"Pusi kurac, Chicago!"
Seated twenty rows behind the visiting team's goal box, Sani Zigic and the STL Fanaticos launch into a cryptic-sounding chant after a breakaway score by midfielder Novica Marojevic puts the Chicago Storm up 5-3 in the third quarter of a Major Indoor Soccer League contest between the Storm and Zigic's beloved St. Louis Steamers. As the referee sets the ball at midfield to restart play, the chant grows louder, echoing throughout the mostly empty Savvis Center as the Fanaticos, two dozen strong, holler in unison to the beat of a banging kick drum in Section 110: "Pusi kurac, Chicago!"
English translation: "Suck on a dick, Chicago!"
"The great thing is, if they swear in Bosnian, security won't get on their case," quips Justin McLaughlin, one of two token American-born Fanaticos. (The other is Johnny Lange, a stocky, snuff-dipping cowboy from Oakville who "just loves fan culture.")
Two hours earlier, as the Fanaticos begin gathering at sunset in the parking lot of the Burlington Coat Factory (where the 21-year-old Zigic clerks) on South Kingshighway, the mood is considerably less manic.
"I can't even smell alcohol after last night," laments 23-year-old Medo Coralic, a former Soldan High soccer standout who now earns his keep as a valet at the Cupples Station Westin. Coralic is coming off a Saturday-night bender at Club Europe on Washington Avenue, a regular hangout for the mostly single, mostly twentysomething Fanaticos. As tricked-out rigs pull into the parking lot, some blaring European dance music, Zigic's seventeen-year-old sister, Ajla, nods at another favorite nightspot, Club Luna, which shares its parking acreage with her brother's employer.
"Saturday night, when people are drunk -- that's when we recruit," the younger Zigic imparts.
As if on cue, a Fanatico pulls a six-pack of Corona and a large blue-and-orange (Steamers colors) flag out of the trunk of his sedan. Besides beer, the Fanaticos tend to favor bright-orange jerseys, scarves from their favorite Eastern European club teams and cologne.
Lots of cologne.
The group was born via word of mouth and the Internet after Sani Zigic and Zlatan "Purger" Kordic attended an early-season home game. The Fanaticos, most of whom are immigrants who came to St. Louis from the former Yugoslavia, consider themselves to be "Ultra Fans." This, according to their Web site (www.stlfanaticos.com), means they "actively support the team during the whole game.
"They are the ones starting every cheer. They are peaceful group, but if provoked are ready to 'return a favor,'" continues the Fanaticos' online credo, penned by Webmaster Akif Cogo in enthusiastic broken English. "They are not afraid to get into any kind of conflict with other groups."
"Last [Steamers game], people were just sitting and watching," adds Dzejna Kurbegovic, a female Fanatico. "Why would you do that?"
The ideal bleacher atmosphere would include torches and smoke bombs, if you ask Edo Kordic, Purger's brother. Which is not to say the Fanaticos should be mistaken for stateside cousins of soccer fandom's notorious "hooligan" element.
"In Europe they set the other team's buses on fire," Ajla Zigic imparts as her cohorts jump up and down in the parking lot, drinking, waving their giant flag and singing soccer anthems.
True, in America soccer is a far more sedate affair. The game -- especially the indoor version -- has been positioned to ride to prominence on the backs of families, not Fanaticos. There's a reason the term "soccer mom" is ubiquitous in popular vernacular. Youth leagues thrive.
And first-year Steamers owner Michael Hetelson, whose team is currently a half-game out of first place in the seven-team MISL, isn't buying any of it.
"Soccer has a very strong youth movement, so some marketing genius decided to sell indoor soccer as family entertainment, much like minor-league baseball," says Hetelson, the 36-year-old Pennsylvania-based owner and founder of MMT Solutions, an interactive communications company. "I disagree with that. If [families] come to two or three games per year, they're doing their part. But they're not buying a lot of concessions, and they're not crazy fans. If we could have 20,000 fans like the Fanaticos, that'd be great.
"People say soccer sells itself," Hetelson adds pointedly. "Soccer doesn't sell itself."
