Big-time sport has expanded—exploded—in the last quarter century, but, oddly, in many respects it's more tradition-bound, more Establishment, than ever. Challenges to the power structure have all been thrown back. Not a single new professional league has managed to survive since the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form the NBA 34 years ago. RIP: All American Conference, Continental Baseball League, AFL, ABA, WFL, WHA.
And despite being hectored over and over again for not loving soccer as the rest of the world does, Americans have resisted the game mightily. It has never caught on as a spectator sport. But you know the old saw: Build a better rathole and rich men will beat a path to your door to throw money down it. Clubs in the NASL lost $25 million last year, and they have plenty of company. Remember World Team Tennis? Indoor lacrosse? Coed professional volleyball? Women's play-for-pay basketball? (The USFL? Who knows?) Is there intelligent life among sports franchise owners? In the last 30 years the only significant new competition to make it in American sports has been the Superstars going over an obstacle course on television. Think about it. Honest to God.
What's more, the same select major events that Grantland Rice and Ted Husing faithfully covered before the war remain preeminent: the Triple Crown horse races, the Indianapolis 500, heavyweight title fights, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and Masters golf tournament, the World Series, the bowl games, the Wimbledon and U.S. tennis championships. Oh, to be sure, there have been some modifications. There's the Super Bowl now. Horse racing isn't nearly as important as it once was. College basketball came out of the snake pits into well-lighted places. Tennis went pro and surpassed golf in popularity. But essentially the traditional sports and traditional events have repelled all boarders. Attack the system and you have no hope of beating it, or even of carving out a new place; at best you can only be co-opted, swallowed up by the Big Sport monster that's already firmly in place. Certainly there's no room any longer for the young sports entrepreneur. Once there were men like Clark Griffith and George Halas, Eddie Gottlieb and Ben Kerner, who carried whole franchises around in their hats. Nobody can do that today. If that's your dream, better make computers your game and Silicon Valley your league. Like Big Business, Big Sport in America has become primarily a matter of mergers and acquisitions. Someday very soon you will wake up to discover that Bill Agee and Mary Cunningham have bought the College Football Association and put it into a holding company along with 3-D movies, Club Med and Wine of the Month.
And yet. And yet. There's this strange thing out there. It's called indoor soccer, and it's played in arenas during the winter, on artificial turf, with six little fellows to a side booting a ball that resembles a ladybug. As with outdoor soccer before it, indoor soccer has experienced a sweeping national rejection, the likes of which we haven't been privileged to witness this side of the John Connally-for-President campaign. In its first four seasons of existence, franchises in the Major Indoor Soccer League have failed in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco, Denver, Cincinnati, Hartford and New Jersey. As recently as December the IRS padlocked the doors of the Phoenix club, then the MISL's esteemed Western Division leader. Indoor soccer games have never once been allowed to sully the screens of ABC, CBS or NBC at the national level. In New York, where the league's flagship franchise, the Arrows, has won the championship every season, America's newspaper of record, the hometown Times, pays the team almost no notice. Across the country in Los Angeles, the town that put the "bi" in bi-coastal, the Lasers' owner lets his 26-year-old son run them on a shoestring. Two different men own one team apiece and another together. Doctors, ever eager for tax shelters, are in it as investors, just as once they purchased time-share resort high-rises and indoor tennis centers. The commissioner is the fellow who owned the Spectrum in Philly when its roof blew off. Wichita of all places is a valued franchise. Many teams have those cutesy-poo nicknames without plurals. Confucius say: "Team not have 's' on end, come to bad end." Some clubs welshed on hotel bills last year. Altogether the league has lost perhaps $21 million since its founding in 1977.
And yet. And yet...
Terry Leiweke, one of four Leiweke brothers in the MISL—all T. Leiwekes: Tracey, Terry, Tod and Timmy; nothing like it since the Johnsons of Johnson City, Texas were working their way through the L's—pulls out a feelthy peecture. "Look at this," he smirks, brandishing a crinkled Polaroid print. It features a bunch of well-built young men in their undergarments in a locker room surrounding a bosomy blonde in a skimpy outfit, who's giving one of the guys a massage. "This is going to be our poster," Terry L. says.
