I have blogged about indoor soccer a number of times in the past two years. I'll let you read some of my past stuff, but to quickly summarize, I went to my first Milwaukee Wave game in January 1985, and I have been going regularly since 1987... I estimate that I've seen 85% of home games in the last 20 years. I've been the Booster Club president, I've been the editor of the Booster Club newsletter, I attended one Soccer Solidarity convention (yes, there really used to be a convention for indoor soccer fans). I also - though not related to indoor soccer - worked in the press box for the Milwaukee Rampage for nine seasons and also the Milwaukee Wave United for one season. In other words, I've seen a lot of soccer players, teams, leagues, fans and media coverage come and go.
So last year summer when the Major Indoor Soccer League folded, the thirteen fans of the sport around the country held their breath in anticipation of what would happen. Depending on your viewpoint, it either all went to hell, or the groundwork has been laid for the resurgence (and profitibility) of the sport.
The MISL ostensibly folded because the bylaws allowed for teams that had folded to still remain part of the league by paying the yearly dues. So when cities like Cleveland, Kansas City and St. Louis folded a few years ago, there was no opportunity to replace the teams in those cities because the rights were still owned by the previous owners. On top of that, by paying the yearly dues, these defunct franchises had full voting privledges. It came down to the fact that there were as many - if not more - defunct teams voting than current teams. By folding the league, you get rid of the deadweight and you can start over with the true ownership groups deciding the sports future.
Ah, if it were only that easy. A funny thing happened on the way to this season. Agreements could not be reached on how to set-up this new league. So one group of owners formed one league (The Xtreme Soccer League, or XSL), and the other group of owners formed another league (The National Indoor Soccer Leagu, or NISL). Out west, yet a third group (The Premier Arena Soccer League, or PASL) added an upper division and started calling itself professional. And you know what? Each of the three leagues think that their model is the best. One big point that many made was that indoor soccer can only exist in regional leagues because of the cost of travel.
The Wave plays in the XSL, along with former MISL teams Chicago Storm, Detroit Ignition and the New Jersey Ironmen. The NISL consists of former MISL teams Philadelphia KiXX, Baltimore Blast, LaRaza de Monterrey and two teams from the now-defunct American Indoor Soccer League, the Rockford Rampage and the Massachusetts Twisters. The PASL-Pro has former MISL team in the Stockton Cougars, and a bunch of other teams from places like Wenatchee, WA. The XSL stretches from Chicago to Newark. The NISL goes from Baltimore to Monterrey. The PASL-Pro goes from Calgary to Cincinnati. So much for regional.
Before the season even started, each league faced challenges (that didn't include explaining to their fans why there are only a couple of teams in the league, and the fact that their players have disappeared, and the fact that the schedule came out too soon before the opening of the season)...
The XSL described itself in its formation as an innovative, 12-month sports lifestyle brand. Nothing says "high-quality competition" like labeling yourself a lifestyle brand.
The NISL also has their Monterrey team playing an ookey number of exhibitions against many of the PASL-Pro teams.
The PASL-Pro has a team in Wenatchee. Oh, and many teams play in what could best be described as practice facilities.
Focusing on the Wave's league, the XSL, the four teams play a 20-game schedule with no playoffs. In past years, the Wave has played as many as 44 games, and in 1997-98 they played 12 playoff games in winning the championship. Because there are only 20 games, players are only paid a fraction of what they had been paid. It is clear that many players (not just from the Wave) from the MISL have taken this as a sign that there is more money working a 9 to 5 job. The result is that half of the rosters in the XSL are made up of guys you've never heard of. That doesn't make for a quality product. 11 players on the current Wave roster have one year of indoor experience or less.
On game day at the US Cellular Area (as well as the Sears Centre in the Greater Hoffman Estates Metroplex, where the Chicago Storm plays) nothing is different in the game presentation from last season, or the season before that, and so on. Wave PA announcer "Dammit Man" McNeil is constantly on the PA reading ads, welcoming groups, counting down the clock, etc. When he isn't talking (and, actually, ususally when he is) there is constant music playing. Not the music that the ticket BUYERS like... which is funny. 30-to-50-year olds buy the majority of the tickets, and the music is geared towards the 14-year old kids that wouldn't be caught dead with their parents.
