THE DECLINE OF THE SHRINE : Is There a Future for Event? : Back in Rose Bowl and Out on a Limb

Times Staff Writer

John Huarte, Mike Garrett, Jim Plunkett . . .

A list of players from past Shrine All-Star High School Football games reads like a who's who in professional football.

. . . Vince Ferragamo, John Elway, Lee Grosscup, Daryle Lamonica, Craig Morton, Lynn Swann, Pat Haden . . .

Memories. If only the Shriners of Al Malaikah and El Bekal temples could run the game on memories.

But they can't.

For all the Shriners' attempts to pump new life into a tired format, by kickoff time next Saturday night at 7 in the Rose Bowl, the 50 collegiate All-Americans, 3 Heisman Trophy winners and 200 professional football players who have played in the game won't have much to say about its future.

Its success won't hinge on a pregame rock concert, the inauguration of a Shrine hall of fame, the introduction of former USC coach John McKay or even this year's final score.

The game's future may well be determined in the bleachers, as Shriners cast anxious eyes on the number of people who show up.

Poor attendance in the last decade has put a squeeze on profits, which go to the Los Angeles Unit of the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children. The football game is the primary charity event for the hospital, and attendance this season is crucial.

"There will be no Shrine game next year if this one doesn't go through," said Jerry Weiner, the game's publicity director.

The Shrine high school game has struggled in a sports-saturated market. But Al Malaikah officials say that the problems of declining attendance that spurred an organizational review of game management should not be a factor Saturday. After weeks of preparations, their tone is positive.

"We'll have upwards of 30,000," Weiner predicted.

In 1957, the game was played before 85,931 at the Coliseum. Some Shriners say they'd like to see a crowd of at least 40,000 at Saturday's game, which is what the game averaged in the late 1960s. A turnout of fewer than 20,000 may kill it.

But organizers are optimistic, having already set Aug. 1 as the date for next year's game.

"Things are humming now," said Dom Domino, the game's managing director.

There were doubts that the Shriners would sponsor another game after two consecutive debacles.

The event was canceled 11 days before it was to have been played in 1984 when a dispute arose between the Shriners and the Tournament of Roses Assn. over the availability of the Rose Bowl.

Last year, the game was played at East Los Angeles College where, according to Weiner, "It hit rock bottom." Attendance was announced at 9,000, but that figure was a guess, since the East L.A. stadium has no turnstiles. Some say the actual attendance was closer to 4,000.

"We tried everything we could think of to drum up interest last year," said Gil Chesterson, the game's publicity director from 1977-85. "Nothing worked. It was frustrating."

Buddy Dyer of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles and a member of the game's first player selection committee said simply: "Last year's game was a disaster."

There were internal problems in 1985, as well. When practice opened last year, 10% of the players failed to show up for drills. There also was criticism of players being poorly prepared for the game. Then, a week before kickoff, Shriners discovered that game jerseys had never been ordered. Replacements were hurriedly borrowed from Cal State Long Beach and Pierce College.

"In 1985, I walked out at halftime," Weiner said. "The game was a waste of time."

Faced with correcting the problems or dropping the game, key Shriners say privately that they might have looked differently on continuing the annual event had the Rose Bowl not offered two rent-free games to Al Malaikah in exchange for the temple's dropping a breach-of-contract suit against the stadium. But Shriners still see the game as a risk.

"Going ahead with this year's game is a gamble," said Ed Trusel, football chairman of Al Malaikah. "We rode on the name of the game for many years, but last year we were on the border, whether to cut the game or make it grow."

Said Davis B. Leonard, first ceremonial master of Al Malaikah and next year's game chairman: "From 8,000 to 9,000 people in the stands last year to 100,000 seats (to fill) in the Rose Bowl--we've got a long way to go."

There were concerns from other Shriners.

"To be frank, this game has declined," said Fred Guitierrez, El Bekal football chairman whose Anaheim-Long Beach area temple has split sponsorship of the game with Al Malaikah for several seasons.

When the high school game got its start as a clone of the successful collegiate game, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and the Angels were about a decade away from existence. Television was in its infancy, and West Coast newspapers made regional heroes of high school athletes.

"In 1952, when this game began, this was a different city," Dyer said.

More televised coverage of sporting events and increased exposure to professional teams have added competition for the spectator's time and money. In addition, the proliferation of regional high school all-star games in Southern California has taken much of the luster off the Shrine game in both the eyes of the spectator and the player.