He's the new president of the Arrows. Once Terry L. kicked 13 extra points in a college football game, his being the educated toe on the day in 1968 when Houston chose to run it up against Tulsa 100-6. That's listed somewhere in the NCAA record book. Now Terry L. and his baby brother, Tod L., are running the Arrows somewhere out there in the Long Island metromess.
And Terry L.'s soft-porn poster is important. It's precisely the sort of original cutting edge that may help the MISL to gain public awareness, then an identity and finally the success that no other new league or new sport has in recent years. Doug Verb, the young new executive vice-president of the Chicago Sting, puts it this way, "I used to say we were three S's: Speed, Scoring and Skill. Now I say it's four S's, with Sex, too." In fact, Verb is still short an S, as in Suburbs. He'd really be better off throwing his original S's out altogether and making the MISL's big three Show, Sex and Suburbs. Whether or not indoor soccer makes it, the MISL is worth studying as a phenomenon, a laboratory researching those S's for all future sports management.
The Show in the formula is much more than the game. It takes in loud rock music, fireworks, all sorts of lighting effects (heavy on the lasers), introductions that would put even Merv Griffin to shame and carefully orchestrated interaction between the players and the fans. The game part of the show is fast, easy to follow, easy to understand and, usually, no more than two hours long—except when overtime occurs, which is in one out of six games. About 11 goals a game are scored, which seems just about optimal, providing the right number of emotional peaks and valleys.
The Sex is quite overt on one level. "Hot legs, hot time, hot action—just too hot to handle," goes a radio spot for the Pittsburgh Spirit, whose attendance has increased 10% this year though the team has plummeted in the standings. "The Pittsburgh Spirit.... We have 20 guys in shorts who can go all night." On another level, the sex is more subtle: Identify with the nice, normal-sized, white boys who could very well live right next door to you in the Suburbs.
The MISL has needed to carve out a specific audience for itself. Indeed, in those cities where it has failed, one constant has been that management tried to beat the traditional sports with traditional sports promotion. Where the league has succeeded, it has been the first sport consciously to try to market itself as a product, as if it were a soap or a tire. The audience has been carefully targeted, the Show professionally choreographed, the entire image packaged. It's a point of pride in the league office that the greatest success has come precisely in those cities where management has had no prior connection with soccer—or even, as we shall see, but for one notable exception, with sports of any kind. The Leiwekes came from such disparate backgrounds as education, politics, condominiums and television. Bill Kentling, the chief in Wichita, was an executive at Pizza Hut. Mitch Burke, in Baltimore, was pursuing a doctorate in psychology when he answered a classified ad. Verb came up through public relations. In indoor soccer, GM stands for General Marketer.
Essentially, the state of the art of sports promotion has progressed little in the last 30 years. Bill Veeck's ideas may have been revamped, enlarged and improved upon, but even the neo-Veeckian San Diego Chicken and his imitators have only taken the master's midcentury, pre-TV generation schemes so far. The Leiwekes—the Hustle Brothers, as frustrated critics in pro basketball characterize them—and their philosophical comrades in the MISL are introducing to us what a fully integrated sports promotional effort will henceforth resemble.
Tracey L., the president of the Kansas City Comets, is the oldest of the four Leiwekes, the handsomest and slickest of the lot. With what may be described as a punk-deco campaign, the Comets have an average attendance of 14,500, 90% of capacity at the Kemper Arena, while the competition NBA Kings, a .500 club, are drawing 8,710 per game and have quietly gone up for sale. "I couldn't possibly work in the NBA, or for major league baseball, the NHL—any of those old leagues," Tracey L. says, "because everything is written down there. It's all in concrete. Here we're making history.
"What we're trying to do with the Comets is to make them an experience. Everything about the club has to bolster the image. The theme must be constant. You'll hear the same music on our radio commercials, for example, as you hear at the arena. People who dismiss us as simply being creative-marketing guys are missing the point. We're setting a whole tone.
