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League Seizes Splash, Leaving Team's Future in Doubt

Indoor soccer: A week before playoffs, CISL removes ownership group from control of franchise's daily operations.

September 30, 1997|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Splash may be alive for the playoffs, but the franchise's future is on tenuous ground.

The Continental Indoor Soccer League seized the Splash on Monday, removing the local ownership group from control of the daily operations and leaving the team's small front-office staff unemployed and the principal owner holding a sizable debt.

The league cited a "failure to meet financial obligations" as the reason for terminating the franchise rights that were held by Anaheim Splash, Inc., and Gary Sparks, chairman and chief executive officer.

CISL legal counsel Dan Grigsby said Sparks missed paying several quarterly league assessment fees that go into a general fund toward player salaries, worker compensation, disability, TV production fees and league operating costs.

"They've missed several payments," Grigsby said. "They've given us assurances they'd be paid, they've been given extensions and they haven't [paid].

"Keep in mind, if you don't pay your share, [other team owners] have to pay more."

An annual team salary in the 11-team league is about $200,000.

Monday's developments have no effect on the Splash's first-round playoff participation Oct. 6-7 in Sacramento.

The Encino-based CISL retains licensing rights to the Splash name and assets, which includes players. Commissioner Ron Weinstein expressed confidence the league will find an ownership group for this "lucrative" market.

"Our most important objective is to find an owner in Anaheim to purchase a new franchise in Orange County," Weinstein said. "The existing one has been terminated."

A new owner probably won't have to go through an expansion draft and could probably work around the $1-million franchise fee.

The final vote Sunday by the league's board of governors ended a three-day process to take over the franchise.

Grigsby was unsure Monday whether the league would pursue legal action to collect the debt Weinstein called "quite significant."

There was also a "backlog of fees that are past due" to Ogden Facility Management, which operates the Pond, said Brad Mayne, arena general manager.

Several Splash employees had checks bounce, including player/coach Dale Ervine, whose coaching paycheck comes from the team.

Sparks, a Laguna Hills resident and president of the nearly 700-team Coast Soccer League, could not be reached for comment. Neither could Splash General Manager Steve Samaha.

Sparks headed a consortium of area business people who obtained the franchise two months before the 1996 season, shortly after Arizona businessman Bill Williams acquired it.

Williams had rescued it after Ogden returned the franchise rights to the league after the 1995 season when it couldn't find a suitable local owner. Ogden gave up the franchise at the request of corporate officers in New York City. Jerry Buss was the first owner when it played as the L.A. United in 1993.

Despite the league's request that Sparks provide a list of his other investors, Weinstein said Sparks did not provide it; he is the only investor recognized by the league. The league also maintained regular contact with Sparks.

"Gary is the only one who knows [about the financial debt]," said Richard Mourey, one of what he believes is about 10 investors. "We haven't been given any information."

Weinstein said the league has no legal obligation to the Splash's staff of five full-time front-office employees, but "we will do everything we can to assist them to find employment," within the league.

Monday's announcement was surprising to some players as well as disappointing. Defender John O'Brien felt bad for Sparks, whom he called well-intentioned.

"Last year, if he wasn't around, the team wouldn't be around," O'Brien said. "But at the same time, if he can't handle it, hopefully he can let it go and we can get somebody, or some investors, who can. The bottom line is I want the team to be all right."

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