Tuesday, March 04, 2008

ATH: A little indoor history

History: No Studs Required

USSoccerPlayers -- The indoor war was a fight that should have never began over a marginal version of a struggling professional sport. Indoor soccer has always been used as cold season training exercises by clubs all over the world, and in certain areas enjoyed decent fan support.

In the early days of the NASL, some teams played indoor exhibitions in the off-season as a way to make extra money and promote the outdoor club. In February 1974, the Russian Red Army indoor team played two exhibitions against NASL talent in Toronto and Philadelphia. The first game, against a hastily thrown together NASL all-star squad at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens was a disaster. The all-stars were hammered 8-4 by a quicker Red Army team used to playing the fast paced indoor game.

Four days later the Red Army team met the reigning NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms at Philadelphia’s Spectrum. This time the NASL side stayed with the Soviets for most of the game, before eventually falling by thee goals. The event drew a large number of spectators, and the NASL decided to hold an indoor tournament during the winter of 1975. This wasn’t a league, but a regional knockout tournament leading to a final four at a predetermined site.

Though consisting mainly of reserve players, the indoor version of the NASL proved successful, with above average attendance and network television coverage of the final. The tournament was repeated in 1976 with equally impressive results, but in 1977 the league dropped the indoor tournament leaving individual clubs to schedule indoor exhibitions in the off-season.

With no indoor tournament, much less a league, two other groups decided there was a future in the indoor game. The Super Soccer League was founded by the son of the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, Jerry Saperstein, and planned to begin play in 12 cities in 1978. The league boasted a television contract with 20th Century Fox (at the time planning on launching a fourth national network) worth $2.5 million over five years. The Super Soccer League never had the ownership in place to field even a minimal number of teams, much less a national 12 team schedule and the league folded before the start of their first season.

Ed Tepper, who had first seen the indoor game when the Red Army took on the Atoms three years earlier, formed the second group with the help of former Washington Darts owner Earl Foremen. The two created the Major Indoor Soccer League to begin play in December of 1978. The league had exclusive contracts with major arenas around the country, and financing for six teams.

From the beginning, the MISL was a guarded success with a respectable first-year attendance average of around 4,500 per game. Tepper and Foreman had augmented the rules under which the NASL’s indoor tournaments had been played, changing the goal from four feet high by 16 feet wide to six feet six inches high by 12 feet wide. The two also packaged MISL games as events, complete with dramatic player introductions and rock music played during the game. The effects that would later be used in the National Basketball Association.

Believing that a group of outsiders was profiting from a sport that they had introduced to North America, the NASL decided to start a rival league to begin play in 1979. With 10 of the league’s 24 franchises participating, the first NASL indoor season was also successful, though their season average of 4,869 per game was dwarfed by the MISL’s second season average of over 6,000 per game. In fact, the MISL had expanded by five teams for the 1979-80 season, and was now going head to head with the NASL.

From the beginning, the NASL indoor league faced a lack of commitment from their club sides. Simply put, the majority of NASL clubs wanted nothing to do with the indoor game and neither did their high price foreign talent, many of whom were playing in their own domestic leagues during the NASL off-season. Compounding their problems was the growing success of the MISL’s version of the indoor game, an embarrassing trend when MISL teams were outdrawing NASL teams, especially when NASL franchises like Memphis actually drew better indoors.

During the second and third seasons, the commitment on the part of the NASL’s star players towards the indoor game had increased. World stars like the Cosmos’s Giorgio Chinaglia and San Jose’s George Best appeared for the indoor version of their clubs, and the league as a whole improved on their attendance reaching over 6,000 by the 81-82 season.

However, competing head-to-head with a rival indoor league while the outdoor NASL clubs were folding and shifting cities on a yearly basis had taken its toll. The 1982-83 NASL indoor season was suspended, with the NASL’s Chicago Sting, San Diego Sockers, and Golden Bay Earthquakes, playing indoors with the MISL. In fact these teams and the New York Cosmos would become full members of the MISL and stop playing outdoor soccer all together when the NASL folded after the 1984 season.

With no competition from the dying NASL, the MISL had apparently won not only the indoor war, but the control of professional soccer in America. Unfortunately, they refused to realize that the problems destroying the NASL also existed within their own league. High player salaries, franchise instability, and no television rights plagued the MISL in the late eighties. Creating a minor league that eventually overtook it didn’t help either.

In 1990, the MISL changed its name to the Major Soccer League, and in a bizarre reversal of the NASL’s attempt to take over the indoor game, the new MSL tried to recast itself as an outdoor league. Not only did that experiment not work, it destroyed the indoor league and the MSL ceased operations in 1992.

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