Thursday, January 8, 2009
LaPaglia sticks with Sydney
The e-mail from Los Angeles was concise and straight to the point. But it was exactly the kind of news that struggling Sydney FC were hoping for.
Part-owner Anthony LaPaglia, the award-winning Hollywood actor, had a change of heart and was sticking with the club.
Adelaide-born LaPaglia, star of the hit U.S. TV series 'Without A Trace', had planned last year to sell his minority stake when the club's new owners - Russian banker David Traktovenko and local businessman - assumed control in March.
But when ESPNsoccernet followed up with LaPaglia via e-mail, his plans had clearly changed.
Will you be staying on as part-owner?
"Yes," he replied. "Unfortunately I am a diehard when it comes to football. I stuck with them." Then he signed off: "Best, A."
LaPaglia's renewed commitment comes as a massive boost as Sydney FC - already out of finals' contention this season despite a star-studded squad - look to hold onto disillusioned fans.
The importance of his support is as much symbolic as financial: LaPaglia's involvement generates additional publicity and interest and spreads the word about Sydney FC far beyond the shores of the great, southern land.
He's already one of the club's most dedicated fans, doing the brutal weekend trips from Los Angeles to Sydney several times a season to watch his beloved light blues in action.
LaPaglia has compared notes with Russell Crowe, another sports-loving Australian making it big in Hollywood. Along with businessman Peter Holmes à Court, Crowe owns 75% of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a club in the National Rugby League competition.
"We share the headaches that go with it probably," LaPaglia said. "You do it because you love the game and because you want to be involved in it at that kind of level."
Both inner-city teams are without a dedicated home ground: Sydney FC uses the Sydney Football Stadium while South Sydney plays at ANZ Stadium at Olympic Park.
LaPaglia told ESPNsoccernet in an interview last year that he and Crowe had tentatively discussed joining forces to one day help build a purpose-built stadium that both clubs could share.
"There was a very speculative conversation about the fact that I feel it is important for Sydney to have a football specific stadium: a 20,000 seater, 30,000 seater with a more intimate atmosphere for the crowds to come," he said.
"I think Russell feels the same way with the Rabbitohs. There was a kind of joking - it was more in jest then anything, saying we should join forces and see if we can get some of the real estate moguls involved to party up for a stadium."
With their well-documented problems on the pitch, Sydney FC have seen an alarming fall in crowd figures this season, including a franchise-record low attendance of just 8,503 for the round 13 clash with Queensland Roar.
Over the past couple of rounds, crowds across the league have rebounded with Melbourne Victory leading the way thanks to their solid support at the Telstra Dome. Sydney FC - from Australia's largest city - face the possibility of finishing with an average home crowd for the season lower than finals-bound Adelaide United and Queensland Roar, as well as market-leaders, Melbourne.
Even with flagging support for Sydney, season four of the A-League is still likely to have an average crowd of more than 12,000, better than the inaugural season and comparable to the solid, second year. Last season saw a peak average of 14,610 per game.
Sydney FC probably need more passionate fans like LaPaglia, who was a goalkeeper for Adelaide City and West Adelaide in the old National Soccer League in the late 1970s before heading to the United States to pursue an acting career. Even as he prepares for his 50th birthday on January 31st, LaPaglia plays regularly for Hollywood United, despite a hip replacement operation.
Despite his continued involvement with Sydney FC, LaPaglia is under no illusions about the financial realities of football ownership.
"What's the best way to make a million bucks in football?" he asked me at the Hotel Angeleno in the LA suburb of Brentwood last September. "Invest $10 million! And there is some truth in that.
"The A-League is new and it's progressively doing better and better. I think every year there is a learning curve and the mistakes that get made are rectified and new mistakes are discovered and they try to rectify them too, but I think it is essential that Australia has a professional league."
• Australian-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.