Berg: If There Is a Sellout, There May Be a Sale
The Dallas area had been wracked by a tornado. Families had been left homeless. Lives had been lost.
Dick Berg, at the time the general manager of the Dallas Tornado of the North American Soccer League, had an idea.
Why not have Tornado cheerleaders go out to the victims’ homes and hand out free tickets? Call the press in and have them take a picture. The caption can read: “Nobody should be a complete loser from a Tornado.”
“It took us about an hour to talk him out of that one,” said Paul Ridings, former Tornado publicity director, recalling the 1977 incident the other day. “He was a wild man with some wild ideas.”
Berg, 41, isn’t as wild now, but he’s still trying to fill seats.
He’s a marketing consultant who was brought in last month by the United States Football League to pave the way for the Los Angeles Express as it ventures into the Valley.
The ownerless, league-supported Express, hoping to interest potential buyers in itself and the Valley, will meet the Arizona Outlaws in its final home game of the 1985 season Saturday at Pierce College.
The chance to sell professional football to the Valley was one of Berg’s conditions for taking the job.
“If the team had stayed in the Coliseum,” he said, “I wouldn’t be involved.”
The man loves a challenge.
The photographer wanted him to pose with an Express helmet, so Berg happily made the necessary calls to get one delivered.
Moments later, a man walked in with the requested prop.
“Who are you?” he asked Berg.
“Who am I? I’m Dick Berg.”
“I’m Sam Gruneisen, one of the coaches.”
Berg couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’s the way it is around the Express most of the year,” he said, turning to a visitor. “There have been so many people revolving through here--players, coaches, management.”
The latest is Berg, who was hired by USFL Commissioner Harry Usher after Express Chairman of the Board Richard S. Stevens suffered a heart attack.
Berg is the first to admit that Saturday’s game is not a great attraction--the Express is 3-13 and the Wranglers are 7-9.
He’s selling the game as a chance for Valley residents to demonstrate their support for professional football, no matter what form it may take.
“I don’t get the feeling right now that the game itself is a factor,” he said. “If we were playing for a playoff spot, sure, it would be an extra selling point. But (the game) doesn’t seem to be a negative.
“There seems to be this feeling (in the Valley) of wanting a franchise, as if any franchise they get would become theirs. . . .
“Any expansion area seems to lust for a franchise, knowing that it’s not going to be a good team. In a way, that’s the same mood I see out there. They’re not saying, ‘We want a team only if it’s going to be a championship team.’
“They’re saying, ‘We’d just like to get on the map.’ ”
Berg has been down this road before.
When he was general manager of the Tornado, he convinced owner Lamar Hunt to move the team from 65,000-seat Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, to 21,000-seat Ownby Stadium on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Attendance more than tripled the first year.
“The small stadium worked,” he said. “It created a great atmosphere. I think we’ll create a lot of the same feelings in the Valley.”
A former Stanford quarterback from Puyallup, Wash., Berg was introduced to the business side of sports when he worked part time for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce while attending law school at the University of Washington in the mid-1960s.
He lobbied for the bond issue that built the Kingdome.
He then got into promotions, working for the Seattle SuperSonics of the National Basketball Assn., the Seattle Rangers of the Continental Football League and the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League. During his three years as promotions director in San Francisco, the 49ers moved from Kezar Stadium to Candlestick Park, although Berg pushed for a move to San Jose.
In 1974, he was hired as general manager of the San Jose Earthquakes of the North American Soccer League.
With Berg providing a party atmosphere, the Earthquakes were one of the league’s biggest success stories. They drew an average of 16,576 to an 18,500-seat stadium in their first season. The next season, they averaged 17,929.
Berg made the games “a happening, a spectacle,” said Fred Guzman, publicity director for the Earthquakes and a former sportswriter for the San Jose Mercury News.
“A lot of people accused him of making the game almost secondary,” Guzman said, “but his idea was to make everybody have a good time, whether they enjoyed the sport or not.”
He did the same thing in Dallas.
“His idea was, an empty seat isn’t going to buy a program or a bag of popcorn,” Ridings said.
And he was a tireless worker.