"I'll never get involved in running the team, either, because I'm the first to say that I don't have any soccer expertise. But one thing: I won't have anyone playing for the Comets who's not prepared to work in the community for the team. Our players made 500 appearances for us this year. What's the point of having a sophisticated advertising campaign if your main marketing weapons, your players, won't be a part of it? Now, we haven't evolved to the point where money is the sole incentive for our players. I don't know if that's a byproduct of success. We'll find out. I do know that if we ever get there, if we come to that point we see in other sports, where the player thinks he's bigger than the club, then I'm gone.
"You see, the old theory in sports always was that you had to sell victory. Now, I'm not naive. Of course, you must attain a certain degree of success on the field. But you can't go into this business depending on victory. You risk disappointing your fans too much that way. The main problem with professional sports today is that they bring us too much reality. That's precisely what we're trying to get away from when we go out to a game. Around here, if there's one thing we're selling more than anything else, it's emotion."
Part of soccer's continuing problem in America is that it has always operated from a belligerent negative, the premise being that Americans should be ashamed of themselves for not cottoning to the game that everybody else in the world adores. Alas, the proposition is upside down, flying in the face of all other evidence, which tells us that in the modern world almost all entertainment tastes—from cowboys to Coca-Cola—have been exported from America, not imported to it. Soccer people might just as well try to force a monarchy on the U.S.
The updated illusion is that we merely need to have the World Cup played in the States in '86 to make converts of the millions of Americans who have studiously avoided paying to see soccer. True to this faith, the NASL, the outdoor league, is starting Team America, a franchise stocked with citizen-athletes that will play in the NASL, representing Washington (Our Nation's Capital!) while practicing as a unit to be the home team for the '86 Cup.
The other thesis soccer believers hang their hats on is that as participation in soccer grows, so must spectator interest. That has been an article of faith. But as Bill Center, an SI correspondent who has been covering soccer for the San Diego Union since 1968, notes, "One of the first things said by the owners of the original San Diego Toros was, 'When the kids playing soccer today grow up, soccer in the U.S. will become the Number One spectator sport.' Well, a 10-year-old playing youth soccer in 1968 is now 25." And, as Center says, precious few 25-year-olds care to go to soccer games. Still, if you scratch NASL Commissioner Howard Samuels, he will immediately begin talking about the eight million kids who play soccer today and how well this bodes for the future of soccer ticket sales.
The fact is, of course, that there's precious little correlation between participant sports and box office. When was the last time bowlers broke the gates down at the Rose Bowl to watch the PBA tour there? It may also be true that outdoor soccer is simply bad theater.
Earl Foreman, the MISL commissioner, is a very sophisticated sports businessman. It is quite possible that no commissioner of any league has ever come to office so well trained for the job. Foreman, 56, has been a practicing Washington lawyer. He's wealthy, with grown children, and is motivated in his job chiefly by pride, although his contract does give him the right to own an expansion team—in effect, a stock option that would be worth exercising only if he helps the league prosper. In the past, besides his adventure with the open-air version of the Spectrum, Foreman also has been an owner in the NFL (Eagles), the NBA (Bullets), the ABA (Capitals-Squires) and something known as the United Soccer League, which eventually merged with the NASL. Foreman's USL team was the Washington Whips. It was a learning experience. The first four times the Whips played in RFK Stadium, they tied—and three of the four ties were scoreless.
"I have no interest in knocking outdoor soccer," Foreman says, "but I know now—too late—that the mistake made again and again is assuming that soccer is popular everywhere else because it's a good game to watch. Unfortunately, the more sensible assumption is that soccer has a monopoly everywhere else in the world. What's it have to beat in England besides cricket? In France what else is there? Greco-Roman wrestling?
"No, the main thing soccer enjoys around the world is that it embodies the greatest human emotion. Not sex. Nationalism. Men get out of bed to go to war. I only learned to appreciate that when I noticed at some important soccer matches that the fans were bored for much of the game, but they would pass the time waving flags and singing patriotic songs."
