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Show, Sex And Suburbs
Frank Deford
February 28, 1983
Earl Foreman (left) and other nonstop MISL promoters hope the three S's will finally make soccer—indoor style—a success in the U.S.
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February 28, 1983

Show, Sex And Suburbs

Earl Foreman (left) and other nonstop MISL promoters hope the three S's will finally make soccer—indoor style—a success in the U.S.

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Earl Foreman, the MISL commissioner, is a very sophisticated sports businessman. It is quite possible that no commissioner of any league has ever come to office so well trained for the job. Foreman, 56, has been a practicing Washington lawyer. He's wealthy, with grown children, and is motivated in his job chiefly by pride, although his contract does give him the right to own an expansion team—in effect, a stock option that would be worth exercising only if he helps the league prosper. In the past, besides his adventure with the open-air version of the Spectrum, Foreman also has been an owner in the NFL (Eagles), the NBA (Bullets), the ABA (Capitals-Squires) and something known as the United Soccer League, which eventually merged with the NASL. Foreman's USL team was the Washington Whips. It was a learning experience. The first four times the Whips played in RFK Stadium, they tied—and three of the four ties were scoreless.

"I have no interest in knocking outdoor soccer," Foreman says, "but I know now—too late—that the mistake made again and again is assuming that soccer is popular everywhere else because it's a good game to watch. Unfortunately, the more sensible assumption is that soccer has a monopoly everywhere else in the world. What's it have to beat in England besides cricket? In France what else is there? Greco-Roman wrestling?

"No, the main thing soccer enjoys around the world is that it embodies the greatest human emotion. Not sex. Nationalism. Men get out of bed to go to war. I only learned to appreciate that when I noticed at some important soccer matches that the fans were bored for much of the game, but they would pass the time waving flags and singing patriotic songs."

This season the NASL, which has atrophied to 12 franchises (from 24 in 1980) but still managed to lose that $25 million in 1982, permitted three of its franchises—Chicago, San Diego and Golden Bay—to field teams in the MISL as well. The toothpaste is out, and it's never going back in the tube. Whenever the two leagues achieve some form of consolidation, it will be the NASL that must end up as the subsidiary partner. Already Samuels acknowledges that next year two or three more of his outdoor franchises will want to play indoors, too. Lee Stern, the owner of the Sting, which now plays in both leagues, says, "There's no way pro soccer can survive anymore in this country without indoor soccer." And Bob Bell, Stern's counterpart with the San Diego Sockers, says, "I'm convinced now that indoor will be what makes soccer in the U.S."

There is, however, no way of knowing yet whether indoor soccer can do what hockey failed to do—win national acceptance and network contracts and become America's fourth major professional team sport. But for better or worse, it's becoming clearer all the time that if soccer does succeed as a spectator sport in the U.S., it will be the indoor brand that will thrive.

Indeed, the most intriguing glimpse of what indoor soccer really looks like comes from watching a feature piece that the BBC did last year on the Baltimore Blast. The viewpoint is sometimes a bit smug, sometimes avuncular, but always anthropological, rather as if the show were about naked natives from deep in New Guinea using La Machine or blow dryers for the first time.

The British cameras carefully record the Blast's huge, simulated soccer ball, flashing and exploding as it descends from the roof of the Civic Center before each game, while rock music blares and laser lights speckle the full house of wideeyed Baltimoreans. The ball lands, as it were, and splits open, emitting great clouds of steam, a staple of all indoor soccer introductions. The MISL could no more survive without steam than the U.S. Post Office could without mucilage. And then, from inside the great lighted ball, through the murk, come the players, one by one, garbed in neon citrus colors, all holding high red roses, which they will toss to lucky girls in the stands. There's a long pause from the BBC announcer. At last he speaks. "Leeds versus Liverpool it is not" is what he says.

If you were paying attention earlier, you will remember that there was one exception noted to the rule about the successful indoor soccer General Marketers being young men who'd never had any experience in sports. The exception is Ben Kerner, in St. Louis.

Kerner first bought into sports shortly after the war, when, for 25 grand, he purchased an NBL franchise in Buffalo called the Bisons. He shifted it to Tri-Cities, then to Milwaukee and finally to St. Louis, where Bob Pettit came aboard. The team won the NBA championship in 1958. Kerner sold it to an Atlanta group 10 years later for $3.5 million.

Kerner, known as Uncle Bunky, speaks in a distinctive, high-pitched whine, from a line of a mouth that stretches clear across his face. The corners of his mouth lift up occasionally for inflection, as if they were yanked by marionette strings. On a game day, wearing a snappy white V-neck sweater, Uncle Bunky speaks:

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