By all accounts, Hetelson is a very good salesman. It's the product that many people -- including those closest to him -- have grave doubts about. And Michael Hetelson is betting hard-earned money that he can prove them wrong.
For almost as long as there has been indoor soccer in St. Louis, there has been Daryl Doran. Now 41 years old and having recently set the all-time record for professional games played indoors, Doran, who pulls double duty as the Steamers' head coach, still ranks among the league's elite players. A native St. Louisan and graduate of CBC High School, he joined the Steamers in 1982 after one year at Saint Louis University when he was selected seventh overall in the MISL draft.
Back then the team outdrew most professional hockey teams, averaging upward of 16,000 fans per game at the old Arena on Oakland Avenue. The team attracted that sort of following well into the late 1990s, when they were known intermittently as the Storm and Ambush of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and shuttled between a handful of different owners. The Ambush folded in 2000, whereupon the club promptly relaunched in St. Charles under the original Steamers moniker. But the franchise has had a hard time getting its mojo back. The Steamers hit rock bottom last year, posting a lackluster 14-22 mark and struggling to attract even a few thousand fans per game to the Family Arena in St. Charles.
"Years past -- especially last year -- it seemed like nobody knew we were playing," says Doran.
At the end of last season, the Steamers' ownership group, headed by Mike Shanahan Jr., announced its intention to either fold the team or sell it, resolving to put their money into the River Otters, a St. Charles-based minor-league hockey franchise. This rankled minority owner Patrick Oldani, who made it his mission to keep the franchise afloat by courting prospective new owners.
"Ultimately, their plan was, 'Fuck indoor soccer, we'll just run the River Otters,'" says Oldani. "They didn't do any billboard promotion -- they didn't do anything. It wasn't my goal to be part of a second-tier hockey team, so the quest was to find somebody else."
That quest took Oldani to the Gumball 3000, a transcontinental road rally that alternates between American and overseas courses each May. During last year's race (from Paris to Cannes, via Marrakesh), he and his co-driver, Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist), borrowed a camcorder from Hetelson, a fellow participant.
"They wouldn't give it back to me," recounts Hetelson, who drove a customized Chevy SSR pickup he claims reached 224 miles per hour in Spain. "I kept e-mailing [Patrick] trying to get it back, and he kept sending me messages about the Steamers."
Somehow Hetelson, a lifelong polo enthusiast who has been a soccer fan "for about four months," saw potential where everyone else saw a money pit. He and golfing buddy Wally Smerconish, a Philly-based real estate developer, paid the league an undisclosed franchise fee for the rights to operate the Steamers. (Hetelson and Smerconish are technically shareholders in the league, a privilege for which they pay annual dues. In turn, they reap all profits from home ticket sales, merchandise and other Steamer-specific ventures.) The club's annual operating budget is $3 million. That's the highest in the league -- more a reflection of Hetelson's "go big or go home" management philosophy than the cost of doing business in the St. Louis media market.
"I love their history," explains Hetelson, who commutes from his home in the Philadelphia area to each and every Steamers game, home or away. "It seemed like a challenge to take what was probably the worst professional sports franchise in America last year. Less than 1,500 average attendance, most penalties, least goals: This was the worst team, on and off the field."
Confesses partner Smerconish: "I had never seen a soccer game, and neither had Michael. I was a quarterback in high school and hated soccer players. They got all the hippie chicks who hung out near the art room. I still don't forgive them for that. Those girls were fabulous."
Hetelson and Smerconish finalized the deal in September, only six weeks before the 40-game MISL season was to commence. Convinced that St. Charles couldn't support a dynamic franchise, the owners negotiated a lease with the Savvis Center in St. Louis and embarked upon a head-to-toe makeover that began with a series of print and billboard advertisements featuring nearly naked players and models in suggestive poses. Boasting double entendres like "What's Your Favorite Position?" and "Show Me Your Tickets" (the former featuring a homoerotic tableau of shirtless, sweaty players in the locker room, the latter a topless Gretchen Mol look-alike preserving her modesty with a pair of plastic soccer balls), the campaign titillated the vanguard and appalled puritans.
