Wichita Wings soccer franchise unlikely to play next season

The Wings' Chris Lemons (2) fights off Rochester's Alex Moseley (3) in the 3rd quarter at Hartman Arena Saturday. (Feb. 2, 2013)
The Wings' Chris Lemons (2) fights off Rochester's Alex Moseley (3) in the 3rd quarter at Hartman Arena Saturday. (Feb. 2, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita Wings franchise will probably not play next season in the Major Indoor Soccer League, as the employee in charge of handling the sale of the team for owner Wink Hartman said a local ownership group was unlikely to be approved.

Morrie Sheets, who was handling the sale as the director of operations and vice president for real estate for Hartman Oil, said an ownership group of two men, which would eventually become three, pulled out of further negotiations with the league when the group was asked to put up an additional $150,000 line of credit and further expenses. Sheets declined to name the potential owners.

MISL president Tim Holt said that negotiations with multiple groups took place but no formal offer to buy the Wings was submitted to the league. Holt said attempts to find new owners are ongoing, but that the Wings will not play in the 2013-14 season if a buyer is not found by the league within 45 days.

"No ownership group has been applied, and we have not been aware of any arrangement from the Wings to anyone else that there was a deal to sell the team and a group for us to approve," Holt said.

Meanwhile, Sheets said a group of local investors is negotiating with a lower-level indoor soccer league to bring a team to play at Hartman Arena in Park City, but those talks are in the early stages. It would not be named the Wings, because the MISL owns the rights to that name for the next two years.

Hartman put the Wings up for sale in March after two difficult seasons financially and on the field. The Wings’ combined records in their two years since being resurrected after the original franchise folded in 2001 was 15-35. The original Wings were formed in 1979 and often faced financial crises that resulted in multiple "Save the Wings" campaigns.

"There is no buyer and there will not be a buyer," Sheets said. "The one group that we were down the road far with, the league decided that they did not approve of them. So we are just folding up the Wings as they are today. Maybe some other day there will be another soccer team in Wichita, but it probably won’t be named the Wings."

Wings coach LeBaron Hollimon was initially caught off-guard by the news but later confirmed it with MISL executive director Chris Economides. Hollimon came to the conclusion that "the Wings as we know them have folded."

"You always consider it’s a possibility," Hollimon said. "It’s just the unfortunate nature of this business. It’s one of those things where you plan for the worst and hope for the best in this scenario."

Sheets gave the impression that a conflict between the league and Hartman and his associates developed over the Wings’ two seasons. Sheets said he and Hartman were impressed by the initial presentation that prompted the Wings to join the MISL, but the relationship soured.

That bitterness eliminated the possibility that Hartman would continue to own the Wings for at least one more season while the search for a buyer continued. When Hartman dropped out of that process, the league took over.

Among the points of contention between the team executives and the league was that the Wings played their final five games on the road in each of their two seasons, keeping them away from home when playoff spots were being determined and potentially damaging attendance.

The Wings’ attendance declined last season by nearly 1,000 fans per game; they averaged 2,870 fans, sixth-best in the seven-team MISL.

"When we got to the end of this year, we had some challenges," Sheets said. "Just with time commitments and working along with the league and the way they wanted it to work. Quite frankly, they were very rigid, so we just didn’t need the hassle. We have so many other businesses to focus on a daily basis that were better for us overall."

Hartman owns Hartman Arena and one of its tenants, the Wichita Wild indoor football team. His grandfather, W.L. Hartman, founded Hartman Oil in 1920 and Wink is currently the sole stockholder.

He owns an IndyCar Series car for the Sarah K. Fisher/Hartman Racing team, which will race in the Indianapolis 500 this weekend. Hartman, 67, also owns local establishments, including several Jimmy’s Egg restaurants, and is a partner in Chester’s Chophouse.

"I think he’s reaching a point where he wants to slow down," Wings and Wild general manager John Blazek said. "He wants to spend more time with his wife, and he really loves his IndyCar."

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