L.A. Is a Tough Arena for Indoor Football : Cobras Are Still Making Some Gains Despite Competition for Sports Dollar

Times Staff Writer

As the Cobras enter the Arena Football playoffs tonight, an obvious question is: Has indoor football caught on in Los Angeles?

The answer is not easy and the factors are multiple. But there are several things to look at:

HISTORY

One factor that the Cobras have against them is that Los Angeles has not been kind to new pro football franchises. There have been four professional teams that have made Los Angeles their first home prior to the Cobras. None of them are left.

First, there were the Dons, who started in 1946 as one of the original eight teams in the All-American Football Conference. They played four seasons in the Coliseum with Ben Lindheimer as the owner.

Attendance-wise, the Dons did OK, despite competing with the National Football League's Rams, who also moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland in '46. But the Dons failed to survive as Lindheimer's overbidding for players apparently helped lead to the team's downfall. The Dons folded after the 1949 season, when the AAFC merged with the NFL.

The Chargers, who now call San Diego their home, started in 1960, as one of the eight charter members of the American Football League in Los Angeles. They played one season before mostly empty seats at the Coliseum before moving south.

The Southern California Sun, was one of the original 12 World Football League teams in 1974. After playing one full season in Anaheim Stadium, the Sun and the WFL folded after 12 games, not completing the 1975 season.

The Express, which also played in the Coliseum, was one of the original 12 teams in the United States Football League. The Express existed for three spring seasons, with moderate success in its first season when it averaged 19,001 a game. However, like the Dons, the Express suffered when it started signing players to big-money contracts. The Express folded after the 1985 season, when it averaged 8,415 fans a game and played its final home game at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

SEASON RECAP

With history of survival going against them, the Cobras still had a productive inaugural season. After an 0-3 start, the Cobras are in the playoffs, going 5-3-1 over their last 9 games. They finished the regular season on a high, defeating and tying the first-place Chicago Bruisers in their last two games.

"Our main goal this season was to make the playoffs," said Cobra Coach Ray Willsey, who was an assistant coach with the Raiders for 10 years. "We did not have great expectations going into the season, but we still wanted to be successful."

The Cobras got off to a late start in forming as a team, having their first tryout camp only one month before their first scheduled regular-season game on April 30. Of the six Arena teams, the Cobras were the last to recruit potential players.

"Despite our late start, we've done well," said Willsey. We have improved every day, from the players, to the coaches, to the administrative people."

Last year, the Arena Football League played a preview season--with four teams playing four games each. The average attendance was 11,279. This season--with each team playing 12 games--the average attendance was 8,513 a game, and the Cobras averaged 7,507.

The Cobras lost their opening game at home to the New York Knights, before 10,157. However, in their next two home games their attendance went down to 6,236 and 5,278, respectfully.

As the Cobras got better, their attendance remained below average until the last game of the season, when a season-high crowd of 10,263 showed up to watch the Cobras play the Bruisers to a 37-37 tie.

One fan at the final game who had more than an ordinary interest in the game, was Jim Foster, inventor of Arena Football and commissioner of the league. Foster, who has worked in the NFL, USFL and Major Indoor Soccer League, was in town to showcase Arena Football to potential expansion owners.

"I couldn't be more pleased to see what has developed in Los Angeles," Foster said. "We knew going in, that L.A. was a tough market. But, under difficult circumstances, (Cobra General Manager) Mike Hope and (Cobra media director) Bruce Dworshak have done an excellent job. We projected that all of the teams would lose money at first. But, by their third season they should be able to break even, and Los Angeles is right on target."

However, many factors have played against the Cobras' first season. For almost two-thirds of their season, they had to compete against the Lakers' playoff run. The Cobras also had their own schedule going against them, playing half of their home games on weeknights.

"We lost a good portion of our fans by playing on Thursday nights (because of the lack of availability of the Sports Arena)," said Hope, who has worked for the Clippers and with the USFL's Express. "Through market surveys, we now know that almost one-third of our fans came from outside of Los Angeles, and 20% came from Orange County alone. We lost those fans to traffic when we played on Thursday nights."

Despite some of the Cobras problems, the principle owner of the team, Byron Lasky, is pleased with his first season in Arena Football.

"I have had more fun with this team than I ever thought I would have in my life," said Lasky, who has had his share of drawbacks with the Cobras. "It has cost me more money than I expected because the league's expenses were higher and the average attendance was not what I anticipated. However, I am just thrilled to be involved with Arena Football because everyone has been so great."

FUTURE

It is still early, but the Cobras' future looks bright to those involved.

Said Foster: "We have a good product (in Arena Football), that is fun and exciting. We are not competing with the NFL, but we do want to complement the NFL. The Cobras are not in competition for Raider fans.

"We hope to add four more teams to the league next year, with one team in Denver and another team on the West Coast, maybe in San Francisco, San Diego or Sacramento. Remember, we realize that we are not an overnight sensation and that we have a long way to go."

Said Lasky: "We've all learned from this season that Arena Football has special demands to everyone involved. You have to be optimistic that everything will get better, because we are all working to play on the same page." For Cobra players such as Cliff Branch and Nick Mike-Mayer, who have years of NFL experience, Arena Football provides an alternative near the end of their careers, rather than leaving the sport. It also serves as a opportunity for players overlooked by the NFL, despite the difference in salaries.

"Even though the pay scale is not like the NFL's ($1,000 a game) an athlete is given the opportunity to play when they didn't get a chance in the NFL," Branch said. "You have better athletes in this league who now get to show off their abilities."

Said Mike-Mayer: "It's a chance for players to develop to the point where they could make it in the NFL. They get a chance to play in front of fans who really enjoy what they are seeing and get paid for it."

Foster does not see any major changes in the salaries of the players. "We are not trying to (shortchange) the players, but in order for the league not to have substantial losses, player salaries won't increase much more. Since we'll never keep a player from playing in the NFL, we'll probably have a high turnover in player personnel for a while."

CONCLUSION

Considering all of the factors, the Cobras have had moderate success in their first season in Los Angeles. The people involved with Arena Football are excited about its future. To many, Branch makes an accurate statement when he says, "Arena Football is here to stay."

But it is still uncertain how many fans will come back in 1989.

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