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Summer Vocations : Hybrids of Hockey, Tennis and Soccer Fill Arena Schedules, but Can They Fill the Seats?


Wayne Gretzky was nowhere to be found in the Kings' locker room Tuesday.

Instead, a bunch of little-known hockey players had gathered for a peculiar game in an odd league.

Even the most ardent sports fan wouldn't have recognized these players.

As game time approached, John Black, their coach, went over last-minute strategy.

"Tonight's game is the only game that really matters," Black said. "Let's get off strong. Let's get some shots on goal. Lets go get 'em."

"Lets go!" the players yelled as they emerged from the locker room and gathered near the edge of the Forum rink.

The lights dimmed and the players stood there, 14 guys on the threshold of an improbable dream: They were actually getting paid to play roller hockey .

"Ladies and gentleman, now taking the floor, your Los Angeles Blades," the announcer boomed.

The first player to skate out slipped on the "Sport-Court" surface and landed on his rear.

Same with the second guy.

The fans laughed, then applauded when the fallen players stood.

This kind of stuff could only happen in L.A., right?

Actually, no. Similar scenes--perhaps minus the falling--are being played out in arenas across North America, all because of "the lull," that period between the end of the NBA season and the start of the NFL and NHL seasons.

Traditionally, during the lull, fans have nothing to watch except baseball.

And during the lull, arena promoters find revenues reduced because of dark, idle buildings.

Now, there are reasons to turn on the lights--non-traditional versions of football, tennis, soccer and hockey.

Take roller hockey. It certainly isn't major league, but it isn't "American Gladiators," either.

"With these sports, you're going after a niche," said Bryan Colangelo, who operates three pop sports at Phoenix's America West Arena. "You're going after a true soccer fan, a true football fan."

The purists--some of whom would rather watch a three-hour baseball game u-n-f-o-l-d than be seen in a pop sports arena--have dismissed these fast-paced hybrids, laughing at them, calling them "junk" sports or "freak" sports.

"I wouldn't call them junk sports," cautioned Colangelo, whose father, Jerry, is co-owner of the Phoenix Suns. "We like to use the term pop sports. "

The big four of the summer pop sports world--if there is such a distinction--includes:

--TeamTennis, an energetic version of the sport, whose fans are encouraged to make noise.

--Indoor soccer, yet another arena version of the outdoor sport, hoping to succeed where so many previous leagues have failed.

--Roller hockey, a concept so new that no one can say for sure whether it will be safe, let alone succeed.

--Arena football, a rollicking hybrid of sports and entertainment, advertised as "in-your-face football."

"We've pretty much had the thing to ourselves in the summertime," arena football founder Jim Foster joked.

Not anymore. Now, there are four.

In leagues of their own, they're bringing pop sports to a climate-controlled arena near you.

Southern Californians have a smorgasbord of pop sports, with seven area teams in San Diego, Newport Beach, Anaheim and Los Angeles. Los Angeles and Phoenix lead the pop sports league with three teams apiece.

"We knew we had to stage some summer events to fill (the) summer lull," said Colangelo, 28.

Jeanie Buss, who operates three pop sports at the Forum agreed.

"It's better to have something going on here (at the Forum) than to leave it dark," she said.

During downtime at the Forum--after Showtime, after Gretzky--Buss and Co. flip on the lights for the Blades, the Strings of World TeamTennis and the United of the Continental Indoor Soccer League.

"Certainly, I'm not going to try to fool myself that we will rival the Lakers or Kings as far as attendance," Buss said.

She's right. It's not even close.

The United drew 1,088 fans for its home opener.

The Blades, who opened Tuesday, drew 2,874.

Still, the sparse attendance probably didn't shock the Blade players. Moments before they left the locker room, Sam Bayne, the Forum's director of operations, had given them a warning.

"Hey guys, one thing I want you to know," Bayne said. "In L.A. it takes people a long time to get into the building. Don't get depressed when you see a thin crowd right now. . . . It might take one or two games in L.A. to get the crowd into it, but it's going to happen."

There's a saying: "If at first you succeed, it's probably your father's business."

Jeanie Buss and Bryan Colangelo have spent a lot of time living down nepotism, while trying to live up to their fathers--both fabulously successful NBA owners.

These purveyors of pop sports are a unique pair, with common problems, common goals and fathers named Jerry.

"I will never outgrow the term Jerry's son, " said Colangelo, good friends with Jerry Buss' daughter.

Buss, too, is trying to emerge from her father's shadow.

"It's more difficult, for me, to the outside world," she said. "Because I'm his daughter, people don't take me seriously."

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