Charlotte Hornets (WFL)
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|Based in||New York City, New York|
|Home field||Downing Stadium (27,000)|
|Head coach||Babe Parilli|
|General manager||Howard Balwin|
|League||World Football League|
|Colors||Black and yellow|
|Based in||Charlotte, North Carolina|
|Home field||American Legion Memorial Stadium|
|League||World Football League|
|Colors||Yellow and black|
The Charlotte Hornets franchise began in 1973 in Boston as the Boston Bulldogs, which was also the name of the relocated Pottsville Maroons, Boston's first professional football franchise. The name was shortened in October to Bulls. They were owned by Howard Baldwin, president and minority owner of the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. Unlike most other WFL owners, he didn't have to pay a franchise fee because of his close ties to WFL founder and Commissioner Gary Davidson. He hired Vito "Babe" Parilli, who had been a backup to New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath in Super Bowl III, as head coach.
Baldwin was unable to attract more investors. More seriously, he couldn't find a suitable place to play. Realizing that he had no hope of putting together a viable product in Boston, Baldwin opted to merge with the WFL's as-yet-unnamed New York franchise on January 26, 1974. That team was owned by Whalers and Boston Celtics majority owner Bob Schmertz and three of his New York-based limited business partners; Henry Fujawski, John Lander and Steven Cohen who together made up the core of the Stars ownership and like Baldwin hadn't had to pay a franchise fee. The two teams had already worked together very closely in the draft. The merged team took the name New York Stars.
Finding a home field for the fledgling team proved just as difficult as finding a name. Yankee Stadium was closed for renovation right after the Yankees finished the 1973 season in October; it would not reopen until 1976. Shea Stadium was fully booked as the Yankees shared the park with the Mets and the NFL's Jets. The Stars had only two other options in the city proper: Downing Stadium, a 22,000-seat facility built during the Depression as a WPA Project on Randall's Island near the East River, or Baker Field, the 32,000-seat wooden stadium that served as the home of Columbia University's teams. Unable to come to terms with Columbia, Downing Stadium was ultimately chosen. The legendary Bob Sheppard, longtime voice of the New York Yankees, handled public address duties for the Stars.
Parilli signed a number of former Super Bowl III Jets including wide receiver George Sauer, who was coming out of retirement after three years, and former All-Pro defensive men Gerry Philbin, as well as John Elliott.
The WFL needed New York in order to have a presence in the largest U.S. media market. The Stars sold between 5,500 and 8,000 season tickets. After losing 14-7 at Jacksonville in front of a league high crowd of 59,112 at the Gator Bowl, the Stars' first home game against the Birmingham Americans attracted 17,943 New Yorkers. After leading 29-3 at halftime, the Stars were toppled by the efforts of Americans quarterback George Mira, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another as Birmingham pulled out a 32-29 comeback win. The Stars achieved their first win as kicker Moses Lajterman kicked the winning field goal for a 17-15 win at Philadelphia. The Stars and Bell performed in front of the largest WFL crowd, with 64,179 on hand. It later came out that most of the tickets were sold at large discounts or were given away to make the league appear more successful than it was.
New York then went on a tear, winning five in a row. Among the victims were the Jacksonville Sharks, Southern California Sun, Portland Storm, and Houston Texans. Coincidentally, the team's winning streak was stopped by those same Texans a week later, with a surprise addition to the Houston roster: John Matuszak. Matuszak had been AWOL from the NFL's Houston Oilers just 48 hours earlier. The Stars had mixed results in the next few weeks, winning over Portland again, but losing to Florida in the rain and The Hawaiians in the sun. To improve the roster, New York picked up several NFL players from the waiver wire. Among them were cornerback John Dockery, who played for Parilli with the New York Jets, and Don Highsmith, a running back released by Oakland who turned out to be a great addition to the Stars running attack. The Stars performed better on the field and were a nice alternative to the more expensive, yet losing, Giants and Jets.