In other words, it hit its mark.
"It's been a little negative with the way we advertised," Doran concedes. "But I think they got their point across. At least everyone knew we were playing. And it helps that we're winning."
Hetelson says the ad campaign was "meant to give fair warning that we are not going to be sold as family entertainment, although nothing in our arena is inappropriate for young kids. I think it does make good family entertainment, but we're much more trying to market to a fifteen- to thirty-year-old fan base."
Hetelson is encouraged by, if not satisfied with, the team's average attendance of nearly 4,000 fans per game. As for his management style, unorthodoxy is the rule. Doran says the boss pampers his players, who earn anywhere from $800 to $5,000 a month in salary. The owner-come-lately recently added a woman (Lindsay Kennedy) to his roster, encourages his charges to practice yoga and ballet and to undergo handwriting analysis (to, in Hetelson's words, "learn more about themselves") and has produced a reality TV show about the team, Red Card, set to debut at 7 p.m. this Saturday, February 12, on KPLR-TV (Channel 11).
"It's not even really a soccer show. It's more Monster Garage meets The Apprentice," says Hetelson. "Knowing nothing about soccer, the business plan from the beginning has been to do everything the opposite of what has been done in the past. That creates some tension and interesting situations."
Such a description could just as easily be applied to the self-inflicted choreography of Hetelson's life.
The yellow Land Rover is Mike Hetelson's favorite car. Not the souped-up racing truck he redlined in Barcelona, not the stately Audi with the heated leather seats, but the well-used yellow Rover and its quirky ejector-seat safety harnesses.
Hetelson likes big toys for big boys, and the old Land Rover remains the baddest of the bunch, the only vehicle capable of mowing through the dense snow pack that often obscures his driveway in rural Bucks County, a historic, well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia where George Washington crossed the Delaware and, according to Hetelson, "one of the most haunted places in the country."
This is the first time Hetelson's been home in a week, and he's got the armload of mail to prove it. When the trees are in bloom, he says, it's impossible to see his four-bedroom French Tudor from the street. He doesn't lock the doors at night. He grew up on a nearby horse farm. His parents and sister live less than twenty minutes away. He hardly ever sees them anymore.
"A lot of people look forward to celebrity," says Hetelson, opening an envelope containing his driver's license, which he'd misplaced on a recent flight. "I'm worried it might ruin my life."
Hetelson's most recent ex-girlfriend, Sara Somerlot, says it already has.
"We broke up because of [the Steamers]," says Somerlot, whom Hetelson met last summer on a rap video shoot his company was producing. "He was never home anymore. He's a shitty boyfriend. He's never there for anybody. His shit always comes first. I think he's obsessed with being famous. He's really all about that, for some reason -- Michael's all about the little publicity things."
That might explain the reality show, which is as much a soap opera chronicling Hetelson's romantic fender benders as it is a behind-the-scenes look at a struggling professional sports franchise and its novice owners. Red Card's premiere episode focuses on the dissolution of Hetelson's engagement to Somerlot's predecessor, live-in girlfriend Sonya Funkhouser. As the camera rolls, the Steamers' new owner peppers his mate of five years with pointed questions about what went wrong -- while she carries her belongings out of his house to a moving van. (Hetelson and Funkhouser, who has moved back to her native Seattle, remain on friendly terms and speak frequently via phone.) Later, when Somerlot and Hetelson call it quits, the cameras are there to keep score as the emotional darts are hurled.
"At first I thought it was interesting," Somerlot says of the camera's constant presence. "I used to travel back and forth with him to St. Louis every week. But it just got old."
The back-to-back heartburns have taught Hetelson at least one thing about how to pick a mate: From here on out, any girl he's serious about will have to submit a handwriting sample for compatibility assessment by Sheila Kurtz, the New York-based graphologist who conducts the Steamers' ongoing handwriting-analysis program. (Initial results revealed a lethargic and unfocused team. Recent sampling indicates a more cohesive, energetic bunch.) "I won't hire a key executive or get married unless she gives approval," Hetelson says of Kurtz.
