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WAS PIERCE HALF--EMPTY OR HALF--FULL : Fate of Express Experiment in the Valley Depends on the Impression of a Few Men in Stands: Potential Owners

Times Staff Writer

The people of the San Fernando Valley have done their part, and in the process have become pawns in the United States Football League’s struggle to survive.

The USFL vitally needs a team in the Los Angeles area, and the estimated crowd of 8,200 that showed up on short notice at Pierce College on Saturday to watch two also-ran teams in a second-class league demonstrated the feasibility of a professional sports franchise in the Valley.

“It’s easy to see the potential there,” Express General Manager Don Klosterman said. “There are a lot of ifs, but the college is in an excellent location. It’s basically in the heart of the Valley and with the Warner Center (a new business center in Woodland Hills) it could be a fabulous opportunity for a team.

“The USFL’s television agreement dictates that there be a Los Angeles team in the league, and the Valley is the only untapped market in Los Angeles. (USFL Commissioner) Harry Usher has reaffirmed that position all along.

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“There are still so many questions, the bureaucracy we’d have to go through to restructure the stadium at the college, but the possibility certainly exists.”

Bob O’Connor, athletic director at Pierce, took an active part in the shift of the Express game with the Arizona Outlaws.

O’Connor believes the Express, Pierce College and the Valley all could benefit from a permanent agreement.

“It could not only save the Express, but Pierce and the community college district would make money on the deal, too,” O’Connor said. “We could use the money in our athletic department and the district certainly can, too, because it’s way in the hole financially. The Valley in general, everybody, would profit from it.

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“A blind man could see the potential here. The Express people impressed me. Don Klosterman is as good a front office man as there is in football and Dick Berg is a quality guy. They’ve got everything they need except a receptive audience, and I think the Valley would adopt any team that came in here.”

Three prospective buyers, who have remained unnamed, reportedly were at the game. The Outlaws won, 21-10, but the contest itself was secondary to the crowd and its reaction.

Klosterman reported that interest in the Express has increased.

“I talked to one interested party at the game and another one since then, and they were impressed,” Klosterman said. “I’m going to meet with one of them this week. I’ve also had calls from other people who want to come in and talk about the team. Of course, we’ll have to run checks on them to see how qualified they are.

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“Nobody’s going to come in and buy the team until the season’s over. Why would they put their money up now when they could wait until the season’s over? It would cost them roughly $400,000 for the last week. It would be foolish.

“But I think next March is the deadline.”

That’s an obvious timetable, since the USFL is moving from a spring to a fall season in 1986. Each team must have 35 players under contract and pay them half of their salary next spring even though the season won’t begin until the fall.

USFL Commissioner Harry Usher, who has operated the team all season, would like to see a final disposition much sooner.

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“I wasn’t there, but quoting an authority no less than my wife, who was there with my son, I heard it was a lively crowd that was enjoying itself,” Usher said. “Our financial situation there is obvious and we have zero marketing budget. We spent nothing.

“But we drew a crowd of 8,200 and I’m told there may have been more. We collected real dollars. That’s refreshing.

“We think football is a real possibility in the Valley and this is a starter of a fan base. This is a nice showing. It’s important that we have a team in Los Angeles, the second-largest media market by a long shot. Several possible owners were in attendance but I haven’t talked with them since the game.

“I hope I can tell you a lot more within the next 30 days.”

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Klosterman has been on this end before, in 1960, with the American Football League. He was an executive with the Los Angeles Chargers, who moved to San Diego after one season and became part of one of the great sports success stories.

He thinks it can happen again.

“When we moved to San Diego, a lot of people said, ‘We don’t want the Chargers,’ ” Klosterman said. “Look what happened. When they built Youell Field in Oakland for the Raiders it was a joke; everybody laughed at it. Look what it became.

“You have to have vision to see downstream. If they can work it out in the Valley, I think it could be the salvation of the league.”

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