Charlotte News

October 24, 1975

By Ron Green

'We Just Ran Out Of Time'

Upton Bell, president and general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, says he resisted the folding yesterday of the World Football League.

"We just ran out of time," he said.

Suffering from what League President Chris Hemmeter called s "backlash" of last season's financial and credibility problems and a failure to lure big-name players from the rival National Football League in any number, the WFL failed to draw enough fan support and went under yesterday.

The decision to cease operations midway through the league's second season was made in an hour long conference telephone call linking Hemmeter with the franchise cities. The conference began at 2:30p.m.

In a press conference yesterday afternoon, during which he appeared at one point near tears, Bell said, "Charlotte was not part of that vote to cease operations. We were willing to go on.

"We JUST RAN out of time. We thought it was damn worthwhile."

He later pointed out that the Hornets, who average 10,880 fans for four home games this season, were "just getting into the meat of our home schedule, where we stood to make some money." He had said earlier that an average attendance of 12,000 was needed to break even.

The Hornets had five home games remaining, including games with Birmingham and Memphis, the league's two top attractions. With a special sale of 8,000 tickets at a reduced price of $2 per ticket already completed, the Hornets had sold 12,400 for their game with the Hawaiians here Saturday night, Bell said. He added that he expected as many as 20,000 for that game.

After Bell acquired the financial troubled New York Stars and moved them here as the Charlotte Hornets last year, the club had an average of 22,128 for four home games at 25,000-seat Memorial Stadium.

This year, however, attendance sagged. There were only 7,500 on hand for the Hornets' last home game on October 12. Only 1,293 saw them in Philadelphia last Saturday night. Their biggest home crowd was 17,000 for their game with Southern California on September 27. The league average 13,300 per game and attendance was down 28 percent over the last five weeks.

Bell said the Hornets would have "stuck it out the rest of the year" and then made a decision whether to continue but he said some other franchises, which he declined to name, "felt they would take a tremendous beating in their communities."

"Some felt we couldn't live week by week," he said. "But I've lived day by day, week by week for a year and a half and I wouldn't quit."

A LISTING of investors in the team as of July showed Bell to be the chief among some 300 with $70,000 invested. The total investment at that time was $429,700. Investors included Mayor John Belk, North Carolina National Bank Chairman Luther Hodges Jr. and other prominent business and civic leaders. Richard E. Thigpen Jr. an attorney for the team said any funds left over after the Hornets bills are paid will be distributed to the investors. Although this year's WFL had pledged to pay off the debts of the 1974 league, Thigpen said, "There's no relationship between this year and last year and any surplus funds would belong to this year's investors."

No plans have been made on refunding money to ticket holders, Bell said.

He declined to answer most questions regarding the financial situation saying, "I haven't had time to get into that. This was so sudden. An inventory will be set up in the near future.

When asked what final, decisive blow killed the league and put some 380 players as well as coaches and staff members out of work, Bell refused to say. Asked if the San Antonio team's threatened financial collapse was the last straw, Bell said it was not but wouldn't comment further on the subject.

Hemmeter, who devised a plan that saved the league from almost certain death last winter with a financial formula that tied player salaries to ticket sales blamed poor attendance.

He said the governors of the franchises "came to the realization that the ability of the World Football League to penetrate its markets to the extent necessary to make the WFL a success would most likely require two or more years of operation with total capital requirements of 25 to 40 million dollars" and decided it would be an unwise investment in view of an unstable economy, continuing inflation, no assurance of national television revenues and "a softening market for new leagues in professional sports."

The Associated Press said the decision to fold the league was nearly reached 10 days ago when club officials met in New York but, at Hemmeter's urging, they decided to try one more week to see if new attempts to sell tickets would work. Bell refused to confirm or deny this report.

THE VOTE TO FOLD was reportedly 6-4 with Charlotte, San Antonio, Memphis and Jacksonville the teams voting to continue operating.

Bell said he entered into the conference call yesterday with a positive attitude. "But it sounded like some people had already made up their minds," he said.

After the decision was reached, Bell telephoned Head Coach Bob Gibson at practice and instructed him to inform the players that it was all over. Bell planned to meet with the team today and said he would attempt to help players find jobs.

Bell, a Boston investor who encountered almost constant problems in establishing a solid financial and credibility base here, says he has not changed his opinion of the area as a prime location for a pro football franchise.

He called it the last great untapped area for pro sports in the country.

"I still think this area is ripe for pro football," he said yesterday.

"Charlotte should have no complex about supporting pro sports. It's still the best area in the country. I hope the people here get another chance. They deserve it."