From today's Times-Picayune:A COMMITMENT AFOOT
Despite failure by two previous soccer franchises, lagging attendance and financial loss, Shell Shockers owners forge on for love of the sport
Friday, July 14, 2006
By Pierce W. Huff
It's about 45 minutes before the start of a Shell Shockers home game, and fans are slowly entering Muss Bertolino Stadium in Kenner. It appears it's going to be another medium-sized crowd at best, with couplings of spectators spaced on the home side of the high school football stadium.
On the pitch, the Shell Shockers are getting ready for another match. The door opens to one of two team dressing rooms adjacent to the field, and the players jog out with coach/co-owner Kenny Farrell briskly walking behind them.
The team is young. One player is a college student who doubles as coach of the Ben Franklin High School boys soccer team. Another player is a senior on Jesuit's high school soccer team. Another is the manager for a company that sells rugs and fabrics. About all the players have in common is that none are paid and all care about the team.
Soccer has captured the attention of the world, especially with the recent World Cup. But the bare-bones, stripped-down approach of the Shell Shockers barely has registered a blip on the radar screen of the average, local sports fan.
Still, the owners of the Shell Shockers have dreams and aspirations of long-term success. But how does an organization move forward when it cannot escape a city's past? New Orleans has never embraced soccer. The question is, will it ever?
The Shell Shockers have lost money in three of their four seasons, but co-owner Michael Balluff said the team has a plan to break even next year and turn its first profit the year after next.
"The goal of this team, at least my goal, is not to make a profit, but to promote soccer," Balluff said.
And Balluff is convinced that semi-pro and professional soccer is here to stay.
"Soccer is going to stick around, regardless of the profit margin," he said. "If it's not me as an owner, then it will be someone else."
Past soccer failures
The New Orleans Gamblers and the New Orleans Storm. Remember them? Those are the names of the two failed New Orleans soccer teams of the past 10 years.
The Gamblers and Storm played in the old A-League, a professional, nationwide soccer league that was one level below Major League Soccer. The Gamblers played at Pan American Stadium and Tad Gormley from 1993 to 1997; the franchise became the Storm and moved to Zephyr Field in 1998 and 1999.
The teams had their share of successful players. Former Gamblers player Jason Kreis of Mandeville was the MVP in Major League Soccer in 1999. Former Storm player Stern John was a member of this year's Trinidad and Tobago's World Cup team.
But the Storm and the Gamblers lost money every season despite averaging between 1,800 and 2,000 fans per home match.
New Orleans businessman and former mayoral candidate Rob Couhig, who owned the Storm as well as Triple-A baseball's Zephyrs, wouldn't say how much money he lost on the team but did say "it was a lot."
Couhig said the Storm made the playoffs one year, and still lost money.
"We had to pay to put the team on the plane, and we had to pay the money for getting a last-minute flight, and then we had to pay the players for an extra week of playing," he said.
Couhig put the Storm at Zephyr Field when he owned the Zephyrs, but it was not a natural fit. There also were initial problems with finding the right turf for the soccer matches.
"As good a place as Zephyr Field was, it was bad because the configuration was bad for soccer," said Brother Martin soccer coach Louie Smothermon, who played for the Gamblers in 1997 and 1998 and coached the team in 1999.
Smothermon said there were plenty of reasons why the A-League franchises failed. He said the Storm and the Gamblers didn't have the right venue for their games, and the teams didn't have enough of a following.
I think the underlying reason was that people were not made aware of the team, because the number of fans at the games could not support the cost to run the operation," Smothermon said.
A different plan
It's a strange partnership that revitalized soccer in New Orleans and paved the way for the birth of the Shell Shockers.
Gary Ostroske, an outgoing, barrell-chested guy, is the president of the Greater New Orleans chapter of the United Way.
Kenny Farrell, an Irishman who came to the United States in his late 20s because he saw soccer as an opportunity for a better way of life, is a long-time local coach and the former director of coaching at Lafreniere Park.
Farrell coached Ostroske's son, Peter, on the seventh- and eighth-grade soccer teams at Newman. Peter Ostroske also played for Farrell at the New Orleans Soccer Academy. Farrell and Gary Ostroske became good friends.
When Farrell was at Lafreniere, he and Gary Ostroske tried to pitch the idea for a layered plan that would keep locals playing soccer after high school and that of club soccer to the park's board of directors. The plan was for Lafreniere to get involved with the United Soccer Leagues and have a team in the Premier Development League.
The advantage of playing in the PDL and not an upper-level, professional league, Gary Ostroske and Farrell argued, was that the PDL team owner would not be saddled with the cost of paying players. Therefore, the key to making the new team successful would be getting the word out about the team through marketing, then finding a venue suitable for fans.
After a year or so of looking into the idea, Lafreniere's board of directors balked. But instead of letting the dream for another level of soccer in New Orleans fade away, Ostroske and Farrell decided to buy a PDL team themselves, and the Shell Shockers were born in 2003.