"This conflict with community games is a perplexing thing for the Shriners," Dyer said. "There's no appreciable way to remedy that."

The California Masonic Code also prohibits temples from purchasing advertising. That puts the Shrine game in a one-dimensional battle for "free media," stories generated by press releases or independently by reporters.

"We have to gamble on getting in the eye of the public," Trusel said.

Trusel added, however, that the Shrine organization has one benefit other groups do not.

"We have 28,000 salesmen out there. All of them are Shriners with tickets to sell in their pockets."

In the language of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Al Malaikah means the angels. With a $4.5-million annual budget, "the Shrine hotel," as Leonard calls it, has always held an angelic position in the lives of most Shriners. In 1984, the hospital received $56,000 in donations from individual members even though the game was canceled. Last year, it raised $64,600.

"That shows that the money is still there for the game," Dyer said. "The Shriners just haven't done a good job of selling those tickets."

Al Malaikah officials admit that it's one thing to sell 20,000 tickets to Shriners throughout California, but it's another to get them to show up. Shriners have routinely bought tickets because they wanted to contribute, not because they wanted to attend the game.

"Even when you raise money like we did last year, you'd like to have a crowd for the players to play for," Al Malaikah Recorder Ken Boucher said.

In 1985, the net proceeds to the hospital amounted to 47% of the game's gross, well below the 51% minimum stipulated for charity events by state Masonic codes.

"Whatever you make, it's not wasted money, but we do have guidelines," Boucher said.

Shriners have also had trouble separating themselves from the business and pleasure aspects of running a charity event. By the 1960s, the game had become an annual spectacle. It was profitable and it served as a showcase for Shrine marching bands, drill teams and entertainment acts.

Like many fund raisers, it was as much a party as a charity event. As Davis said, "Shriners are just guys out for fun."

Domino agreed. "This (game) is a big moment for us."

Sometimes, though, the party attitude put Shriners at odds with the goals of the game. Booze flowed like water in the press box of the Coliseum in 1973, while vendors below were restricted by law to selling only soft drinks.

That party attitude might have had an effect on organizational structure in recent years.

"Since Shriners volunteer to work the games, the continuity wasn't there from year to year," Chesterson said. "That made it difficult for me."

What internal continuity the game could develop might have allowed time to pass it by.

"One of the glaring errors of the Shrine members is that they have supported the game just about the same every year," Dyer said. "Now, the Shriners have got to get into the community."

When they settled with the Rose Bowl, the Shriners figured that they had to improve the image of the game by becoming more aggressive in search of media coverage.

Weiner, who had been involved with the game off and on since its beginning, was hired as its paid publicity chairman. In the last month, he has staged press conferences in Fresno, San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County and several cities in the Los Angeles area. Temple members have frequently called upon former Shrine players who went on to successful careers in college and the pros as guest speakers.

To accommodate NCAA rules that restrict the dates that coaches can attend pre-college all-star games, Shriners switched the game to August from late July and are billing the game as a pre-college event. Team rosters were expanded from 56 to 60 players, and Shriners also returned to an all-state format for the first time since 1973.

Before 1974, the event took advantage of a natural state political rivalry, pitting athletes from the northern part of the state against those from the south. Citing economic considerations associated with travel expenses, the Shrine decided after 1973 to have teams of players from Southern California only. Shriners admit now that the change confused potential spectators.

"The move to an all-Southern California game made the game a second-class event in a very competitive sports market," Weiner said.

To facilitate the return to an all-state format, the athlete selection committee invited Pac-10 coaches to nominate prospects and leaned heavily on the advice of Super Prep and Collegiate Sports magazines. The result is that 17 of the nation's top 100 football players, as rated by Max Emfinger of the National Scouting Service of Houston, accepted invitations to play.

Communication with athletes and coaches has been increased. North Coaches Max Miller of Rancho Cordova and Tim Simons of Clovis West have canvassed Northern California. South Coaches Bob Baiz of Claremont, Harry Welch of Canyon Country Canyon, and Jim Brownfield of Pasadena Muir have done the same in the south.

Radio station KDAY will carry the live broadcast, and Prime Ticket has agreed to show a delayed telecast.

"It's not just another post-high school all-star game," Weiner said. "This group (of Shriners) is going for the top of the ladder. They're not going backward."

The gate count Saturday will tell if the game goes forward.

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