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"Years past -- especially last year -- it seemed like nobody knew we were playing," says Doran.
At the end of last season, the Steamers' ownership group, headed by Mike Shanahan Jr., announced its intention to either fold the team or sell it, resolving to put their money into the River Otters, a St. Charles-based minor-league hockey franchise. This rankled minority owner Patrick Oldani, who made it his mission to keep the franchise afloat by courting prospective new owners.
"Ultimately, their plan was, 'Fuck indoor soccer, we'll just run the River Otters,'" says Oldani. "They didn't do any billboard promotion -- they didn't do anything. It wasn't my goal to be part of a second-tier hockey team, so the quest was to find somebody else."
That quest took Oldani to the Gumball 3000, a transcontinental road rally that alternates between American and overseas courses each May. During last year's race (from Paris to Cannes, via Marrakesh), he and his co-driver, Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist), borrowed a camcorder from Hetelson, a fellow participant.
"They wouldn't give it back to me," recounts Hetelson, who drove a customized Chevy SSR pickup he claims reached 224 miles per hour in Spain. "I kept e-mailing [Patrick] trying to get it back, and he kept sending me messages about the Steamers."
Somehow Hetelson, a lifelong polo enthusiast who has been a soccer fan "for about four months," saw potential where everyone else saw a money pit. He and golfing buddy Wally Smerconish, a Philly-based real estate developer, paid the league an undisclosed franchise fee for the rights to operate the Steamers. (Hetelson and Smerconish are technically shareholders in the league, a privilege for which they pay annual dues. In turn, they reap all profits from home ticket sales, merchandise and other Steamer-specific ventures.) The club's annual operating budget is $3 million. That's the highest in the league -- more a reflection of Hetelson's "go big or go home" management philosophy than the cost of doing business in the St. Louis media market.
"I love their history," explains Hetelson, who commutes from his home in the Philadelphia area to each and every Steamers game, home or away. "It seemed like a challenge to take what was probably the worst professional sports franchise in America last year. Less than 1,500 average attendance, most penalties, least goals: This was the worst team, on and off the field."
Confesses partner Smerconish: "I had never seen a soccer game, and neither had Michael. I was a quarterback in high school and hated soccer players. They got all the hippie chicks who hung out near the art room. I still don't forgive them for that. Those girls were fabulous."
Hetelson and Smerconish finalized the deal in September, only six weeks before the 40-game MISL season was to commence. Convinced that St. Charles couldn't support a dynamic franchise, the owners negotiated a lease with the Savvis Center in St. Louis and embarked upon a head-to-toe makeover that began with a series of print and billboard advertisements featuring nearly naked players and models in suggestive poses. Boasting double entendres like "What's Your Favorite Position?" and "Show Me Your Tickets" (the former featuring a homoerotic tableau of shirtless, sweaty players in the locker room, the latter a topless Gretchen Mol look-alike preserving her modesty with a pair of plastic soccer balls), the campaign titillated the vanguard and appalled puritans.
In other words, it hit its mark.
"It's been a little negative with the way we advertised," Doran concedes. "But I think they got their point across. At least everyone knew we were playing. And it helps that we're winning."
Hetelson says the ad campaign was "meant to give fair warning that we are not going to be sold as family entertainment, although nothing in our arena is inappropriate for young kids. I think it does make good family entertainment, but we're much more trying to market to a fifteen- to thirty-year-old fan base."
Hetelson is encouraged by, if not satisfied with, the team's average attendance of nearly 4,000 fans per game. As for his management style, unorthodoxy is the rule. Doran says the boss pampers his players, who earn anywhere from $800 to $5,000 a month in salary. The owner-come-lately recently added a woman (Lindsay Kennedy) to his roster, encourages his charges to practice yoga and ballet and to undergo handwriting analysis (to, in Hetelson's words, "learn more about themselves") and has produced a reality TV show about the team, Red Card, set to debut at 7 p.m. this Saturday, February 12, on KPLR-TV (Channel 11).
"It's not even really a soccer show. It's more Monster Garage meets The Apprentice," says Hetelson. "Knowing nothing about soccer, the business plan from the beginning has been to do everything the opposite of what has been done in the past. That creates some tension and interesting situations."
Such a description could just as easily be applied to the self-inflicted choreography of Hetelson's life.
The yellow Land Rover is Mike Hetelson's favorite car. Not the souped-up racing truck he redlined in Barcelona, not the stately Audi with the heated leather seats, but the well-used yellow Rover and its quirky ejector-seat safety harnesses.
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