On Monday, the news spread that the Major Indoor Soccer League was folding. Even with its apparent restructuring for next season under a new banner, the announcement highlights the trouble this brand of soccer is having here in the United States.
First, I am glad the game will continue here in Baltimore. The sport and the franchise have a long, rich history in the city, and yes, the game, the team, and sport have all been a big part of my life. Plus, having done countless hours in the community, the Blast has been a good steward to Baltimore. The organization and its people are first class.
The problem with the game and the league in the US is that since 1990, all the focus, attention, and resources have been channeled to outdoor soccer. That year Alan I. Rothenberg succeeded the unpopular Werner Fricker as president of the United States Soccer Federation. Under Rothenberg’s guidance, the 1994 World Cup became a major success, setting records for attendance among other things. Fulfilling a promise to FIFA made as part of the US’s World Cup bid, he oversaw the establishment of Major League Soccer, the first full-time Division I US league since the old North American Soccer League.
Under Rothenberg and since, all financial and material resources have been funneled to the outdoor game especially at the Major League Soccer and US National Team level. Big name sponsors like Nike and Gatorade have flocked to the outdoor brand, while ESPN and its family of networks give the outdoor game the exposure which it so badly needs. After 12 years, MLS is on a steady and slow growth path that will see that league at 16 teams by the year 2010. More soccer specific stadiums are to be built in the next few years. Top flight American players are either in the MLS or oversees in Europe.
Last week, the expansion Seattle Sounders and Microsoft agreed on naming rights to the team’s jersey. The deal is reportedly worth $20 million over the next five years. The Sounders have already received 16,000 requests for season tickets. The Sounders will wear Xbox 360 on their jersey. The indoor game can’t compete with these types of deals for sponsors or attract top flight players.
The proliferation of satellite packages have also lead to a growing interest in international soccer leagues like the English Premier League, Serie A of Italy. People can simply head down to Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant in Fells Point or other bars and watch their favorite teams from across the pond or sit in their living rooms and follow Liverpool or Manchester United. The growth of the Hispanic population, who are very loyal to the outdoor game, is also helping the outdoor brand continue to grow in the US.
The indoor game has been besieged by ineffective ownership, bad leadership at the league level, and a lack of exposure at both the local and national television level. The league has too few national corporate partners The Blast, under the excellent ownership of Ed Hale, is one of the few indoor soccer franchises that has it right.
Will there be indoor soccer next year? The answer is yes. Does the league have a chance to be in business five or 10 years from now? Yes. Will it emerge to be anything even resembling its glory days of the early and mid-1980s when it was on the verge of something big? The answer to that is most likely no.
The sun may not have set on indoor soccer, but the league will find it hard to emerge from dusk. The stability and growth of MLS, globalization, and corporate America have shifted their priorities to the beautiful game.