This season the NASL, which has atrophied to 12 franchises (from 24 in 1980) but still managed to lose that $25 million in 1982, permitted three of its franchises—Chicago, San Diego and Golden Bay—to field teams in the MISL as well. The toothpaste is out, and it's never going back in the tube. Whenever the two leagues achieve some form of consolidation, it will be the NASL that must end up as the subsidiary partner. Already Samuels acknowledges that next year two or three more of his outdoor franchises will want to play indoors, too. Lee Stern, the owner of the Sting, which now plays in both leagues, says, "There's no way pro soccer can survive anymore in this country without indoor soccer." And Bob Bell, Stern's counterpart with the San Diego Sockers, says, "I'm convinced now that indoor will be what makes soccer in the U.S."
There is, however, no way of knowing yet whether indoor soccer can do what hockey failed to do—win national acceptance and network contracts and become America's fourth major professional team sport. But for better or worse, it's becoming clearer all the time that if soccer does succeed as a spectator sport in the U.S., it will be the indoor brand that will thrive.
Indeed, the most intriguing glimpse of what indoor soccer really looks like comes from watching a feature piece that the BBC did last year on the Baltimore Blast. The viewpoint is sometimes a bit smug, sometimes avuncular, but always anthropological, rather as if the show were about naked natives from deep in New Guinea using La Machine or blow dryers for the first time.
The British cameras carefully record the Blast's huge, simulated soccer ball, flashing and exploding as it descends from the roof of the Civic Center before each game, while rock music blares and laser lights speckle the full house of wideeyed Baltimoreans. The ball lands, as it were, and splits open, emitting great clouds of steam, a staple of all indoor soccer introductions. The MISL could no more survive without steam than the U.S. Post Office could without mucilage. And then, from inside the great lighted ball, through the murk, come the players, one by one, garbed in neon citrus colors, all holding high red roses, which they will toss to lucky girls in the stands. There's a long pause from the BBC announcer. At last he speaks. "Leeds versus Liverpool it is not" is what he says.
If you were paying attention earlier, you will remember that there was one exception noted to the rule about the successful indoor soccer General Marketers being young men who'd never had any experience in sports. The exception is Ben Kerner, in St. Louis.
Kerner first bought into sports shortly after the war, when, for 25 grand, he purchased an NBL franchise in Buffalo called the Bisons. He shifted it to Tri-Cities, then to Milwaukee and finally to St. Louis, where Bob Pettit came aboard. The team won the NBA championship in 1958. Kerner sold it to an Atlanta group 10 years later for $3.5 million.
Kerner, known as Uncle Bunky, speaks in a distinctive, high-pitched whine, from a line of a mouth that stretches clear across his face. The corners of his mouth lift up occasionally for inflection, as if they were yanked by marionette strings. On a game day, wearing a snappy white V-neck sweater, Uncle Bunky speaks:
"I'd been hustling for 30-some years, so it was good for me to step out of the rat race, heh? So I straightened things out, and then I married Jean—you remember Jean, my secretary—but eventually Florida wore us down, just looking at all those palm trees. Now I had a lot of offers during those years, and finally I got another call, from Musial and Garagiola and those guys, because they wanted me to look at this indoor soccer team they were going to buy. They said it had lost $600,000 the first year.
"I said, 'How?'
"They said, 'It's easy.'
"The scale is different now, heh? I remember Ned Irish, he always wanted a Jewish ballplayer to play for the Knicks in the Garden, and here comes Dolph Schayes out of college. He asked for $5,500, but Ned wouldn't give it to him because that would have meant the Knicks' payroll going over $48,000 by a few hundred, and Ned wouldn't do it, you know. So that's how the great Jewish ballplayer Ned always wanted went to Syracuse. The scale is different.
