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WRINKLE IN TWINKLE : Beleaguered but Still Champions, Starlites Find a New Home in Bren Center

Times Staff Writer

Today’s brain teaser in crisis management: the Los Angeles Starlites.

The Starlites are entering their third year and in that time they’ve managed to be everything that is good and bad in Major League Volleyball, the fledgling women’s professional league.

They’ve won all the championships the league has held, two, and have been, by all accounts, the worst-run franchise.

“I don’t think you could have run a team any worse if you tried,” said Al Gasparian, Starlites coach.

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The team is under new, and from all indications, better management this season.

“Things are 100% better,” Gasparian said. “I really think we have a chance now.”

Not like you’ve been losing any sleep over this. This is probably the first you’ve heard of this team. They attracted about 3,000 people in 11 home games last season, or about as many people who show up for a mediocre high school football game on a mediocre Friday night.

So, why does a team that’s so good put up with being treated so poorly? The Starlites have been the best this league has had to offer, with a 36-8 regular-season record the past two seasons, and consequently have been the league’s biggest draw . . . on the road.

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When they played against the Minnesota Monarchs last year in Minneapolis, they jammed 3,000 people in a gym that held 2,800 and turned away 700 at the door.

The week before, Minnesota played in Los Angeles in front of about 200.

“They say L.A. only watches a winner,” said Linda Vivas, league commissioner. “Well, we have a winner in L.A. that no one watches.”

This season, the Los Angeles Starlites will play all their home games at UC Irvine’s Bren Center. So what else is new, Rams’ fans?

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The Bren Center is a clean, well-lighted place, “the best we could find,” said George Corey, one of the Starlites’ four owners.

The Starlites’ management believes that Orange County can save them. The county regularly turns out a healthy chunk of the nation’s top young volleyball talent. Volleyball is a popular activity in the county, especially on the beach. But does that translate into paying customers?

“A lot of people play racquetball, but how many are going to pay to watch,” said Dale Keough-Hall, Starlites outside hitter.

Indeed, it may be that people would rather play than watch.

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“They’re not only competing with the Lakers and the Clippers, but also the weather,” said Lee Meade, Minnesota general manager. “I think we’d have a tough time if it was 70 degrees here. Sometimes there’s an advantage to cold weather.”

The Starlites open their season tonight at 7:30 against the Portland Spikers in the Bren Center, a 5,000-seat arena that Corey admits “is really more than we can afford ($2,000 a night), but we’ve got to make a stand here.”

Said Gary Coffey, Starlites general manager: “If we’re not going to be successful in the Bren Center, we’ll probably never be successful here.”

Now, as if this team doesn’t have enough problems, let’s take a look at the big picture. It’s part of a new sports league, and new sports leagues traditionally do atrocious. New professional women’s sports leagues do even worse.

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Women’s tennis is very successful, women’s golf gets by, but professional women’s team sports? Forget about it.

And a new team trying to make it in Orange County? Say uncle.

A quick peek in Orange County’s hall of defamed reveals the California Sun (World Football League), Anaheim Amigos (American Basketball Assn.), Anaheim Oranges (World Team Tennis) and California Surf (North American Soccer League).

Women’s leagues? There has been women’s basketball (California Dreams) and softball (Orange County Lionettes) as well as co-ed flops in tennis (Anaheim Oranges) and, yes, volleyball (Orange County Stars).

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Why do the Starlites think they’re any different? Well, from early indications, they’re not. Major League Volleyball started in 1986 with a single corporate entity running all six teams. Each team was given a general manager and a public relations director and told to address all its problems to the league office in Northern California. For some teams, the situation worked out fine.

For others . . .

The Starlites never secured a home arena. They played at Golden West College, Loyola Marymount and Cal State Long Beach, sometimes without a whispering of a warning.

“There were times when if you didn’t know someone directly involved with the team there was no way you could have known where we were playing,” Gasparian said.

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The team couldn’t find sponsors or a local television station to broadcast a game or two. Things got so bad last season that the team almost pulled up stakes and headed to Stockton, a town that wildly supports the hometown University of the Pacific women’s volleyball team.

“I thought it would have been the right move, I still do,” said Jon Hastings, editor of Volleyball Monthly magazine. “They (league officials) want Los Angeles because it’s a big market. But Stockton is going to support that team. I think the league is still viable without L.A., I think the important thing is that every team gets support.”

Before this season, the teams were sold to individual owners. Vivas said the teams were sold for $125,000 each, except for Los Angeles, which went for less because it had done so poorly at the box office.

The fact is that the league wants the Starlites in Los Angeles. One of the league’s top priorities is gaining national corporate sponsorship and Stockton isn’t the enough carrot you want to wiggle in front of General Motors.

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“Obviously we would like to keep the team in the bigger market to attract the bigger sponsors,” Vivas said. “Although it figures to hurt us in attendance.”

Right now, the league seems ready to incur slow times in the Southland. Reception to the league, though not spectacular, has been good. League and team officials believe that women’s volleyball is the one team sport that compares favorably with the men’s game.

They point out that women’s basketball suffers because players can’t dunk, but, with the net eight-inches lower for women, they can spike with all the fury of the men. Because rallies in women’s matches tend to go longer, with more digging of spikes, they believe their game has more to offer the paying customer.

Maybe they’re right. The league has a national television contract with ESPN. It appears that Minnesota--which led the league attendance last season with 22,000--and the San Jose Golddiggers will break even this season, an impressive accomplishment for teams in just their third year of existence. There’s talk about two teams being added for next season. Vivas said Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis and Stockton are the front-runners.

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Of the other current teams--Portland, New York and Chicago--each has sponsorship and has worked out various local television and/or radio deals.

But the Starlites? Corey says he and his partners will “lose twice as much money as we originally thought.”

How much is that? Corey isn’t saying exactly, just that, “it’s a lot by anyone’s standards.”

The Starlites have no sponsors, no television deal. The present management didn’t take hold until September and, “there just wasn’t the time to get work a deal with a sponsor for their upcoming budget,” Coffey said.

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Optimistically, Coffey has started courting sponsors for next season.

Will that be necessary? Vivas says the league will look at what develops this season and see, “which (L.A. or a smaller market) is more advantageous.”

If things remain status quo, that will be a no-brainer.


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