“He’s the kind of guy who a franchise can stand for only about two or three years,” Ridings said. “He was an idea guy and like any idea guy, he had some good ideas and some bad ideas.”
Among Berg’s promotions was Howard Hughes Will Night, in which each fan was given an authentic copy of Hughes’ will.
The Hughes in question was a member of the Dallas Parachute Club, who was to parachute into the stadium at halftime and call out a number. The fan with the same number on his copy of the will would win a trip to the Bahamas.
But the game started late and Hughes, not wanting to jump after dark, came down during the first half. Trying to avoid the players, he broke his back as he landed, but he had a hand in helping the Tornado increase its average attendance from 4,638 during its last season in Texas Stadium to 16,511 in its second season at Ownby.
At other games, Berg had elephants and lions kick out the first ball. Players rode into the stadium on horseback.
Once, when he realized a few days beforehand that he would not have enough security for a scheduled on-the-field money scramble, Berg double-billed the event as Law Enforcement Night. Enough officers showed up to ring the field with patrol cars.
“He’s the kind of guy you’d want to have give you his ideas at a Monday meeting and then lock him up the rest of the week,” Ridings said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be the business manager, trying to figure out what he was doing.”
After two years in Dallas and one more in the NASL--he was a part-owner of the Oakland Stompers in 1978--Berg got out of the business.
He spent 13 months traveling around the United States in a motor home, putting some 50,000 miles on the odometer, meeting his second wife--they live in Hacienda Heights with three children from previous marriages--and gathering enough information for a book, “Eavesdropping America,” which he wrote with Glenn Dickey, sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
It includes a chapter on Chappaquiddick, Berg said, “which many think is the definitive story of what happened that night.” The book also includes an interview with the security guard who discovered the Watergate burglars. Berg found the former security guard, he said, “in a shack in Georgia.”
With the book completed in 1981, Berg was hired by Usher to work for the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee. It was in that capacity that he met Stevens.
In fact, he had an appointment to meet with Stevens on the day Stevens had his heart attack.
At the hospital, Berg recalled, “I said, ‘Gee, Dick, whatever I can do to help'--the standard line--and about a week later Harry Usher called and said, ‘Help.’ ”
So, for about two weeks now, that is what he’s been trying to do.
His style involves a lot of palm-pressing, he said.
“My whole idea of marketing is person to person, talking to people,” he said. “It was the only way we could sell soccer, and it may be what we have to do to sell this. A lot of players think that all you have to do is say, ‘We’re here,’ and the people will come. I think our players have learned this year that that’s not true.
“The best in the business are the Dodgers and they’re everywhere. They go in person.”
One advantage he has in selling this week’s game, Berg said, is “we’re coming to a new area that seems like they really do want this. . . .
“There seems to be a little bit of a buzz that the time is now for the Valley to add this to their environment. They’ve grown up a lot out there in the last five years. . . .
“Orange County 25 years ago had to make the step and they didn’t have as many people then as the Valley does now. And sports today are a lot more sophisticated, more a part of our everyday life.”
Berg said a crowd of 10,000 Saturday would show “real interest. We’ve been down in the threes (thousands). This thing has been dead in the Coliseum. Ten (thousand) would certainly encourage any of the prospective owners. . . .
“But I don’t want anybody to think there’s a threat on--that they have to attend this game if they want to have a franchise.”
He said five groups of potential buyers will be at the game.
Will it be a minor-league setting? Temporary bleachers have increased the stadium capacity from about 5,200 to 15,000.
“Having 1,000 people in the Coliseum is about as minor league as you can get,” he said. “You do a little stadium with a lot of people--if, indeed, it fills up--and it’s a great atmosphere. You almost forget: The Raiders used to play at Frank Youell Field, which seated 14,000 (actually, it seated more than 20,000). Was the AFL minor league? I’d say the AFL in its first two years was pretty similar to the USFL in its present setting.”
If the Express is successful in the Valley, Berg believes, officials from other major-league sports will consider moving into the area.
Said Berg: “The formula fits: population, drive time, families, financial base, business base. It’s all there. If you wanted to pick a spot in the United States . . . it’s a very attractive site.
“They talk about traffic problems out there, which qualifies them for the big time. They might as well have sports to go with it.”