Game day presentation aside, I attend Wave games for the soccer. It is getting better as the season progresses, but with so many newcomers, it is taking awhile for the prouct improve. And that is the most disappointing thing about the innovative, 12-month sports lifestyle brand. It doesn't appear to be about the soccer on the field. As nice as it is to give guys like Nathan Sabich, Chad Burt and Jacek Przednowek a job, there is no way they make the 1997-98 championship team. I'm not even sure they make the lesser 2004-05 championship squad.
Here's a rambling example... Due to a couple of injuries and cost restraints, the Chicago Storm came to Milwaukee on New Year's Eve with a depleted squad. The Wave was able to beat them 14 - 10. One month later, the Storm came to town and looked horrible... as a sqaud they exhibited little life and looked out of it before they started. However, the Wave was only able to score three goals and won 6 - 2. Then Chicago made their biggest move of the season, signing MISL veteran (and former Waver) Dan Antoniuk. Antoniuk is 6'3" tall and strong and knows the indoor game. In his first game with the Storm, Antoniuk led them to a win over the then-first place Detroit Ignition, and next to Milwaukee and beat the then-first place Wave 17 - 16. By signing one veteran that had been playing X-Box for a living (really, I don't know what Antoniuk was doing before the Storm signed him) the Storm was able to beat the top two teams in the league in a three-day span.
That says so much about the shape of the sport I have come to know and love. Antoniuk - who though a veteran is not an indoor player you think of as being a superstar - was unemployed for 2/3 of the season, and then immediately has a huge impact for his new team. It's not supposed to be that way. Antoniuk should have been on a roster, playing. And he should be paid enough so that he doesn't have to make the decision NOT to play.
And that is the problem with being a lifestyle brand that plays 20 indoor soccer games a year. Not enough revenue can possibly be generated by the teams in the league to afford the better players. I know that some of the veteran players get their pay supplemented by being an assistant coach, and by running soccer camps, etc. But there aren't 16 to 20 of these positions available, so some college kids who are happy to be making any money are now called "professionals" and the teams are charging fans $20 per ticket to watch them. Meanwhile, attendance is barely at 4,000 per game (and no playoffs). The cycle continues - but it is a downward cycle.
Between the three leagues, we need one group of owners with a vision that is larger than just existing. You can't have a quality product without quality players. You can't have quality players without high attendance. You can't devise ways to increase attendance if your parent company is working on beach soccer and street soccer tournaments. I have also stated in the past that you need a larger number of games to remain relevant. If you play two games every weekend (and maybe even the occasional mid-week game), there will be more game articles and highlights on the TV news. (Note that mid-week games are attendance killers, but consider the resulting newspaper article as advertising). Niche sports need to be in the public eye, and playing 20 games with no media coverage with players nobody's ever heard of is a rocket sled to irrelevance.
A 36 to 40-game schedule - an indoor soccer norm for almost two decades - seems to be a good amount. It allows for the highs and lows of a season (injuries, trades, long road trips, etc) which can test the mettle of a team. A schedule of that length gives fans more options to attend games. Someone like me might pay to attend 18 games... now the most I can attend is 10. A longer schedule also stretches out the season of available times for the casual fan to attend games. It keeps the sport in the public focus, and if marketing can put butts in the seats, can pay its quality players a living wage.
As it is now, the three leagues are just playing a game of which can prolong the death sentence. Speaking of short seasons, I will be back at the Sears Centre in September to check this out. They only play two home games in a four game season. We'll have to see how they can retain their, um, talent with only two home dates.
Now, with all that happy commentary, your Milwaukee Wave is tied for first place with two home games left... one of which is this Sunday. Go buy some tickets and have some fun. Show that there are still fans, and that higher attendance might lead to more games. I know I'll be there this weekend.
(Disclaimer - this is my opinion. I made a number of generalities in terms of recent indoor soccer history, as well as reasons behind the previous league folding and the current structure. In no way is this presented as a definitive study of indoor soccer in America. But I already spent too much time on a blog that only about seven people care about, so too much detail isn't called for. Am I dead nuts accurate? No. Am I solidly in the ballpark? You betcha.)