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San Diego Sportscene

It Won't Be the Same: Bell Toils for Sockers No More

October 17, 1987|Dave Distel

Owners are the villains of the world of sports. They are curmudgeonly ogres with pin-striped vests and cigars. They are distant and aloof in their plush private boxes. Invariably, they are moguls from the business world who covet a toy only the richest of the rich can afford. No one loves them.

Owners squabble with their athletes over salaries and incur the wrath of fans when they raise ticket prices.

How could they be loved?

Bob Bell never quite fit the profile. He always seemed to be more like one of the fans.

Maybe it was the nature of the team he owned and the sport it played, but Bell always seemed like the guy playing doubles on the next court . . . or maybe jogging past the house. He was somebody you'd see in the grocery store.

Nothing was uppity about Bell. You didn't need to go through two secretaries, three public relations persons and a vice president to talk to him. You called Bell and you got Bell.

When Bell's team played, he sat in what was called a private box. It was about as private as a bus stop. It was more the last row of the loge level seating, but they called it the owner's box.

When the Sockers' season opens next month, Bob Bell will no longer occupy the owner's box . . . unless he's invited. He relinquished his share of the ownership and his position as co-managing general partner this week, when a group called Sockers Management Inc. took over.

I caught up with Bell Thursday as he was cleaning out his office at the Sports Arena. He was about to drive away from a franchise he bought exactly 10 years ago to the day, and it was not a happy anniversary. He repeatedly insisted he was leaving with no bitterness and no regrets, as if just saying it would make him feel better.

Bell's problem, his undoing, was that he was not a rich tycoon with millions to squander. In today's world of sports, he was working with a shoe box full of petty cash.

Not that he was poor. He just wasn't Alex Spanos or Joan Kroc or Gene Klein. He was into sports ownership with his life savings, not his fun money.

Bell made his bucks investing in precious metals. His timing was good, and he parlayed investment upon investment until he was rich beyond the dreams of his boyhood in Philadelphia, which isn't to say he was as rich as the ranks of the entrepreneurs of professional sports.

One thing his boyhood dreams did not include was soccer.

"If you tried to play soccer when I was growing up in Philly," he said, "you'd get beaten with a baseball bat."

In fact, Bell never touched a soccer ball until he owned a team that kicked it. Ironically, he acquired the team in much the same way that he lost it.

He bought a nibble here and a nibble there because the previous owner was strapped financially. He moved the franchise to San Diego in 1978 from Las Vegas, and he owned 95% of the team by 1980.

This would be the most successful franchise the city has ever had, at least artistically. It won five consecutive indoor titles in two leagues before the streak was snapped in the Major Indoor Soccer League last season.

However, this franchise was a fiscal fiasco, partially because Bell, according to his accounting, lingered for too long in the ill-fated outdoor game. He started selling a nibble here and, frankly, a gulp there in 1984. It came down to one last big gulp, the last 17 1/2% slice of pie, and it disappeared this week.

For nothing.

"It was like when I was in commodities," he said. "You buy a position, but you have to meet margin calls to keep your position if the market drops. I just got into position with the Sockers where I couldn't make any more margin calls."

After all those years of hoping to see the light, Bell saw it . . . and it was coming from the hole in the bottom of the piggy bank. His erstwhile partners, Ron Fowler and Co., would cover the debt and operating costs, and that was enough to take control of the franchise.

"I get off the hook for a lot of debt," Bell said, "and I don't have to put any more money in."

And he has put a lot of money into this endeavor. He estimates his losses over the 10 years at $9 million, $6 million of that outdoors.

What he comes away with are memories.

"You can't put a price tag on memories," he said. "And you can't put a price tag on satisfaction and happiness and friendships."

Bell also comes away with five championship rings. He keeps them in a little box at home, and looks in on them every day. Each one brings back different memories, but his favorite ring is the one representing the 1982-83 MISL championship. That team was supposed to be too old and too slow to win, but it won the second of those five consecutive titles.

Now, of course, Bell must get on with life.

"I guess I'll have to get back out into the world and try to rebuild my fortune," he said, smiling a smile he probably didn't really feel. "I'll find something I love to do and I'll do it."

Sometime in the weeks or months to come, the Sockers' new management should have a night for Bob Bell. The man deserves to be recognized for what he has done. He has been a fine caretaker for a franchise the community didn't even know it wanted when he brought it to town.

Maybe it sounds silly, having a night for a former owner. Folks just don't express that kind of kindness for owners. Not normally. In this case, it's appropriate.

Bob Bell does not, to be sure, have a number to be retired. Heck, if he could have retired a number, he'd still be the owner. He would have retired $9 million in debt.

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