"For me, it's all about the passion and drive of soccer," Farrell said.
The cost for starting the Shell Shockers was $40,000, Farrell said, and it took an additional $15,000 to run it that first year. The team also reached an agreement with City Park to play all of its matches at Pan American Stadium.
"We both paid down between $10,000 and $12,000, and we got a business plan and found some sponsors," Ostroske said.
Playing in spite of Katrina
There were some doubts as to whether the Shell Shockers would be able to play in their fourth season, their first after Hurricane Katrina.
There were questions about how many soccer fans returned to New Orleans. Pan American was damaged and still doesn't have electricity. Ostroske and Farrell wanted the Shell Shockers to play another season, but they were leery about mounting debts.
What the Shell Shockers needed was an infusion of energy and talent, and they found it in Balluff, a 37-year-old owner of a local telecommunications company. He had attended Shell Shockers games with his son, Trenton, and had developed a friendship with Farrell and Ostroske.
Farrell and Ostroske asked Balluff before the start of the season if he wanted to invest in the Shell Shockers, and Balluff, the co-captain of Jesuit's 1987 state championship soccer team, jumped at the chance.
"I'm the 37-year-old owner of a very successful telecommunications company, and at the end of the day, our actions define us as people," Balluff said. "I wanted my life to be better, and purchasing a part of the Shell Shockers presents that for myself, and this is the opportunity for a good fit."
Ostroske said Balluff was "a godsend."
With Balluff on board, the Shell Shockers tried to renovate Pan American for $1 million to become the team's permanent home site, but the deal was shot down by City Park officials. The Shell Shockers eventually worked out a deal with Kenner and Jefferson Parish to play their games at Muss Bertolino Stadium, a few miles north of the airport.
The Shell Shockers also purchased the Riverside Indoor Soccer Arena, which was made the training site for the team and the home of its administration. The team also worked out a development deal with the New Orleans Soccer Academy to make the league a part of its player development plan.
"I don't know what we would have done without (Balluff)," Ostroske said. "You have to have a love of the sport, and Mike happened to be there."
A tough sell
Like the Storm and Gamblers before them, the Shell Shockers have struggled financially.
The team lost $35,000 its first season and $25,000 its second season, Farrell said. Ostroske and Farrell took out a loan to keep the team afloat. Ostroske said the team broke even for the first time last year. He said the Shell Shockers aren't expected to make a profit this season because of the Riverside acquisition.
The major problem for the Shell Shockers has been attendance. The team has never averaged more than 900 fans per home match. The team had an average attendance of 711 in its first season, 278 in 2004 and 600 last year. The team averages between 800 and 900 this season.
The Shell Shockers divide their attendance demographics into thirds -- one-third being the Hispanic community, one-third being youth groups and one-third European-born New Orleanians. Ostroske said he would like for the Shell Shockers to average 2,500 to 5,000 fans, but said that isn't likely to happen any time soon.
Shell Shockers representatives blame part of the attendance problem on the failure to secure a better stadium deal, because they believe a good venue would attract more fans. The team would like to play at Pan American next season because of its central location, or stay at Muss Bertolino if a deal cannot be worked out with City Park for Pan American.
Balluff said the Shell Shockers have to do a better job of marketing.
"We have to make sure that people are aware of the games and that we're attracting the soccer fans," Balluff said.
But even with the financial losses, the owners are determined to keep the Shell Shockers playing.
"We had to put a lot on the line for this team, and we did because we believe in it," Farrell said. "We just need to get the community behind this team."
Can soccer succeed in New Orleans? No one can really agree on an answer.
"I think things are only going to get bigger," said Shell Shockers defender Alec Lundberg. "You have to start from the ground up, when you get people excited about soccer, because you have a lot of kids and families."
Smothermon said the sport can thrive in New Orleans. He said the key is finding the right venue and producing a good level of soccer.
But Jesuit soccer coach Hubie Collins said he isn't sure.
"I'd love to see a high standard of professional soccer in New Orleans with the city having a (minor-league pro team) or Major League Soccer team, but I don't know if the demographics would allow it," Collins said.
The Shell Shockers' owners would love to bring an MLS team to New Orleans in the next few years, but right now they are just concerned about surviving.
The team's plan is to build a fan base at the ground level, with their recent deal with the New Orleans Soccer Academy a key part of it.
For now, the Shell Shockers have no plans of leaving the Premier Developmental League, which has 58 teams throughout the U.S. and one in Canada.
"The (PDL) league that we have is good here, because this allows a lot of the young players here to play on the team," Farrell said.
Farrell also said he and the rest of the Shell Shockers' owners will work on a one-year plan and a five-year plan at the end of the season.
"We've got to create a vision to share with people of where we are and where we want to be," he said.
And then maybe the fans will come and Shell Shockers soccer will really catch on.
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Pierce W. Huff can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3809.