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Commentary : Shivering Pup Looks for Shelter

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Express is seeking shelter. It’s a football team that has been knocked down and kicked around--physically, financially and emotionally. It’s weary and despondent and might even be taking in its final breaths.

It’s looking for help. It begs for the comfort and warmth of an owner but, beyond that, it yearns for a place and purpose.

If the Express showed up on your doorstep one rainy night, you’d feel sorry for it.

Probably, if you were wise, you’d leave it there and hope it disappeared by morning. Taking it in would mean plenty of headaches and heartaches.

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Nursing it back to health, healing its many wounds, would take time and money. A lot of time and money.

But the Express, with no where else to turn, has plopped its weary bones down on the porch of this community.

It would love nothing more than to call the San Fernando Valley its home.

It would love nothing more than to leave its troubled past behind and start anew.

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While L.A. might be Frank Sinatra’s lady, she sings only the blues for the Express.

Never in its three-year history has this team been in a worse state. The Express, ravaged by injuries and a lethargy caused by an uncertain future, is 3-7. This is the team all the experts raved about less than a year ago. It was defeated, 51-0, two weeks ago by the Denver Gold. Thirteen U.S. Football League owners pitched in around $500,000 apiece to keep this team afloat because they saw it as a vital link to success and credibility. But never has there been less interest among fans. And morale, after hitting bottom a couple weeks ago, is only up a bit after last week’s victory on the field and this week’s victory in a meeting room in Teaneck, N.J.

Every budget cut, every layoff and every 6,000-fan turnout at the Coliseum serves as a reminder that this team’s future, if there is any, probably lies elsewhere.

The Valley seems the logical refuge, an area with 2 million people but no professional team to call its own.

The Express, certainly, would be willing to move. It would be silly for this team not to consider a change in venue.

It’s clear that spring football in L.A. has failed miserably. See if you detect a trend: The team averaged 21,376 fans in 1983, 13,977 last season and 11,514 through five games this season. The Express’ largest crowd was 34,002 for its first-ever game in 1983. Its smallest was 5,637 for a home game against Baltimore earlier this season.

“If we’d be welcomed out there, we’d love to be out there,” said Richard Stevens, Express chairman of the board.

But, the question is, should the Valley open its arms and take in the Express like some shivering pup?

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Can it ignore the team’s woeful past and look only blindly toward the future?

Before considering this enormous gamble, a prospective owner must consider the variables and consequences.

Will the financially weakened league even make it to next season? If it does, can it compete against the National Football League and its television revenue now that it has decided to move its schedule to the fall? The USFL has already been advised that ABC television will not pick up its TV option.

And isn’t this league starting to reek of the defunct World Football League?

The San Antonio Gunslingers have missed payroll payments. When coaches walked into President Bud Hahn’s office to complain about late checks, they found him climbing out the window.

The Birmingham Stallions are near financial ruin. The league operates the Express and has provided financial assistance to the Houston Gamblers.

And before anyone moves a team to the Valley, consider:

League attendance is down more than 6% from this time last season. Television ratings have dropped off 24%.

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Talk about moving the Express to the Valley escalated when the team drew 6,000 for a scrimmage at Pierce College earlier this season. Six thousand may not seem like a lot, but consider that one Express home game earlier this season drew 5,637 at the Coliseum.

Pierce College’s stadium is not a major league facility. And even if it were expanded, would there be a team around by the time it was finished? Usher thinks that, with a little elbow grease, it can slowly be developed into a workable complex by next season.

“Pierce College is a natural little bowl that you could turn into 25,000 seats,” Usher said. “But it’s a major undertaking. I don’t know if it (the support) is there. But if a new owner comes in, it’ll be up to the new owner. This is an idea, not a mandate.”

Two weeks ago, United States Football League Commissioner Harry Usher flew to Los Angeles and met with three prospective buyers of the Express.

One, Los Angeles businessman Jack Needleman, said if he bought the team he would keep it in the Coliseum. Now that the league will move to fall, that possibility seems remote.

Usher thinks the future of this franchise is in the Valley.

“The question is, ‘Can L.A. support three teams in the fall?’ ” Usher said. “Based on our spring experience, you’d have to think we’d be out of our gourds. But we feel there are a large number of people in the Valley who went to see the Rams but aren’t attracted to go to the Coliseum to see the Raiders.”

Those who have followed the league and Express might deem this wishful thinking.

You can speculate on the reasons why the Express hasn’t made it in Los Angeles. Some say that this town demands a winner, and this team hasn’t been a winner. The Express was 8-10 its first year and 11-9 last year, but was 3-6 at one point. This year’s team, at 3-7, has been an embarrassment.

Others claim that the Los Angeles market is already saturated with sports franchises and the Express should have never considered it possible to compete with the Dodgers, Angels and the beach in the spring.

But there is another factor the people in the Valley should consider before making the Express a part of their lives.

It’s a simple word called commitment. In sports, stability tends to beget credibility.

But the Express has never allowed its fans a chance to rally behind it.

It’s a team that’s been in a constant state of flux.

Only five players--Tony Boddie, Mike Durrette, Wymon Henderson, Mike Sherrod and Eddie Weaver--remain from the team’s opening-day roster in 1983. Keith Gilbertson is the only original coach remaining. Public relations director Bob Rose and controller Paul Sandrock are the two survivors of the front office.

How could anyone identify with this team?

The Express put quarterback Tom Ramsey on their pocket schedule last season just in time to announce that he had been traded to the Oakland Invaders.

Charter owners Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon left the scene after the first year and actually reaped a $2-million profit. Coach Hugh Campbell left for the Houston Oilers.

J. William Oldenburg purchased the team in the second year and professed to be a billionaire. He eventually became the target of a federal investigation for alleged business irregularities. The league took over control of the team last July.

Hardly a way to kick off a season-ticket campaign.

With owners and players running through this team’s revolving door, it is no wonder the Express raises eyebrows in town. Postgame concerts and prize and ticket giveaways have not been the answer.

Instability in the front office has spread to the field.

The Express have some of the finer collection of young talent around. The Express won the Pacific Division last season and returned with the same team intact.

But the recent 51-0 loss says it all.

“It’s been very difficult for the players,” Express President Don Klosterman said. “There’s been so many damn distractions with all the rumors abounding that we’re going to fold or merge. It’s very disconcerting for a a bunch of young men just brought together. Just take a look at them. Last year, they were wildly enthusiastic. It’s taken its toll.”

So who, on earth, would take a chance with such a team?

Stevens and Klosterman said the prospective buyers are guys who like to turn around situations that seem hopeless.

“This one party prides himself in being a turnaround artist,” Stevens said. “For some people, that’s the way they enjoy life. It’ll be a challenge.”

But let the buyer beware.

Perhaps there is hope for this team in the Valley. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

THE EXPRESS: 3 YEARS IN L.A.

Year Avg. Attendance Record 1983 21,376 8-10 1984 13,977 11-9 1985 11,514 3-7

Largest crowd: 34,002 for first game in 1983. Smallest crowd: 5,637 for April 7 game against Baltimore. Exhibition game in February at Pierce College drew standing-room-only crowd of 6,000. Five players, two executives and one coach remain from original team.


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