By J Hutcherson
2 Nov 2000 (Internetsoccer) — Lee Stern’s office is a shrine to the Chicago Sting, almost literally. In his waiting room, the Sting’s two championship trophies flank the ball used in the ’81 Soccer Bowl. The walls of the office are lined with framed newspaper clippings, telling the story of the Sting’s golden years.
I couldn’t help but think what it must be like for the commodities brokers he employs, surrounded by the history of a legendary club that hasn’t played an outdoor game since walking off the field in Toronto as champions 16 years ago.
Stern himself is an overwhelmingly kind man, freely giving of his time and his memories and a pleasure to talk to. Eventually, our conversation turned to the wider issues facing the North American Soccer League and the man Stern believes was capable of saving the league.
JH: The NASL Players’ Union was constantly at odds with the league. What were the effects of the players’ strike and the work stoppage?
LS: That probably had more to do with the demise of the North American Soccer League than anything else. We spent so much time and so much money on battling the Union. The league wasn’t ready for the Union, and if the NFL had had a union in the 1950’s or early 1960’s they would’ve never been able to get started. John Kerr, he was the guy and he’s still causing problems! There’s a lawsuit going on now (the MLS suit), they’re in Federal Court, and it’s all backed by the NFL Players’ Association. Which is idiotic.
The Union forced the cancellation of the indoor season one year, where we could only play the American teams, we couldn’t play the Canadian teams. It was the worst case of Union interference that I’ve ever seen. Now what they’re doing, they’ve cooked the goose that laid the golden egg, and my guess is that if they (the league) lose the case, they’ll fold the league.
JH: When Howard Samuels came in as commissioner, he sued the NFL and got a dollar in damages, just like the USFL.
LS: Yeah, we got a dollar in damages. If I remember correctly, we ended up filing an appeal that was heard by the same judge. The NFL then agreed… at that point in time there were only three or four of us left and we would’ve had to fund the suit. We ended up settling and the NFL ended up paying our legal fees which were into seven figures.
JH: The day after the 1981 Soccer Bowl Washington, Atlanta, and California all folded. Dallas became part of Tampa Bay and Calgary became part of Edmonton. What did that do to the atmosphere… you know you just won a championship and the next day the league takes a hit like that.
LS: Well, I’ll tell you a story that’s never been told and if it has nobody’s printed it. We’d had a meeting… half a dozen of the major owners and we wanted to put together a ten-team league. Take the ten top teams out of there and ala the NFL have one game (day) a week. National television… Sonny Werblin guaranteed it would get national television. At that time he was head of Madison Square Garden Corporation. They had owned the Washington Diplomats. And unfortunately, we couldn’t pull it off.
At any rate, out of 21 teams, 14 were left for the ’82 season. Montreal was there too. They had done a tremendous job in marketing up there. You had the Sting, you had Montreal, you had the Cosmos, the Blizzard, the Strikers, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay Rowdies… they figured they’d get a couple of people from California. And it never came to pass.
JH: The plan for restructuring the league after the ’81 season. Was NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam involved?
LS: Well, I tell you what. I was on a committee along with Nesuhi Ertegun of the Cosmos to find a new commissioner. We were upset over the fact that we had spent a year with a restructuring committee which included Clive Toye (Toronto Blizzard president), George Strawbridge (Tampa Bay Rowdies owner), myself.
We spent every weekend for six months putting together a plan. We had a professional come in to guide us on how to do it, to put together an organizational package, and Phil never paid attention to it. He just never paid attention to it. We talked about not expanding, and Phil was always wanting to expand to get more revenue form the sale of the expansion team.
The other thing was to concentrate on regional television, not on national. Nobody cared whether Tulsa played Fort Lauderdale. I was chairman of the executive committee at the time and we decided to start a search (for a new commissioner), Nesuhi Ertegun and myself, and it was rather interesting.
What happened was, Nesuhi was walking down the street one day and ran into Howard Samuels. Now Howard Samuels had just put together off-track betting. He and his brother had invented the baggie, which they had sold to Mobile back in the 50’s. He was independently wealthy. He knew a lot about soccer. He was assistant secretary of commerce. So anyway, he’s walking down the street and he runs into Samuels.
He has a little conversation and then he says “We’re looking for a commissioner for the soccer league. Can you suggest somebody, do you have any ideas?” Right on the street! And Samuels says “What’s the matter with me?” And Ertegun asked him what he was talking about and he says “Ah, I’m not doing anything. It sounds interesting.” And he was a wonderful, wonderful man. I think had he been….
He had stayed with me down at my home in Florida, he had given a speech at some convention and he was complaining of pains and stuff like that. And I said “For crying out loud go to the doctor.” “Nah, he said, I’m gonna go.” Now he was a heavy cigarette smoker, a little overweight but not that much and I call him up one day and ask him “Have you been to the doctor?” I was really worried about him. And he said “I’m gonna go.”