For all their on-field success, the Stars were dragged down by serious off-field financial problems. Like most WFL teams, they were badly undercapitalized. Their fiscal structure began to founder when Schmertz's construction company ran into trouble. He was also involved in a nasty divorce, as well as a legal dispute over his ownership of the Celtics.
The Stars' biggest problem was Downing Stadium. Despite Schmertz pumping over $200,000 into renovations, it was completely inadequate even as a temporary facility. It was nearly inaccessible from most parts of the city, and it had not been well maintained in at least 20 years. The field was mostly sand and dirt. Amenities for fans, players and the press were virtually nonexistent. The toilets in the locker room frequently overflowed. During the home opener, the Stars' radio announcers had to sit on orange crates because there were no chairs in the press box; their Birmingham counterparts had to stand. Parking and lighting were both inadequate. It soon became obvious that Schmertz and Baldwin wouldn't have enough money to finish the season. With the Stars over a million dollars in debt and unable to afford to upgrade Downing Stadium to anything approaching professional standards, the WFL resigned itself to abandoning the nation's biggest market.
September 24, 1974 was their final game at New York (the game was moved from Wednesday because of Yom Kippur). Coincidentally, that same day, the Detroit Wheels' 33 owners filed for bankruptcy. Called the "Bankrupt Bowl," the Stars blew out the destitute Wheels, 37-7.
While they were packing up for the next night's game against the Chicago Fire, Parilli announced the team was moving to Charlotte for the rest of the season as the Charlotte Stars. Part-owner Bob Keating told reporters that due to substandard playing conditions and poor attendance, the team simply could not go on in New York. However, the WFL planned to place a team in New York in 1976 once Yankee Stadium reopened.
The league had found a buyer in former New England Patriots executive Upton Bell after Charlotte mayor John M. Belk helped engineer a deal that made the move feasible. They were the first major-league team to call Charlotte home. Forced to find a new logo literally at the last minute, the equipment man simply stuck the Chicago Bears' "C" logo over the old New York logo. The Stars routed the Fire, 41-30. A few days later, they were renamed the Hornets. Shortly after they arrived in Charlotte, however, their uniforms were impounded due to an unpaid laundry bill from New York. The Hornets had to practice in shorts and T-shirts until Bell posted a bond for the equipment.
The team's first home game at Charlotte was a rousing success. In the league's brief history, the Hornets sold out all 25,133 tickets, leaving some 5,000 out of luck. The visiting Memphis Southmen ruined their debut, winning 27-23. In spite of the loss, the new Charlotte club - which played at American Legion Memorial Stadium - did far better in ticket sales than in New York. In four games at Charlotte, the Hornets sold over 80,000 tickets compared to just 75,000 in seven games at Downing Stadium. Toward the end of the season, the Hornets struggled on the field, losing their last four games.
Off the field, the financial situation was not much better. Bell was still scrambling to get more financing; a public offering hadn't attracted any investors. Despite their late-season slump, the Hornets finished second in the Eastern Division behind the Florida Blazers, and were slated to play the Blazers in a first-round playoff game in Orlando. However, by November 16 only 1,000 tickets had been sold. League executive committee chairman and Memphis Southmen owner John F. Bassett called Bell and told him that the Blazers/Hornets game was off, as the Hornets' cut of ticket revenue would not even begin to meet their travel expenses. Indeed, the players would have been lucky to get $100 for the game. Bell opted to suspend operations while he put together more financing. The Philadelphia Bell, who finished third with a 9-11 record, took the Hornets' place in the playoffs.
The team returned for the abbreviated 1975 campaign and lasted until the league ceased operations in mid-season. The Hornets finished at 6-5.
Had the Chicago Winds been successful in signing quarterback Joe Namath, the terms of the contract would have arranged for Namath to become the owner of a new WFL team in New York. The two sides could not come to an agreement on a new contract.
- New York Stars on FunWhileItLasted.net