"But there's no miracles in sports. It's just if you got three things—a good team and a good schedule and good management—you put the three together, you got a chance. Now last year we made $37,000, the first soccer team in this country ever to make any money. So maybe, heh, if losing a million a year is a way of life in these sports now, then maybe $37,000 is a miracle, heh? So maybe I performed a miracle.
"Here's another line I use. I said how many home games is it in indoor soccer? What did I know? I'd never seen an outdoor soccer game, much less an indoor, heh. They said 10. Then it was 10 home games. My wife says, good, that means 10 trips to Neiman-Marcus. For 10 outfits, heh. That's a line.
"Now here in St. Louis you do have a soccer-oriented community. We got a good mix on this team, though you have to work at it. Before I was here long, I got a chance to get Tony Glavin out of Scotland and Manny Schwartz out of Israel. Finally I said, doesn't Peoria have any soccer players?
"But here, you come see the Steamers [Kerner's team], you can watch kids you saw play in parochial school. Ethnic? It's nothing ethnic. No more. The Italians, the Germans, they're part of America now. It's a night out. We get a lot of blue-collar trade. We're up to 6,000 season tickets, but we always get a lot of walk-up. Last week, for Golden Bay, I sold about 2,600 walk-up. It's an eight-dollar top, but any price ticket, buy 20, we'll give you a dollar off on them all, heh?
"And you can be part of it. That's important, you know. You can buy a season ticket for as little as $96, that's $192 for two. That's the success of football. I saw that when I was in Milwaukee, when Green Bay was there, and you could buy season tickets on the street corner, right out of your pocket, petty cash.
"The only trouble is, no franchise in any sport can survive any longer strictly off box office. You need TV and all the rest. That's hockey's problem. But it matters here that the fans can see that our players aren't spoiled yet. Yet. And we got Earl Foreman as commissioner. Without him, we wouldn't even have a league now, heh. Because Earl's hit the streets in his time, you know. So if we get TV, we might have something here.
"But don't ask me why it works. They say St. Louis draws. Why? Look, I've lived through three eras in St. Louis alone. First, when I had Pettit, all the kids wanted to be like Pettit. Then, the Blues came in, and everything was hockey, heh. The history is, you get basketball and hockey in one arena, the one is going to knock off the other. And if not, it's no good, because it means they're both just existing and nobody's winning.
"Now indoor soccer. In Kansas City, you got the Comets murdering the Kings. And that's a tough town to promote, K.C. I used to take the Hawks into there for some exhibitions, and I'd be lucky to get three lines in the newspaper, advance. Tough paper, heh? Give you no breaks. But the Comets have gotten on top in K.C. And that's the third era in St. Louis, too. Last year we averaged more per game [17,107 spectators] for the Steamers than any winter team in America, except maybe the one that Gretzky plays for, and that's Canada, so we led the United States anyway. With soccer.
"So don't ask me. Why does it go here and it doesn't go there? It's like they used to say: Heh, why did you buy that white sweater, Ben, when a lot of places they're giving white sweaters away? I don't know.
"The 20th of October, 1980, the first game of soccer I saw in my life. And some people say: It's not soccer. All right, it's not soccer. Call it something else. So what does it matter what you call it if the people enjoy it, heh? It's better than being out on the street."
Having taken care of business again, Ben Kerner is going to retire once more, on June 1.
Each MISL roster has 20 players, 13 of whom must not be foreign, although that doesn't quite translate into American as apple pie. Included in the 13 can be green-card holders from any country, and what's known in the MISL vernacular as "grandfather Canadians." At one time, Canadians and Americans were lumped together as homebreds, but too many teams stocked up on Canadians, so that loophole was closed, except that a grandfather clause was instituted for Canadians already in the league. Got it?
As it is, about half the league is genuinely American now, and there's a clear correlation between success at the gate and Americanization. The Arrows have won all four league championships with a heavily foreign roster-although it does include the most famous American soccer star of all, Shep Messing, the goalie from Harvard-and the champions' failure to draw is further proof that a certain box office xenophobia exists in this country. Terry L. states unequivocally that he would rather have the Arrows field a less successful team stocked with "American heroes" than a perennial champion of alphabet unknowns. The Arrows' scoring star, the Yugoslav Steve Zungul, was virtually unknown to the New York public and all but useless as a ticket-selling attraction. Last month the Arrows got rid of him in a trade with Golden Bay.
