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1988 New England Steamrollers

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New England SteamrollersArena Football League (1988)

Born: February 1988 – AFL expansion franchise
Folded: 
February 1989

Arena: Providence Civic Center (10,200)

Team Colors: Orange, Black & White

Owners: Robert Andreoli & Frank Russo

Arena Bowl Championships: None

 

As New York had its baseball and football Giants and Brooklyn had its multi-sport Dodgers, so the citizens of Providence, Rhode Island cheered on their Steam Rollers in various incarnations for the better part of a century.  Providence Journal sportswriters Charles Coppen and Pearce Johnson organized the original Steam Roller as an independent football team in 1916.  In their heyday, the Steam Roller played in the National Football League from 1925 to 1931, winning the NFL championship in 1928.  The original Steam Roller fell victim to the Great Depression in the early 1930’s, but the name was resuscitated for various minor league and semi-pro football clubs from the 1940’s to the 1980’s.  In addition, Providence’s early entry in the National Basketball Association adopted the Steamrollers nickname during its three-year run from 1946 to 1949.

The last (or perhaps most recent) team to take up the Steamrollers identity was the New England Steamrollers of the Arena Football League.  The Steamrollers entered the Arena League in early 1988 during the first round of expansion for the pioneering indoor football start-up.  The AFL debuted in 1987, playing a 12-game demonstration season with four league-owned clubs in Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington.  The league claimed average attendance of 11,279 and drew cable television interest from ESPN, which broadast five games, including Arena Bowl I, which drew over 13,000 fans to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.  Heading into 1988, league founder Jim Foster was ready to sell “limited partnerships” in the business he created, a definition which (for Foster, at least) stopped short of the traditional latitude offered to buyers of expansion franchises.  As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman in 1988:

“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys.  We tell ‘em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’  That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”

Foster’s view on what degree of control investors should expect for their money would nearly sink the league less than a year later.

The Arena Football League announced Providence as an expansion city in February 1988.  Concert and fight promoter Frank J. Russo and jeweler Robert Andreoli purchased the limited partnership and operating rights to the club.  They announced the New England Steamrollers name in a nod to Providence’s 1928 NFL championship team.

New England Steamrollers Programs & Memorabilia

 

The Steamrollers roster was a mostly anonymous mix of refugees and training camp casualties from the United States Football League and the Canadian Football League.  Like many players in the Arena League in 1988, a number of Steamrollers saw action as replacement players in the NFL during the 1987 player strike.  The most experienced player was actually a German – placekicker Bernie Ruoff who enjoyed a fourteen-year career in the Canadian League from 1975 to 1988.  The biggest “name” on the Steamrollers was Head Coach Vito “Babe” Parilli, a former Boston Patriots quarterback from the AFL days and later the back-up to Joe Namath when the New York Jets won Super Bowl III.

The Steamrollers debuted at the Providence Civic Center on April 29th, 1988, suffering a 60-35 loss at the hands of the Chicago Bruisers before an announced crowd of 8,374.  The rest of the season was little better, as the ‘Rollers finished 3-9 and won just one of their six homes games.  Announced attendance for the six-game slate at the Providence Civic Cener was 5,707.  Andreoli bought out Russo at the end of the 1988 season and pegged his personal loss on the three-month Arena Football season at around $200,000.

“My experience with the Steamrollers in the Arena Football League was that when they gave away tickets, they filled the arena,” recalled Steamrollers PR Director Rob Ekno in 2012.  “When they didn’t give away tickets, there was nobody there.”

The team’s struggle to sell tickets was not the only problem faced by PR man Rob Ekno, who was battling addiction in the summer of 1988 and would wind up homeless a few years later.

“The night before our first ever game on ESPN, I stayed up all night partying at Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island.  We had a 9:00 AM production meeting with ESPN at the Civic Center.  I drove up Route 95 and I was blasted out of my mind on vodka and cocaine, which were my drugs of choice.

“Chet Forte, who was the first director of Monday Night Football, was the producer for ESPN.  I pulled into the Providence Civic Center parking lot at 8:45 in the morning for the meeting with Chet and all the ESPN guys, and the PR guys from our opponents, the Los Angeles Cobras.  I couldn’t stay awake, so I did one last line in the parking lot before I went inside.  I sat next to Babe Parilli, who was our Head Coach, and I never took my hat or dark sunglasses off.  When you’re doing coke, your mouth is going a mile a minute even when you’re not talking.  My whole body was twitching.  I don’t know how nobody ever said anything to me that day.  I got through the meeting, went home and passed out, and then did the game that night.”

Following the 1988 season, the league’s limited partners became embroiled in a dispute with league founder and Commissioner Jim Foster.  The partners offered Foster a reported $300,000 buyout, but he refused to go.  The ensuing power struggle made it impossible for the league to sell any expansion franchises for 1989, which would have helped offset the losses of the limited partners.  Foster ultimately retained control.  A proposal to start the season later and shift the schedule deeper into the summer further demoralized Steamrollers owner Bob Andreoli, who told Providence Journal that he did not feel Rhode Islanders would buy tickets for indoor events in July and August.  Andreoli withdrew from the league in February 1989, ending the Steamrollers adventure after a single season.

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Although the Arena Football League nearly folded during the ownership dispute in the winter of 1988-89, the league ultimately held on for twenty more years.  At its peak in the early 21st century, the league attracted NFL ownership and won a broadcast television contract with NBC.  The league folded in 2009 due to over-leverage, but a revived version launched in 2010, returning to the modest ideals of the league’s early years.

