly sink the franchise; and why Indianapolis' Pacers made the NBA cut - but Louisville's Colonels did not.

Thank you Podfly, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Audible for supporting the show!

Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis - buy book here

EPISODE #44: Arena Football League Founder Jim Foster - Part Two

We conclude our two-part journey into the early history of the Arena Football League with founder and inventor Jim Foster, who recounts some of the most notable events of the league’s formative years – including a memorable 1987 “demonstration season” featuring:

  • The February debut “Showcase Game” in suburban Chicago’s Rosemont Horizon between the hometown Bruisers and the Miami Vise – highlights of which later dominated ESPN’s SportsCenter;  
  • A return to the Horizon for the first-ever nationally televised league match four months later (after a non-televised inaugural game the night before in Pittsburgh) – an overtime thriller that left fans, ESPN broadcasters, and league officials scrambling for the newly-written rule book;
  • The league’s first “Arena Bowl” championship game (won by the visiting Denver Dynamite) in front of a sold-out Pittsburgh Civic Center and a live national TV audience; AND
  • US patent filings (officially granted in the spring of 1990) protecting the original rules, play and configuration of arena football – and precluding potential competition (like 1989’s almost-World Indoor Football League) from stealing the concept.

Plus: the early dynasty of the Mike Illitch’s Detroit Drive; the holier-than-thou genius of coaching legend Tim Marcum; Des Moines gets a team; what happens when a ball gets stuck in the goalpost during the run of play; and can today's Arena Football League be saved?

Thanks to Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Podfly for their support of this week’s show!

EPISODE #43: Arena Football League Founder Jim Foster

As the new year beckons, the fate of the Arena Football League – one of America’s most innovative modern-day professional sports concepts – hangs in the balance.  With only four teams (the mutually-owned Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade, defending champion Philadelphia Soul, and a still-unnamed Albany, NY squad) confirmed for the upcoming 2018 season, the AFL will play with exactly the same number of franchises that comprised its inaugural “demonstration” season back in 1987 – and a mere fraction of the 19 clubs that competed during its heyday in the early-to-mid 2000s.

Much has happened to the league and the sport during those 30+ years, of course – and few doubt that the unique (and once-patented) excitement of arena football won’t eventually find a sustainable business model and a return to long-term stability. 

In the interim, however, we delve into how it all began, with the first of our two-part interview with Iowa native Jim Foster – the inventor of arena football and the founder of the original Arena Football League – who takes host Tim Hanlon on rollicking excursion across the uncharted sports terrain of the 1970s and 80s that led to both the birth of a sport and the launch of a professional league, including: 

  • Exporting professional American football to Europe decades before the NFL;
  • Discovering fans’ year-long appetite for pro football via the USFL;
  • Scribbling parameters for “indoor football” on a manila envelope while attending the 1981 MISL All-Star Game;
  • Tinkering on a shoestring with facilities, equipment, rules, and approaches to TV broadcast coverage;
  • Tapping into the nostalgia and cost economics of two-way players, as well as the fan appeal of “run-and-shoot” offensive action; AND
  • Defending the notion of centrally-controlled league ownership from franchise-hungry charter owners.

This week’s episode is sponsored by SportsHistoryCollectibles.com , Audible and Podfly.