The word heard over and over again in the MISL is mix: Once Americans obtain a clear majority of roster spots, the foreign imports become a positive exotic element. That sort of mix is already clearly evident in tennis, in which Americans dominate but enough foreigners compete to enhance the sport's flavor.
In the U.S., the same sort of formula generally applies to the subject of race. White Americans seem to have no trouble accepting black athletes-so long as the mix is right—i.e., whites predominate numerically and heroically-which may in part account for the fact that the NBA is still struggling to make it after all these years. Indoor soccer not only presents itself as a "white sport," but it's selling itself to the white suburbs, where the most disposable income is located, and to white women, who have never before been sought out by a sport. In any marketing analysis, managers would kill for this kind of upscale "positioning."
In the more affluent areas, indoor soccer is further buttressed by a unique recreational development. Indoor soccer rinks—fields? pitches?—are beginning to spring up, and, not surprisingly, they are appearing mostly in league cities. There may be as many as 100 indoor soccer rinks in the U.S. today, with seven to be found in the St. Louis area alone. Often as not, MISL personnel, players and managers alike, have invested in these "profit centers," which usually are converted indoor tennis facilities or hockey rinks. Indoor tennis was overbuilt a decade ago, and hockey's tiny recreational base has been threatened by rising heating costs.
Thus, if indoor soccer thrives as a spectator sport, it's likely to attract more recreational players to the game and greatly enhance the value of the indoor soccer facilities. This could result in an upward spiral: more American kids playing indoor soccer, more young American players capable of beating out foreigners for spots in the indoor league, a more American game overall, a higher profile for the sport, encouraging more amateur players to take it up, and so on.
While it's true that there's no direct connection between the number of participants who play a sport and the spectator success of that sport, it's nonetheless a fact that Americans won't support games that are alien to their recreational community. Take hockey as Exhibit A. If indoor soccer becomes an accepted local recreational diversion, it's sure to help the pro game at the gate. Moreover, indoor soccer investors have the potential, never previously realized in sports, to profit at all levels of the game. Nobody before could ever, in effect, buy a whole sport. Major league baseball, for example, makes not a cent from Little League. But an MISL team could break even or lose money, and still justify itself financially, by serving as an advertising vehicle that would help bring fee-paying customers into the recreational rinks affiliated with the franchise.
For now, image is vital to the MISL. At one time—and not so long ago, either—any sport that wanted to prove itself had to hype the fact that its stars made big money. Now, in hard times, in the wake of player strikes and with the general perception that athletes are selfish ingrates, that worm has turned. A handful of MISL players, such as Messing and Zungul, do make more than $100,000, but generally payrolls are reasonable; there are no astronomical salaries to irritate fans, and the $2,000-a-month minimum makes indoor players almost human, working stiffs not unlike the fans on the other side of the dashers.
The first thing Terry L. did when he took over the Arrows was to have a large banner made that says NY ARROWS [HEART] LONG ISLAND; the players run around the arena holding it on high after they play. In Baltimore, the classic workingman's town, the whole team goes out to mid-field at the end of the third quarter and, when the attendance is announced, cheers the fans for coming. When Johnny Unitas came to a game not long ago, he told Mitch Burke. "You know, what this atmosphere reminds me of is the way it used to be here between the Colts and the fans 15 years ago."
Finally, it certainly helps that the players are not physical freaks—neither 7-footers nor 300-pounders. In fact, because of the compact playing area, mobility is prized, and the players tend to be cute little devils, much smaller than most professional athletes. Only one member of the Wichita Wings stands more than 5'11"; only two of the Pittsburgh Spirit are that tall. It's also nice that the players have all their teeth and don't hit one another on the head with sticks. Altogether, they qualify nicely as the sex symbols they are made out to be.
