It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

Chicago Sting logoBut it wasn’t Sgt. Pepper teaching the band to play; it was the fat lady singing for one of the historic names in American soccer.

On July 8, 1988, the Chicago Sting threw in the towel after 10 outdoor seasons in the NASL and four more* indoor after that in the MISL.

We have a tendency to romanticize the highlights of our youth, so let us not forget that the Sting were never a huge success%, never made money and, ultimately of course, folded. Yet they fill a special place in the hearts of many fans of Chicago soccer and of the NASL.

As it happens (and, as you know if you have been a loyal reader), the general manager of the Sting at the End of Days was one Kenny Stern, a dear friend.

“You know what they say about ‘the last one to leave turn off the light?’ I was the last one to leave,” Stern says. Now an entrepreneur and broadcaster based in Las Vegas, Stern saw the entire arc of the Sting franchise – from the announcement of his father Lee‘s investment in an NASL club on Halloween, 1974 (pictured below) to the final days.

Kenny and Lee Stern at the announcement of the Chicago Sting

“The decision (to fold) became easy, as it was very clear that MISL had no future,” Stern recalls. “We were sad, as we felt that there were solutions that could have provided us and others with reasons to believe that the MISL could reverse its decline.”

The MISL struggled throughout its final years to control costs and remain viable after the initial spike in interest in the new sport of indoor soccer in the early 1980s. Teams were folding and battles with the players’ union resulted in a 1986 lockout and regular brinkmanship with regard to player salaries. At a league meeting after the 1987-88 season, Chicago’s GM saw two major issues that needed to be solved to keep the MISL viable and the Sting a part of it.

“The player (salary) cap was too big,” Stern says. “It had been cut, but the budgeted losses were still huge. We told the board ‘We’re paying the players 160% more than we need to and 300% more than we can afford. If we pay them what we can afford, we’ll still end up with 95% of the same players.'” (The MISL and its players would agree that summer on a reduction of the salary cap to $850,000 for 18 players – an average of $47,000 per player.)

“Major issue number two was the size of the schedule,” Stern says. “We were realistically hopeful that it was going to get cut to about 40 games. By the time (the late Cleveland Force owner) Bart Wolstein got done lobbying, the vote was to go to 56, then 60 the following year.” (MISL teams had played 56 games in 1987-88, and ended up playing 48 the following season after losing four teams.)

“We knew after that vote that it was over for us–there was no future to embrace.”

The dominoes toppled pretty quickly after that. The Sting and Tacoma Stars terminated their franchises on July 8, 1988, following the St. Louis Steamers and Minnesota Strikers, who had gone out of business two weeks prior. Two weeks later, on July 22, the Cleveland Force followed suit. After reorganizing the bankrupt San Diego Sockers and establishing a new Tacoma franchise, the MISL played its 1988-89 season with seven clubs. It would never have more than eight again.

“We could have continued in the NPSL,” Stern recalls (ironically, a new NPSL franchise, the Chicago Power – with former Sting star Karl-Heinz Granitza as player/coach – would debut that fall). “It could have been a break-even scenario. But it would have been a Mom and Pop (organization). We were not really interested in that after everything that the brand stood for.”

So the Sting were history; four years later, the MISL would be, too. The Chicago Power would last until 1996, when Peter Pocklington bought the moribund club from the league, which had been running it on a shoestring, and moved it to Edmonton. Two years later, the Chicago Fire began play in Major League Soccer, bringing the outdoor game at the Division I level back to Chicago for the first time since 1984. And in 2004, indoor soccer returned to Chicago with the Storm, a club that plans to return for its fifth season this winter in a reconstituted indoor circuit.

Though it’s been gone for two decades, the Sting left a legacy, Stern says.

“The legacy (of the Sting) relates to all the good that came out of the NASL,” he says. “Everything good about the current state of professional soccer in America evolved directly (and indirectly) from the efforts of those who invested their money, in addition to assets a lot more significant than financial resources. That legacy relates strongly to the participation side of the game–which the current generation doesn’t acknowledge, as today’s participants easily appear just at the drop of the ball.

“The Sting, and all the other NASL teams and individuals involved, from players to front office staff to ownership, had to promote the game way beyond just the entertainment side. The decision makers had to be seduced to allow the kids to participate in leagues that had to be organized.

“As for me, I take away many relationships, many friends,” Stern says. “I especially appreciated all the time I was able to spend with my father, as we navigated the future of the Sting and the sport.”

The NASL and MISL ultimately didn’t have a future, but their successes and failures helped pave the way for MLS today. Though Lee Stern’s Sting and the others are all gone#, they shouldn’t be forgotten.

*Technically, yes, they played three indoor seasons in the NASL and an additional MISL indoor season in the middle of their NASL outdoor run, but it would have messed up the flow of the sentence, so that’s why it’s in a footnote. Sue me.

%Yes, I know they won two championships and had some fantastic crowds at Wrigley and Comiskey. Don’t write in. They were never a huge success.

#And I don’t want to hear about the Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, Vancouver Whitecaps and even the Tampa Bay Rowdies. They’re dead. Those are different clubs wearing the same colors.

2 comments on “It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

  1. Rick says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same…

  2. Chris Doran says:

    I never get tired of hearing/talking about the NASL – especially the Sting – with Kenny and others. At a time when I was embracing the game as a player, I had the chance to watch pros play soccer as it should be played, thanks to the efforts of so many – Kenny & Lee foremost among them.

    Kenny’s comment about being with Lee through it all is more moving than anything else – thanks to their work, I shared my passion with my Dad. He took us to games at Wrigley, to the after-parties on many occassions and finally, to the World Cup games in Chicago (again, an event backed by Stern-Know-How).

    Thanks for this piece of history retold from someone who lived it.

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