"It seems like I'm getting identified with failed franchises and defunct leagues," says Lee Meade. To prove his point, he recites a curriculum vitae as improbable as the plot of a Thomas Pynchon novel:
•First there was the American Basketball Association. Meade was its public relations director and, later, assistant general manager of the Dallas Chaparrals (1969-70), which eventually became the San Antonio Spurs and joined the NBA in 1976.
•Next he had a tour (1971-73) as public relations director for the World Hockey Association, which folded in 1979 but sent four teams to the National Hockey League. "I think every professional athlete who signs a multimillion-dollar contract should set up a pension fund for those of us who pioneered this area [signing players without reserve or option clauses]," says Meade.
•On to World Team Tennis (in 1974), which didn't turn out quite the way Meade wanted it to. He was general manager and part owner of the Minnesota Buckskins, but they folded after only one season. "You could call the Minnesota Buckskins a failure," Meade admits.
•So too was the International Basketball Association; Meade was the manager of the Munich Eagles (1975). He calls the IBA an "ill-fated effort by some American entrepreneurs who thought because they had money they could shove pro basketball down the throats of Europeans."
•Finally, from 1986 to 1989, Meade was involved with women's Major League Volleyball. In 1987 and '88 he was executive director of the league and in 1986 and '89 he was general manager of the Minnesota Monarchs, one of six teams in MLV. This enterprise, too, had the hallmark of failure. Attendance in New York City averaged 700 in 1987-88; in Chicago, 550. In 1989, the league collapsed and died one third of the way through the season.
But the Monarchs, Meade is quick to note, drew far more fans than their big-city rivals. Once, when nearly 2,400 people crammed into the 1,800-seat Edina Community Center in Minnesota, a fire marshall said to Meade, "Congratulations! Don't ever do it again." So the Monarchs moved to 2,320-seat Melby Hall on the campus of Augsburg College in Minneapolis and averaged more than 2,000 per home game. Which apparently persuaded Meade to play on, league or no league.
Last year, Meade and the team barnstormed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, taking on all comers, including club teams from Holland, Japan and the Soviet Union. Each of the 15 Monarchs players earned $100 a game. Meade worked for nothing, soliciting sponsors, running volleyball camps and doing nonstop promotion.
"He's like the big guy at school who looks out for the little guys," says Elaine Roque, a member of the U.S. national team who toured with the Monarchs last season. "He really believes women deserve equal opportunity in sports."
"He is about as strong a salesman as there is," says Walt Weaver, the Monarchs' coach in 1988. "He's sold some pretty impossible ideas to people. He's Don Quixote out chasing windmills. He has picked the fledgling, no-one-can-do-this sports to become involved with. It's just part of what he is."
"A lot of people would have taken the rejection that he's faced and just said, The heck with it," says Dave Mona, a public relations executive and Monarchs shareholder. "Lee keeps picking himself up and—to preserve the metaphor—gets back on the horse."
This might be Meade's most impossible dream: to keep the Monarchs alive until the team has a league. He is now putting together a roster of players for the coming winter and working up a schedule of teams to play here and abroad.
To save money, Meade closed the Monarchs' office during the off-season, sold his house and set up shop in the den of the townhouse he and his wife, Helen, rent in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. "I just signed a nine-month lease, which will help me get through one more season with the Monarchs," he says.
Short and volleyball-shaped, the 62-year-old Meade resembles Sancho Panza more than he does the Man of La Mancha, but he does not quibble with the analogy. His unbeatable foe? "Maybe the windmill that I'm running at is the major-market media. There's no question that the windmill is winning. One of the problems is that most of the people who are now sports editors are my age. They grew up covering sports when it was only men's sports."
Meade should know, he was once one of the enemy. After being a sportswriter at several newspapers, he went on to serve as the sports editor of The Denver Post from 1965 to '67. "It was almost as if life was over. Here I was in my mid-30's, and I was suddenly sports editor of the largest daily newspaper between Chicago and Los Angeles, with no challenge. I don't like to maintain something. I like to build and create."
Such was Meade's frame of mind when he heard over the radio in 1967 that the American Basketball Association was being formed. He remembers turning to Helen and saying, "Now that's something I'd like to be involved in."
Meade got his chance. When he complained to the ABA office about its slipshod record keeping, he was asked "Can you do any better?" Sure, Meade said, and he began keeping stats on a freelance basis. Before long, he left the Post to work in the ABA front office, and a couple of years later he joined the Chaparrals. He takes great pride in the fact that his old team lives on as the San Antonio Spurs. He is equally quick to point out the four teams—Hartford, Quebec, Winnipeg and Edmonton—that survived his days with the WHA and flourished in the NHL after the merger.
Even those teams that "failed" succeeded, in Meade's eyes. The owners of the defunct Spirits of St. Louis of the ABA settled for a share of NBA TV revenue; today they earn as much as $4.6 million a year. "At the time, it didn't look like anything," Meade says. "It turned out to be the most valuable thing the league ever had."
"A lot of the negative stuff you hear about Lee is that he was involved in everything that failed," says R. Steven Arnold, a lawyer and a players' agent who was also involved in all the leagues Meade has been associated with. "That isn't true. People have made a lot of money on things Lee has been involved in. Unfortunately, Lee hasn't been among them."
Meade was out of sports and was selling real estate to help put his four children through college in 1986, when Arnold broached the plan for a new sports league at a reunion of WHA cronies. Meade recalls, "Arnold said, 'It's a women's league,' and my mouth dropped. He said, 'A volleyball league,' and my mouth dropped again. Volleyball was always something you did in the backyard while you were waiting for the steaks to finish."
Yet Meade signed on as general manager of the Twin Cities franchise in the six-team league. "I figured I could take a leave of absence, have some fun with a sports venture and go back to real estate."
Fun is not what he calls it now. "Until I was with the Monarchs, I was part of the sports establishment," says Meade. "I didn't expect to be shut out." Meade attributes most of the league's problems to the fact that he could not generate much in the way of newspaper coverage. "We look at you like 'Disney on Ice'," said one sports editor, in explaining his paper's almost total lack of coverage of women's Major League Volleyball.
But it was not only the newspaper editors who lacked faith. When Major League Volleyball disbanded, the Monarchs' own backers were ready to give up the quest. "At a shareholders' meeting we saw no hope for it," says Arnold, the Monarchs' major investor. "But Lee said, 'Give me a chance. I'll work for nothing if it doesn't work out.' " Unfortunately for Meade, the shareholders took him at his word.
During the coming year, Meade will try to find investors for new franchises, probably in small to mid-sized markets where volleyball won't be overshadowed by other pro sports. Meanwhile, he has rounded up half a dozen star players from seasons past, added new talent and put together a 1990-91 schedule with national and club teams from Japan, the Soviet Union, Germany and Canada.
"I've already got our advertising slogan," says Meade. "The Minnesota Monarchs—in a league of their own."
Greg Breining is a Minnesota-based free-lance writer.