Hot is the key word in the league this year—Hot Winter Nights in Kansas City, Hot Legs in Pittsburgh and New York. A tie-in with a cologne manufacturer throughout the league features a "10½" competition, wherein distaff fans are asked to vote for the best-looking players. In New York, the PA announcer constantly advises the women in attendance as to which bar they can visit after the game to meet players.
The MISL athletes don't appear to be the least bit disturbed that they are being exploited as so much meat. In fact, some enjoy the Ken-doll treatment so much that they coat their legs with baby oil before a game to make them glisten. The females who enjoy indoor soccer tend to be leg women. And there are a lot of them. In most pro sports crowds, the proportion of females rarely rises above one-third and is usually closer to one-fourth, but MISL crowds are around 40% female and can go as high as 50% in places like Kansas City, where the most has been gotten out of the sex angle.
Still, the merchandising of neat little young white men in short pants is not universal. In St. Louis, the city with perhaps the most soccer heritage in the U.S., the Steamers draw more of a blue-collar crowd, and the front office acknowledges that it would never dare trot out anything like Pittsburgh's Hot Legs poster. Likewise, we can rest assured that Memphis, run by Kyle Rote Jr. and a group of what he describes as "Christian businessmen," will continue to eschew such base appeals to the flesh. Wichita, which fills its small (9,600-seat) arena to 93% capacity with loyal orange-garbed fans, attracts a middle-aged clientele, the average for both men and women spectators being well out of the 18-to-35 range that the league so prizes.
But the league is finding an audience. In five years attendance has doubled, and this season it may well reach 9,000 a game, about 60% of capacity. This compares quite favorably with its mature indoor rivals, the NBA and NHL, which last season averaged 10,593 and 12,751 per game, respectively.
Charlie Eckman, a certain Hall of Famer in basketball—he is the only man to referee the finals of the NCAA tournament and NBA playoffs, and he coached the Fort Wayne Pistons for three seasons—is the radio color announcer for the Blast and one of the league's most enthusiastic supporters. "Indoor soccer'll be the game of the '80s," Eckman says. "Bet your cherries on it, Leader." Cholly calls everyone Leader.
But he does have a suggestion. "They got to count goals as two points," he says. "Except the penalty goals. They'd still be one. It's like football. If it's 28-14, all the yo-yos actually think it was 28-14. But it ain't 28-14. It's 4-2. Right, Leader? Which is important, because you can make it better for gambling if there's more scores to play with. You couldn't have all them 3½s and 4½s in football and make all the yo-yos think that they knew something about the game if they didn't count the touchdowns 6 and the field goals 3. Right, Leader? So if it's a 6-5 indoor soccer game now, it'd be 12-10, only if one of the goals was a penalty shot, it'd be 11-10. See what I mean, Leader?"
At present, there are no odds posted on MISL games, which leaves it at a great disadvantage vis-√†-vis the NBA and the NHL, inasmuch as many newspapers now carry a daily line—in effect, a national advance story. Even fans who don't bet view the existence of a line as the certification of a sport. The MISL can't be bar mitzvahed until it gets its line.
Jimmy the Greek says Commissioner Foreman approached him on the subject, and The Greek replied that he'd be willing to test the waters and put out a line, but it would cost the league $400 a week for him to pay his assistants to do R & D on what would, in effect, be a new gambling product. "I told Earl, $400 would just be weekly expenses," Jimmy explains. "I wouldn't even ask for anything yet for The Greek."
Ultimately, for any new sporting venture to enjoy success it must be accepted on two media levels. The first is national. A network television contract is every league's dream, but that fantasy may be overrated, for initially the TV money is minuscule and the product is invariably showcased in weak time slot. A daily betting line might well be a more valuable resource.
