"But don't ask me why it works. They say St. Louis draws. Why? Look, I've lived through three eras in St. Louis alone. First, when I had Pettit, all the kids wanted to be like Pettit. Then, the Blues came in, and everything was hockey, heh. The history is, you get basketball and hockey in one arena, the one is going to knock off the other. And if not, it's no good, because it means they're both just existing and nobody's winning.
"Now indoor soccer. In Kansas City, you got the Comets murdering the Kings. And that's a tough town to promote, K.C. I used to take the Hawks into there for some exhibitions, and I'd be lucky to get three lines in the newspaper, advance. Tough paper, heh? Give you no breaks. But the Comets have gotten on top in K.C. And that's the third era in St. Louis, too. Last year we averaged more per game [17,107 spectators] for the Steamers than any winter team in America, except maybe the one that Gretzky plays for, and that's Canada, so we led the United States anyway. With soccer.
"So don't ask me. Why does it go here and it doesn't go there? It's like they used to say: Heh, why did you buy that white sweater, Ben, when a lot of places they're giving white sweaters away? I don't know.
"The 20th of October, 1980, the first game of soccer I saw in my life. And some people say: It's not soccer. All right, it's not soccer. Call it something else. So what does it matter what you call it if the people enjoy it, heh? It's better than being out on the street."
Having taken care of business again, Ben Kerner is going to retire once more, on June 1.
Each MISL roster has 20 players, 13 of whom must not be foreign, although that doesn't quite translate into American as apple pie. Included in the 13 can be green-card holders from any country, and what's known in the MISL vernacular as "grandfather Canadians." At one time, Canadians and Americans were lumped together as homebreds, but too many teams stocked up on Canadians, so that loophole was closed, except that a grandfather clause was instituted for Canadians already in the league. Got it?
As it is, about half the league is genuinely American now, and there's a clear correlation between success at the gate and Americanization. The Arrows have won all four league championships with a heavily foreign roster-although it does include the most famous American soccer star of all, Shep Messing, the goalie from Harvard-and the champions' failure to draw is further proof that a certain box office xenophobia exists in this country. Terry L. states unequivocally that he would rather have the Arrows field a less successful team stocked with "American heroes" than a perennial champion of alphabet unknowns. The Arrows' scoring star, the Yugoslav Steve Zungul, was virtually unknown to the New York public and all but useless as a ticket-selling attraction. Last month the Arrows got rid of him in a trade with Golden Bay.
The word heard over and over again in the MISL is mix: Once Americans obtain a clear majority of roster spots, the foreign imports become a positive exotic element. That sort of mix is already clearly evident in tennis, in which Americans dominate but enough foreigners compete to enhance the sport's flavor.
In the U.S., the same sort of formula generally applies to the subject of race. White Americans seem to have no trouble accepting black athletes-so long as the mix is right—i.e., whites predominate numerically and heroically-which may in part account for the fact that the NBA is still struggling to make it after all these years. Indoor soccer not only presents itself as a "white sport," but it's selling itself to the white suburbs, where the most disposable income is located, and to white women, who have never before been sought out by a sport. In any marketing analysis, managers would kill for this kind of upscale "positioning."
In the more affluent areas, indoor soccer is further buttressed by a unique recreational development. Indoor soccer rinks—fields? pitches?—are beginning to spring up, and, not surprisingly, they are appearing mostly in league cities. There may be as many as 100 indoor soccer rinks in the U.S. today, with seven to be found in the St. Louis area alone. Often as not, MISL personnel, players and managers alike, have invested in these "profit centers," which usually are converted indoor tennis facilities or hockey rinks. Indoor tennis was overbuilt a decade ago, and hockey's tiny recreational base has been threatened by rising heating costs.