Hadn’t been yet, this is three or four weeks later. And I got a call from Ted Howard and he said to me “Lee, something terrible has happened.” And the first thing I said was “Howard Samuels?” He died on the tennis court.
I think if he had been able to stay on, I think the league probably would have survived. I think he would have done a brand-new business plan, and it would have survived.
JH: The Sting won the last game in NASL history, game two of the 1984 Championship Series in Toronto. Did you have any indication that that was going to be it?
LS: I felt that way. Clive Toye who was in Toronto at the time was trying to keep the league alive. I think the league folded later on, but there was nobody else. Warner Communications dropped out, I dropped out, Joe Robbie dropped out… So there was, nah, there was no question about it.
J Hutcherson: How did you get involved with the North American Soccer League? Were you approached to buy a team?
Lee Stern: I was involved at the time with an attempt to buy the New Orleans Saints football team in the NFL with a group, and that deal fell through because of the problems with the ownership at that time in New Orleans. And I was advised to not put any money into it or to try it from that standpoint. So, for whatever reason, my sons got me interested in soccer. I made a couple of phone calls to Phil Woosnam, and I ended up flying to Texas to meet with Lamar Hunt.
I had a plan, and I thought that probably a million dollars and within five years we would be breaking even. Unfortunately, I had to do more five year plans… like the Russians. And of course, it was a lot more than a million dollars. It was probably close to 15 million over the course of the 14 years that the Sting was in existence.
JH: So how long did it take to get the team together?
LS: I went to Europe with George Fishwick who was past president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and his name was mentioned to me by (NASL commissioner) Phil Woosnam.
So George came on as a volunteer more or less and he was my mentor in the beginning. And we went to England in December, because I remember being there just before Christmas and I interviewed several coaches, several people for it. We thought we were gonna hire Vic Crow, and later, that first year he ended up as the coach of Portland. I ended up hiring Bill Foulkes who was a former Manchester United captain.
At any rate, so that was our first year and we put together a team of English third division players, second division players. Then we were fortunate enough to get a 19-year-old by the name of Gordon Hill. We really didn’t have our regular team together for the opening and we played up in Vancouver. I didn’t go up there for the first game. Lost one to nothing, I think on penalty kicks and I know Willy Roy missed an open goal.
JH: So let’s talk about September ’81 when the Sting played San Diego at Comiskey Park and almost drew 40,000.
LS: There may have been… we’ll never know how many people were there. It’s kind of interesting. We had sold about 17,000 tickets in advance for that game. And we figured we’d probably sell, we had a walkup… I think our biggest walkup was at Wrigley Field one game where we had about 15,000, so we figured we’d probably have about 35. We were hoping for 30,000.
At about three o’clock in the afternoon the rains came. The winds shifted and it went from about 75 degrees to about 45 degrees in nothing flat. And we decided at that point and time that if we were lucky we’d probably have a lot of no-shows and that’s how bad the weather was. And we certainly didn’t expect a walkup. So we cut back on our security forces. Well, we ended up with over 40,000.
I think we said 39,000 and something. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house and a lot of people got in through the gate that didn’t buy tickets. And we just weren’t prepared for it. And that was really one of the great games. Anybody who ever says a 0-0 game is boring should have seen that game.
We sold about 8,000 tickets out of our office for the (championship vs. the Cosmos) game in Toronto…. And then we went up there 35,000 fans, bad field… astro-turf field….
My guess was had we played a best out of three we would’ve seen 50,000 at Comiskey Park, I forget what the capacity was, and 78,000 at Giants Stadium. And then if you had a third game you would’ve had three sellouts. And I think we would’ve got a better shot at national television. As it was they delayed things. The game was delayed on television, 10:30pm in Chicago and the next day around the rest of the country.
JH: When the team came back to Chicago as champions, what were the crowds like at the airport?
LS: It was incredible. The police estimated 10,000 people at the airport. We didn’t expect them. They were all down the ramps and the side of the terminal. Nobody expected it. It was really amazing.
And then Mayor Byrne had a parade down LaSalle Street, started at the Board of Trade building, down LaSalle Street and went over to Daley Plaza where they had a big thing at Daley Plaza. And at Daley Plaza they couldn’t squeeze one more person in. The Bulls could not have had more people at Daley Plaza. We had expected that year… we probably should have won it or at least been in the finals in 1980, with that team.
JH: In August of ’84, you announced that the Sting were going to join the MISL and in September you announced the club’s withdrawal from the NASL. Then you went on to win the championship.
LS: That was a championship we never expected.
The funny part is that we played the Cosmos the last game of the season, and the winner would have had seed number one, and the loser would have been out of the playoffs. It was 0-0 and Granitza had played a horrendous game and was being booed all over the field. And with a minute and a half to go, he scored a world-class goal, winning the game and putting us into the playoffs.