Big-time sport has expanded—exploded—in the last quarter century, but, oddly, in many respects it's more tradition-bound, more Establishment, than ever. Challenges to the power structure have all been thrown back. Not a single new professional league has managed to survive since the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form the NBA 34 years ago. RIP: All American Conference, Continental Baseball League, AFL, ABA, WFL, WHA.
And despite being hectored over and over again for not loving soccer as the rest of the world does, Americans have resisted the game mightily. It has never caught on as a spectator sport. But you know the old saw: Build a better rathole and rich men will beat a path to your door to throw money down it. Clubs in the NASL lost $25 million last year, and they have plenty of company. Remember World Team Tennis? Indoor lacrosse? Coed professional volleyball? Women's play-for-pay basketball? (The USFL? Who knows?) Is there intelligent life among sports franchise owners? In the last 30 years the only significant new competition to make it in American sports has been the Superstars going over an obstacle course on television. Think about it. Honest to God.
What's more, the same select major events that Grantland Rice and Ted Husing faithfully covered before the war remain preeminent: the Triple Crown horse races, the Indianapolis 500, heavyweight title fights, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and Masters golf tournament, the World Series, the bowl games, the Wimbledon and U.S. tennis championships. Oh, to be sure, there have been some modifications. There's the Super Bowl now. Horse racing isn't nearly as important as it once was. College basketball came out of the snake pits into well-lighted places. Tennis went pro and surpassed golf in popularity. But essentially the traditional sports and traditional events have repelled all boarders. Attack the system and you have no hope of beating it, or even of carving out a new place; at best you can only be co-opted, swallowed up by the Big Sport monster that's already firmly in place. Certainly there's no room any longer for the young sports entrepreneur. Once there were men like Clark Griffith and George Halas, Eddie Gottlieb and Ben Kerner, who carried whole franchises around in their hats. Nobody can do that today. If that's your dream, better make computers your game and Silicon Valley your league. Like Big Business, Big Sport in America has become primarily a matter of mergers and acquisitions. Someday very soon you will wake up to discover that Bill Agee and Mary Cunningham have bought the College Football Association and put it into a holding company along with 3-D movies, Club Med and Wine of the Month.
And yet. And yet. There's this strange thing out there. It's called indoor soccer, and it's played in arenas during the winter, on artificial turf, with six little fellows to a side booting a ball that resembles a ladybug. As with outdoor soccer before it, indoor soccer has experienced a sweeping national rejection, the likes of which we haven't been privileged to witness this side of the John Connally-for-President campaign. In its first four seasons of existence, franchises in the Major Indoor Soccer League have failed in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco, Denver, Cincinnati, Hartford and New Jersey. As recently as December the IRS padlocked the doors of the Phoenix club, then the MISL's esteemed Western Division leader. Indoor soccer games have never once been allowed to sully the screens of ABC, CBS or NBC at the national level. In New York, where the league's flagship franchise, the Arrows, has won the championship every season, America's newspaper of record, the hometown Times, pays the team almost no notice. Across the country in Los Angeles, the town that put the "bi" in bi-coastal, the Lasers' owner lets his 26-year-old son run them on a shoestring. Two different men own one team apiece and another together. Doctors, ever eager for tax shelters, are in it as investors, just as once they purchased time-share resort high-rises and indoor tennis centers. The commissioner is the fellow who owned the Spectrum in Philly when its roof blew off. Wichita of all places is a valued franchise. Many teams have those cutesy-poo nicknames without plurals. Confucius say: "Team not have 's' on end, come to bad end." Some clubs welshed on hotel bills last year. Altogether the league has lost perhaps $21 million since its founding in 1977.
And yet. And yet...
Terry Leiweke, one of four Leiweke brothers in the MISL—all T. Leiwekes: Tracey, Terry, Tod and Timmy; nothing like it since the Johnsons of Johnson City, Texas were working their way through the L's—pulls out a feelthy peecture. "Look at this," he smirks, brandishing a crinkled Polaroid print. It features a bunch of well-built young men in their undergarments in a locker room surrounding a bosomy blonde in a skimpy outfit, who's giving one of the guys a massage. "This is going to be our poster," Terry L. says.
He's the new president of the Arrows. Once Terry L. kicked 13 extra points in a college football game, his being the educated toe on the day in 1968 when Houston chose to run it up against Tulsa 100-6. That's listed somewhere in the NCAA record book. Now Terry L. and his baby brother, Tod L., are running the Arrows somewhere out there in the Long Island metromess.
And Terry L.'s soft-porn poster is important. It's precisely the sort of original cutting edge that may help the MISL to gain public awareness, then an identity and finally the success that no other new league or new sport has in recent years. Doug Verb, the young new executive vice-president of the Chicago Sting, puts it this way, "I used to say we were three S's: Speed, Scoring and Skill. Now I say it's four S's, with Sex, too." In fact, Verb is still short an S, as in Suburbs. He'd really be better off throwing his original S's out altogether and making the MISL's big three Show, Sex and Suburbs. Whether or not indoor soccer makes it, the MISL is worth studying as a phenomenon, a laboratory researching those S's for all future sports management.
The Show in the formula is much more than the game. It takes in loud rock music, fireworks, all sorts of lighting effects (heavy on the lasers), introductions that would put even Merv Griffin to shame and carefully orchestrated interaction between the players and the fans. The game part of the show is fast, easy to follow, easy to understand and, usually, no more than two hours long—except when overtime occurs, which is in one out of six games. About 11 goals a game are scored, which seems just about optimal, providing the right number of emotional peaks and valleys.
The Sex is quite overt on one level. "Hot legs, hot time, hot action—just too hot to handle," goes a radio spot for the Pittsburgh Spirit, whose attendance has increased 10% this year though the team has plummeted in the standings. "The Pittsburgh Spirit.... We have 20 guys in shorts who can go all night." On another level, the sex is more subtle: Identify with the nice, normal-sized, white boys who could very well live right next door to you in the Suburbs.