by Dave Caldwell, Inquirer Staff Writer
They are part Pavarotti and part Van Halen, part Cyndi Lauper and part Tammy Wynette.
They are the Philadelphia Wings, the one-year-old professional indoor lacrosse team that is to play the Washington Wave at 8 p.m. today in the first of four Major Indoor Lacrosse League regular-season games scheduled for the Spectrum.
And even they are surprised at their widespread popularity.
“We’ve got a bit of everything at our games,” said Mike French, a former Wings player who is now the team’s general manager. “We’ve got Muffy and Biffy from the Main Line, the parents of kids who went to Episcopal Academy. . . . We’ve got the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) crowd. And the tractor- pull crowd. And the hockey crowd.”
Although the Wings have a new coach (former Canadian women’s coach Dave Evans), and although the league has a tamer approach (rules have been strengthened to curb blatant open-field cheap shots), the Wings hope to remain a hot ticket in this competitive sports market.
“Last year, it was almost like roller derby – almost anything goes,” said Evans, whose team opened the season last Saturday with a 14-13 overtime loss to the Wave in Landover, Md. “It seemed like the rules changed from quarter to quarter, from game to game.”
Apparently, fans have not been repelled by the MILL’s de-emphasis on mirth and mayhem. Chris Fritz, the president of the MILL and one of the league’s founders, said that between 12,000 and 14,000 fans are expected for today’s Wings-Wave game.
That is a significant crowd for a contest between athletes whose salaries are nowhere near the Michael Jordan stratosphere: Indoor lacrosse players are to earn a modest $150 for each game – up from $100 per game last season.
“We have the Herschel Walkers of the sport, the Doug Fluties,” Fritz said earlier this week from the league office in Kansas City. “And the great luxury of indoor lacrosse is that we can afford these superstars.
“When you see these guys put out, it’s like a fairy tale. Nobody puts out this much for the money. Except Olympians, maybe.”
Philadelphia sports fans seemed to appreciate how much the Wings put out last season, even though they finished 3-3 and were ousted in the first round of the league playoffs.
The Wings’ average home attendance of 11,415 last season was the best in the four-team league – more than 3,500 fans better than Washington’s average and almost 5,000 more than the league champion Baltimore Thunder or the New Jersey Saints, who had the best regular-season record in the league.
Such numbers encouraged Fritz and co-founder Russ Cline to expand the horizons of the MILL, which was known last season as the Eagle League. Fritz said that MILL games will be televised by stations in 14 markets, substantially up from two markets (Philadelphia and Washington) last season.
And Fritz said that two or three teams could be added to the league next season. But the MILL does not want to expand too quickly, as the now-comatose USFL did.
“This is what we anticipated,” Fritz said. “We didn’t want to go out and lose money. So many leagues go under. Or they don’t understand why they lost $1 million in a year.”
As they were last year, the Wings truly are an Everyman team, which is another way of saying that their roster is filled with players who are unknown outside the lacrosse world.
Last year’s top scorer, John Tucker, returns to the team, as does Philadelphia resident Paul French, Mike’s brother and the team’s second- leading scorer last season.
Evans and French feel that they have assembled a team that will look more to run than to stun.
But the Wings will not be afraid to level a few bone-crushing hits, either. Just like the old days.
“We’ve replaced a lot of our players with some real good athletes,” French said. “You’ve got to remember that a lot of our players went to places like Yale or Virginia and played outdoor lacrosse.
“They’re not used to the Broad Street Bullies. But most people think there’s still plenty of hitting. Lots of hitting.”
(Philadelphia Inquirer, January 16, 1988)