The son of a wealthy foot surgeon and Thoroughbred racehorse owner, Hetelson launched his first entrepreneurial endeavor shortly after graduating from Cornell when he started a medical-waste disposal company he soon sold to industry giant BFI. Next Hetelson went to work for CompUSA, where he quickly rose to prominence as the company's youngest store manager ever (at age 22). In 1995 Hetelson started MMT, a company that designs training software for corporations and dabbles in direct-to-video action-movie and music-video production.
With the Steamers he saw a grand opportunity to grow this arm of his business via in-house production of road-game and Red Card telecasts, both of which he's managed to successfully land on KPLR -- thanks in no small part to the scheduling hole created by the National Hockey League's ongoing labor hiatus.
"Basically, we decided to start carrying games because of the hockey strike," says Bill Lanesey, station manager of KPLR, which typically broadcasts 25 Blues games each season. He signed on for the reality show, Lanesey says, because "it's local, and we're looking for anything that makes financial sense. And this has the opportunity to be good TV.
"I'm not completely sold on it yet," adds Lanesey. "The way the FCC is throwing around fines these days, I've definitely asked to see the first show before it airs."
The station intends to air at least eight hour-long episodes of the program (in two-episode blocks), which is produced in-house by Hetelson's multimedia company. The Steamers pay KPLR a fee for the airtime (neither Hetelson nor KPLR will say how much) and will reap any revenue from advertising and sponsorship sold during game broadcasts and Red Card telecasts.
Co-owner Smerconish, who generally lavishes unalloyed praise on his more hands-on partner, has seen some of the reality-show footage. His blunt assessment: "It's unfunny."
Smerconish is hardly the toughest critic in Hetelson's circle. That distinction belongs to Dr. Allan Hetelson.
"Nothing I ever did was good enough," the younger Hetelson says of his father. "Buying the soccer team was probably the stupidest thing he's ever heard of."
Precisely, says Dad.
"I've told him that the quickest way to become a millionaire by owning a soccer team is to start with $5 million," says the doctor, who winters in Florida. "My early advice to Michael was that no one's made money in professional soccer in twenty years, that I know of. To think that he can do it where no one else has is quite foolish. If you're doing it purely as a hobby and can afford it, fine. I've had racehorses for twenty years and get a great deal of gratification out of watching a young horse develop."
Hetelson says he was hurt that his parents didn't make it to the Steamers' home opener in October. They did, however, attend the latter of back-to-back games the Steamers played in Philly over the final weekend in January. After momentarily seizing first place from the Philadelphia Kixx with a 6-5 overtime win Saturday, the St. Louis squad lost the Sunday rematch 7-3 to fall a half-game back of the division lead.
Dr. Hetelson admits that the experience was entertaining, but his opinion of his son's purchase remains the same. Which isn't to say he's not rooting for his kid. "He's a very special person," he says of his only son. "He's very creative. I think if anyone can do it, he can."
Michael Hetelson has money, but not Early Internet Gilded Age money. He says he took out a second mortgage on his home to buy into the Steamers. Still, his youth, eccentricity, boundary-crossing management style (he frequently sits on the Steamers' bench during games and bunks with the team on the road) and casual-to-a-fault wardrobe have prompted comparisons to techno-wiz owner Mark Cuban of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. It's an equation Hetelson loathes.
"There's a difference between being a gadget geek and just a total nerd," says Hetelson, who admits to falling within the former category while considering Cuban to be of the latter ilk. "Plus, his reality show [The Benefactor] bombed."
Hetelson's father considers his son to be cut from the same cloth as Bill Veeck, the legendary major-league baseball owner who once sent a midget, Eddie Gaedel, to the plate for his St. Louis Browns as a promotional gimmick. (One might argue it was a tactical maneuver as well: Gaedel drew a four-pitch base on balls.) In the eyes of many, including the Fanaticos and many Steamers players, Lindsay Kennedy is Hetelson's Eddie Gaedel.