Over the years, the Arena League has spawned many low budget imitators, including its own Arena Football 2 developmental league designed for mid-sized markets like Providence.  Despite this glut of indoor football, the sport never returned to the Ocean State after the one-year engagement of the Steamrollers in the spring and summer of 1988.  The closest attempt came in the spring of 2009 when the Lingerie Football League announced that a club called the New England Euphoria would play two games at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center (the re-named Providence Civic Center) that fall.  The Euphoria got as far as hosting some local tryouts and conducting a racy photo shoot before scrapping their plans in May 2009.

 

==YouTube==

New England Steamrollers final game.  July 16, 1988 at Pittsburgh Gladiators.  ESPN telecast.

 

 

 

==Downloads==

1988 New England Steamrollers Depth Chart & Player Bios

Interview with Steamrollers PR Director Rob Ekno

New England Steamrollers Sources

 

==Links==

New England Steamrollers on ArenaFan.Com

Arena Football League Media Guides

Arena Football League Programs

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1978-1980 New England Tea Men

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North American Soccer League (1978-1980)

Born: 1978 – NASL expansion franchise.
Moved: November 1980 (Jacksonville Tea Men)

Stadiums:

Arena: Providence Civic Center (10,754)

Team Colors: Red, Gold & Blue

Owners: Thomas J. Lipton, Inc.

Soccer Bowl Championships: None

 

In January 1978, Thomas J. Lipton, Inc., better known as the Lipton Tea Company, purchased an expansion franchise in the North American Soccer League.  The NASL was riding a wave of expansion in 1978 – a speculative bubble as it would turn out – sparked by the spectacular three-year run of Brazilian superstar Pele at the New York Cosmos, another corporate owned club.

Lipton’s club set up shop in Foxboro, Massachusetts and adopted the nickname New England Tea Men, in a nod to the area’s revolutionary roots and, of course, its corporate overlords.  Lipton Vice President of Marketing Derek Carroll took the reigns as club President with a $1.5M operating budget and $600,000 allocated to sign players from around the world.

One little-noticed signing was an English striker named Mike Flanagan acquired on loan from Charlton Athletic.  Flanagan came out of nowhere for the Tea Men, scoring 30 goals in 28 games and earning NASL Most Valuable Player honors in 1978.  The rest of the squad was also unexpectedly strong for a club put together on just four months notice.  The Tea Men tied the Tampa Bay Rowdies for first place in the NASL’s American Conference Eastern Division with a 19-11 record.  The Fort Lauderdale Strikers eliminated the Tea Men in the first round of the 1978 NASL playoffs.  At the box office, the Tea Men drew an average crowd of just over 11,000 to Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, the home of the NFL’s Patriots.

The Tea Men had a rougher go of it in 1979.  Flanagan got into a contract dispute back home with Charlton Athletic and ultimately with the Tea Men themselves.  The saga of Flanagan’s status dragged on for much of the 1979 season, with the Tea Men even prematurely announcing his return in June 1979.  Ultimately, Flanagan never returned to the United States again after his MVP campaign in 1978.  Meanwhile, the Tea Men were evicted from Schaefer Stadium by order of a judge due to a dispute with a neighboring dog racing track.  Forced to play on short notice at urban Nickerson Field in Boston, attendance plummeted nearly 50% as did the team’s record.  The 1979 Tea Men finished 11-13 and out of the playoff hunt.

In December 1979, the Tea Men signed on for the NASL’s first winter indoor soccer season.  Only ten of the league’s twenty-four teams chose to take part. The Tea Men probably wished they had stuck with the majority.  Playing at the Providence Civic Center, the indoor Tea Men found new ways to prolong the agony of the bitter 1979 campaign, staggering to a 2-10 last place finish.

The Tea Men gave up on New England in November, 1980 and relocated to Jacksonville, Florida’s Gator Bowl.  Still owned by Lipton, the franchise retained the Boston Tea Party-inspired name, although it made little sense in Florida, which remained a Spanish territory unti 1821.

 

New England Tea Men Shop


Tea Men Replica Jersey by Ultras

Ian Plenderleith’s definitive account of “The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

 

New England Tea Men Memorabilia

 

 

Tea Men Video

1979 Lipton Tea Commercial featuring Kevin “Cat” Keelan and teammates.

The Tea Men in indoor action against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, via Kenn Tomasch at Kenn.com.  December 22, 1979.

In Memoriam

Forward Brian Alderson (1978-1980) passed away at age 46 in 1997.

Former Tea Men Head Coach Noel Cantwell died of cancer on September 8, 2005.  He was 73 years old.

Dennis Viollet spent all seven seasons on the N.E./Jacksonville Tea Men coaching staff, the last two as Head Coach (1983-1984).  He died of cancer at age 65 on March 6, 1999.  Viollet was a survivor of Manchester United’s Munich Air Disaster on February 6, 1958.

Keith Weller, a midfielder during the New England seasons from 1978-1980, died of cancer in 2004 at age 58.

 

Downloads

2011 Interview with Jacksonville Tea Men owner Ingo Krieg

1979 New England Tea Men “Soccer-at-a-Glance” Viewing Guide

 

Links

North American Soccer League Media Guides

North American Soccer League Programs

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