Kicking+Steaming

Handwriting experts, Bosnian profanity and televised breakups: all part of Michael Hetelson's revolutionary vision for indoor soccer in St. Louis

Hetelson likes big toys for big boys, and the old Land Rover remains the baddest of the bunch, the only vehicle capable of mowing through the dense snow pack that often obscures his driveway in rural Bucks County, a historic, well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia where George Washington crossed the Delaware and, according to Hetelson, "one of the most haunted places in the country."

This is the first time Hetelson's been home in a week, and he's got the armload of mail to prove it. When the trees are in bloom, he says, it's impossible to see his four-bedroom French Tudor from the street. He doesn't lock the doors at night. He grew up on a nearby horse farm. His parents and sister live less than twenty minutes away. He hardly ever sees them anymore.

"A lot of people look forward to celebrity," says Hetelson, opening an envelope containing his driver's license, which he'd misplaced on a recent flight. "I'm worried it might ruin my life."

During the inaugural episode of Red Card, 
ex-fiancée Sonya Funkhouser moves out of 
Hetelson's house.
During the inaugural episode of Red Card, ex-fiancée Sonya Funkhouser moves out of Hetelson's house.
A chance encounter at last year's Gumball 3000 road 
rally kindled Hetelson's love affair with the St. Louis 
Steamers.
A chance encounter at last year's Gumball 3000 road rally kindled Hetelson's love affair with the St. Louis Steamers.

Hetelson's most recent ex-girlfriend, Sara Somerlot, says it already has.

"We broke up because of [the Steamers]," says Somerlot, whom Hetelson met last summer on a rap video shoot his company was producing. "He was never home anymore. He's a shitty boyfriend. He's never there for anybody. His shit always comes first. I think he's obsessed with being famous. He's really all about that, for some reason -- Michael's all about the little publicity things."

That might explain the reality show, which is as much a soap opera chronicling Hetelson's romantic fender benders as it is a behind-the-scenes look at a struggling professional sports franchise and its novice owners. Red Card's premiere episode focuses on the dissolution of Hetelson's engagement to Somerlot's predecessor, live-in girlfriend Sonya Funkhouser. As the camera rolls, the Steamers' new owner peppers his mate of five years with pointed questions about what went wrong -- while she carries her belongings out of his house to a moving van. (Hetelson and Funkhouser, who has moved back to her native Seattle, remain on friendly terms and speak frequently via phone.) Later, when Somerlot and Hetelson call it quits, the cameras are there to keep score as the emotional darts are hurled.

"At first I thought it was interesting," Somerlot says of the camera's constant presence. "I used to travel back and forth with him to St. Louis every week. But it just got old."

The back-to-back heartburns have taught Hetelson at least one thing about how to pick a mate: From here on out, any girl he's serious about will have to submit a handwriting sample for compatibility assessment by Sheila Kurtz, the New York-based graphologist who conducts the Steamers' ongoing handwriting-analysis program. (Initial results revealed a lethargic and unfocused team. Recent sampling indicates a more cohesive, energetic bunch.) "I won't hire a key executive or get married unless she gives approval," Hetelson says of Kurtz.

The son of a wealthy foot surgeon and Thoroughbred racehorse owner, Hetelson launched his first entrepreneurial endeavor shortly after graduating from Cornell when he started a medical-waste disposal company he soon sold to industry giant BFI. Next Hetelson went to work for CompUSA, where he quickly rose to prominence as the company's youngest store manager ever (at age 22). In 1995 Hetelson started MMT, a company that designs training software for corporations and dabbles in direct-to-video action-movie and music-video production.

With the Steamers he saw a grand opportunity to grow this arm of his business via in-house production of road-game and Red Card telecasts, both of which he's managed to successfully land on KPLR -- thanks in no small part to the scheduling hole created by the National Hockey League's ongoing labor hiatus.

"Basically, we decided to start carrying games because of the hockey strike," says Bill Lanesey, station manager of KPLR, which typically broadcasts 25 Blues games each season. He signed on for the reality show, Lanesey says, because "it's local, and we're looking for anything that makes financial sense. And this has the opportunity to be good TV.

"I'm not completely sold on it yet," adds Lanesey. "The way the FCC is throwing around fines these days, I've definitely asked to see the first show before it airs."

The station intends to air at least eight hour-long episodes of the program (in two-episode blocks), which is produced in-house by Hetelson's multimedia company. The Steamers pay KPLR a fee for the airtime (neither Hetelson nor KPLR will say how much) and will reap any revenue from advertising and sponsorship sold during game broadcasts and Red Card telecasts.

Co-owner Smerconish, who generally lavishes unalloyed praise on his more hands-on partner, has seen some of the reality-show footage. His blunt assessment: "It's unfunny."

Smerconish is hardly the toughest critic in Hetelson's circle. That distinction belongs to Dr. Allan Hetelson.

"Nothing I ever did was good enough," the younger Hetelson says of his father. "Buying the soccer team was probably the stupidest thing he's ever heard of."

Precisely, says Dad.

"I've told him that the quickest way to become a millionaire by owning a soccer team is to start with $5 million," says the doctor, who winters in Florida. "My early advice to Michael was that no one's made money in professional soccer in twenty years, that I know of. To think that he can do it where no one else has is quite foolish. If you're doing it purely as a hobby and can afford it, fine. I've had racehorses for twenty years and get a great deal of gratification out of watching a young horse develop."

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