Our Little Secret

The ABAs and Anaheim Surf attempt to do what few OC teams can: Survive

To say the least. A challenge battling apathy, especially in Southern California, where no one gets excited whether the NFL comes or goes. A challenge to engage a region, Orange County, where professional sports at any level has yet to prove they really belong ("What time is the Mighty Ducks game?" "What time can you get here?").

The county has been the final resting place for all manner of sports franchises ranging from the World Football League Southern California Sun, minor-league baseball and men's and women's soccer to men's and women's volleyball, team tennis, men's and women's basketball, and roller hockey. All of them saw the numbers, a county of significant size—2.8 million—with people who make lots of money, are active and sports-minded. Add to that the fact it's bordered by Riverside County and its 1.5 million and that the neighboring greater Long Beach area adds close to another million. Then there are the tourists drawn by the theme parks, the beaches and the conventions at, hello, the Anaheim Convention Center. It seems a can't-miss. But they all have.

In fact, the Surf isn't even the first ABA team to try. Back in 1967, the Anaheim Amigos lasted one season, setting records for turnovers, low attendance and pissing off players who didn't get paid. The Amigos were like the rest: ignored while they lasted; forgotten as soon as they were gone. The general manager of the management group that bought the team and moved it to LA said, "The Amigos have been buried, and we burned their uniforms."

And so it goes.

When you see Surf players such as Long Beach State's Juaquin Hawkins (a late training-camp cut by both the Lakers and Clippers) or former Atlanta Hawk Fred Vinson playing hard, you understand their payoff: the Surf's best player, Joe Crispin, was called up by the Phoenix Suns earlier this season. But when you see the front office workers doing two and three jobs, you wonder if their labor doesn't tread over from laudable to foolhardy. Why risk the energy on Orange County? Forget about minor-league sports—the county has already lost one NFL team and has been passed over by at least three NBA teams. The once-popular Ducks play to a half-filled Pond and the Angels, mentioned as a possible victim of contraction, are notable for playing in a venue where hometown fans are regularly outnumbered and outshouted by the opposing team's rooters.

Chase and George Jr. say you battle all that with low prices—the best ticket in the house is just $20, the lowest $4. You offer an entertaining brand of basketball and players that are willing—at the team's insistence—to sign autographs and pose for pictures. You bring in high school bands, you have high school players compete in shooting contests, and you get the Anaheim cops to play the Anaheim fireman in a pregame event.

"We're not selling basketball," Chase says. "We're selling affordable family entertainment."

"It's all about taking care of the fans," says George Jr., who regularly presses the flesh with the fans.

This is a lesson he did not learn from his father. George Sr. once owned the Seattle Mariners, something that gave the old man none of the joy his son gets from the Surf.

"It wasn't like he talked about it," George Jr. says. "One day, he came home and told us at the dining room table that he just bought the Seattle Mariners. I said, 'What's that? A high school team?'"

George Sr. was a disaster as an owner. When, in 1994, Seattle Times sportswriter Bob Finnigan listed the 10 worst days in Mariners history, Argyros's purchase of the team ranked No. 2, just behind the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series. George Sr.'s main problem as an owner—and why he is reviled to this day in the Northwest—was that he was an absentee owner who lived in Southern California and seemed interested only in sucking as much money out of the franchise as possible.

Having learned his lessons from dad, George Jr. is the most visible team official at every home game. But is that enough?

Lee Hamilton, host of the popular Sportsnight radio show on XTRA-AM 690—which he broadcasts several times per month from Orange County locations—said he believes it may be enough. The reason most teams don't make it in OC, he says, is poor management. "When the Ducks were winning you couldn't get in the building," he notes. But he allows that the county has special challenges.

"I think Orange County is a fractured market," he says. "You've got bad transportation across the county, especially going from east to west, which makes it very difficult to draw from Riverside. I think you've got a Hispanic community that has yet to be mined. Still, I think if the right product is there, the people will come."

Of course, people have to know the product exists, and that's a problem in Orange County, where because of its place between LA and San Diego, doesn't have a major television outlet. Much smaller markets, in fact, have much more TV coverage, while Orange County is relegated to news bureaus from the major local TV stations. Local outlet KDOC will broadcast some games, but those games are as popular with the viewers as you'd expect for a station that constantly broadcasts Perry Mason.

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