Hetelson hopes Kennedy, a former Alton High School and Harris-Stowe State College soccer standout, will become only the second woman ever to play in a men's professional indoor league. They met at a bar after a game, where Kennedy was hanging out with some friends on the team. After Hetelson expressed an interest in signing her, a skeptical Coach Doran watched her work out and came away impressed enough to give tacit approval.
But Doran's players were, well, steamed. Shortly after a January 20 press conference announcing that the Steamers had acquired Kennedy's rights, Hetelson found himself snowed in with his squad in a Philadelphia hotel, their scheduled game postponed until a later date. An emotional team meeting ensued.
"They laid into me," says Hetelson, who stays in a rented downtown loft when he's in St. Louis. "But [Lindsay] fits the new image of the Steamers, which is progressive. I don't think she's better than the worst guy on the team, but I think she brings a component that could confuse teams."
"She is a Kennedy, right?" Smerconish quips. "Which means at least two DUIs and a tragedy."
The Fanaticos, who effectively boycotted the home game the night after the announcement was made, aren't amused.
"The sport is wrapped in tradition, and doing that makes it seem like a joke," says Sani Zigic. "It's like saying, 'We can't make it without this. No one's really taking it seriously, so let's pull some stunts.'"
Hetelson hopes Kennedy, who has been practicing with the team, will be ready to suit up for the Steamers' February 19 home tilt against the Milwaukee Wave.
More power to her if she does, says Wave owner Mike Lafferty. "If Lindsay's good enough to make the team, good for her," Lafferty says. "Mike's a marketing genius, I think. The reality TV show is hysterical. I don't know any owners who think he's a quack."
Scott Warfield, a writer for the industry periodical Sports Business Journal, believes that a little outside-the-box shot in the arm might be just what the flagging MISL -- which saw franchises fold in Dallas, San Diego and Monterrey, Mexico before the end of the last calendar year -- needs.
"Soccer in this country is at a critical point, and the MISL needs a breath of life more than any other league outside of the NHL," says Warfield, who's based in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Losing the [Dallas] Sidekicks, an original MISL member, before the season only adds to the hurt felt around the league after both San Diego and Monterrey ceased operations. The league has been healthy before and can be as healthy again, but something needs to be done. And it needs to be done soon."
Might Hetelson's Steamers be the ticket? Warfield is skeptical.
"Hetelson's unorthodox marketing strategy is based around trying to market to a fifteen- to thirty-year-old fan base -- not exactly the breadwinners of the world. The XFL-ish image he's striving for appears to be working now. The question will be, though: Can he continue to count on the youth to be the repeat customers all owners strive to land?"
By February 2, it seemed the Steamers were over the Kennedy debacle, snapping out of a mini-slump with a torrid 4-1 first-quarter lead over the visiting Kansas City Comets.
"I should take them out to a strip club after every loss," jokes Hetelson, who fesses up to treating his team to a steak dinner at Delilah's, a Philly flesh emporium, after the previous Sunday's loss.
Ensconced in the Savvis Center owners' suite with St. Louis soccer legends Slobo Ilijevski and Ty Keough (one of the Steamers' current television commentators), Hetelson grips a bourbon and Coke -- he and his chums ran up a $2,100 bar tab during the previous home game -- and chats about his plans for the Spinks-Judah fight and the Super Bowl, both of which he had every intention of attending in person. But foremost in his mind is a scheduled appearance with Kennedy on ESPN's Cold Pizza.
"We'd like to establish this as a national brand," Hetelson says defiantly. "I'm losing money now, but I expect to make money in the short term. January was our first close-to-break-even month. Traditionally, this is the sweet part of the season. There's less youth soccer, there're less conflicts with other events. But we've also been steadily building momentum. That's why we timed our TV broadcasts to begin after the football playoffs -- so we could capitalize on the time where there aren't any other sports to compete with."
Down on the Savvis floor, the boys in orange are going nuts, notching their seventh goal just six minutes into the second quarter. In the end they'll prevail 11-5.
"Those guys are pumped," says Hetelson, hastily ordering a go cup for a trip to the bench. "I've got to go down there!"