“There’s no way pro soccer can survive anymore in this country without indoor soccer1.”
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all of a sudden there are signs of life in the game of indoor soccer, which has been on the downslide for a while now.
First, the (third, give or take) Major Indoor Soccer League announced a new franchise in suburban Kansas City, which will take the storied Comets name.
On Tuesday of this week, something called the Arena Soccer Association announced its launch. (If that looks and sounds familiar, it’s because some of the same folks who were behind the 1990s NPSL are behind this, too.)
And, a day later, United Soccer Leagues went back to its roots, announcing the launch of Indoor Professional Soccer (“The I-League”), complete with logo reminiscent of this. For those with a taste for nostalgia, the first franchise in the league will be the Rochester Lancers. As many as five to seven other regionally-based clubs are hoped for before the I-League launches in the late fall of 2011.
Both the ASA and the I-League folks talk about economic models that make sense – to which I say, “If there was an economic model for indoor soccer that made sense, don’t you think someone would have discovered it sometime in the last 30 years?”
Actually there is one that will result in fairly long-term stability: own a bank. (Well, it worked for a while.) Have control of the only arena in town, including booking and advertising rights. From time to time, employ your players in your bank. Win a few titles2.
But not everybody can do that. They can talk about regional play and bus trips and reasonable salaries and all that’s fine. That should keep the losses from being grotesque.
But this isn’t going to be easy. This is a tough sport to sell under the best of conditions. The I-League may turn out to be a developmental league for the MISL, which is one way to go about it. But will folks in Rochester and Syracuse and Hampton Roads out turn out to see “tomorrow’s indoor soccer stars today?” I doubt it.
Some have suggested futsal as an alternative, but I don’t see that ever being a viable spectator sport (slogan: “Like Outdoor Soccer, But Without The Excitement!”). Futsal is what baseball would be if all you could ever hit was singles. You think indoor soccer with walls has trouble drawing a crowd? Try selling futsal to the masses in today’s crowded sportainment environment. No chance.
The other day, I was talking with a longtime soccer exec who I respect greatly, and he opined that indoor soccer is the cockroach of sports. You just can’t kill it. Even if one or all three of these leagues die, the sport won’t die. There will always be someone, somewhere, who thinks he can put together five or six teams and have a league. There are a certain number of players you’ll always be able to find. There’s a certain fanbase you can attract, and they’ll be there most of the time.
But as far as growing and creating a bigtime, healthy sport, one that (believe it or not) once had well-known sportswriters say “I’m more than ever convinced that if soccer is to make it big in the U.S., it will have to be the indoor brand, where scoring action is furiously suited to American taste3,” I don’t see it happening.
1 – Chicago Sting owner Lee Stern said that. In 1983.
2 – The Baltimore Blast have been the kings of indoor, winning league championships in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009 in their most-recent incarnation, and in 1984 in the original MISL.
3 – Dick Young, New York Daily News, 1980.