On the other hand, in this world of perceptions a TV contract counts per se, because, to many people, if something isn't on network TV, then it simply doesn't exist. It gets ratings, therefore it is. An MISL game of the week is aired at present on the USA Network, but Foreman is hoping that CBS will agree to show one playoff game in May. "No matter how many kids grow up playing soccer in the United States, if they go inside then and see another sport on TV, that's where their identification will always lie," Foreman says. It's no coincidence that indoor soccer suits the TV format. When it was being designed five years ago, it was tailored for the tube.
Equally important to a new league's national acceptance, Foreman says, are two publications: SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and The New York Times. Both are important in and of themselves because they are prominent and prestigious and bestow further validity upon any athletic enterprise simply by covering it. But SI and the Times are also valuable because they serve as mother sources for smaller periodicals, which take their lead from them. In the press, if not in economics, trickle-down obtains.
The MISL drew 2.5 million spectators last year and is now a presence coast to coast in major markets. But even if it drew 25 million fans, it could not claim true national status until it gained regular attention in all parts of the land. That's the real definition of "major league." For example, a one-week (Dec. 12-18) check of several cities in which the MISL doesn't have franchises revealed the following:
•In Boston, neither the Globe nor the Herald ran a word about the MISL.
•In Seattle, the Times ran the standings (nothing else) twice, but the Post-Intelligencer not only didn't mention the MISL, but often printed scores and standings of British soccer.
•In Las Vegas, the Review-Journal gave 384 column inches to the NBA, 290 to the NHL, and 22 to the MISL—with 14 of those devoted to stories detailing the travails of the then fading Phoenix franchise.
•In Florida, the Miami Herald and News, along with the Fort Lauderdale News, gave the NBA a total of 334 inches, the NHL 163 and the MISL 10.
•In Dallas, which has an NBA franchise, the MISL received nearly equal treatment with the NHL—in the agate.
And, as weak as newspaper coverage may be, it seems, outside of MISL cities, scores and coverage of indoor soccer are never given on any local newscasts. It's surely more difficult for something original in sports to gain credibility than it is for new forms in any other part of the entertainment world.
On a secondary media level, local coverage, the MISL has fared rather well in many cities. Generally, in MISL towns the teams have received their warmest reception from radio, the most splintered of the major media. Radio stations even target their audiences much as the MISL tries to do. It is revealing that the league has gotten the least attention in the largest cities. The fact is, the MISL can win all sorts of media skirmishes against rival NBA and NHL teams in Kansas City and San Diego, Cleveland and St. Louis, but it can never win battles—much less the war—unless it seriously dents the major markets. World Team Tennis probably came closer to making a go of it than is generally recognized, but because it could never gain acceptance from the New York/national press, the league could never turn that final sharp corner.
As for the MISL, the record is not promising. It has already folded in three of the five largest metropolitan areas—Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit—while it has been only a propped-up nonentity in New York and a cut-rate arena loss leader in L.A. "I'm not kidding myself," Foreman says. "We have a bad selling problem in the big cities."
It is the party line at MISL headquarters in Philadelphia that the small-city franchises have succeeded because they just happen to be the ones that have enjoyed the best management. Possibly. But history argues more persuasively that it is much easier to make a mark in relatively small markets, where competition is sparse and boosterism intense. Sports leagues don't seem to be all that different from a lot of show business acts that preceded them, in failing to wow folks in the big time quite the way they did the rubes.
Well, the tale should soon be told, because with new management in New York and Chicago and a powerful sports family in L.A., the MISL is prepared to take on the big-city challenge. The answer must come fairly quickly, too, because, as was not the case in the old days when Ben Kerner roved the land with a franchise in his pocket, much as other peddlers had hawked pots and pans, the stakes are too high now for any protracted fight for survival. If indoor soccer doesn't cut it in the big cities soon—and impress the big shots who live in those big cities and call the shots for the national press and TV—then the MISL will go belly up. It will be just one more carcass for the next new league to crawl over. There are always new leagues, aren't there? It's the American dream, pro sports division.
The biggest scores are never run up out on the field. "I'll tell you something," Uncle Bunky says. "Big money doesn't come into anything where big money can't be made, heh. Did you know that?"