Thus, if indoor soccer thrives as a spectator sport, it's likely to attract more recreational players to the game and greatly enhance the value of the indoor soccer facilities. This could result in an upward spiral: more American kids playing indoor soccer, more young American players capable of beating out foreigners for spots in the indoor league, a more American game overall, a higher profile for the sport, encouraging more amateur players to take it up, and so on.
While it's true that there's no direct connection between the number of participants who play a sport and the spectator success of that sport, it's nonetheless a fact that Americans won't support games that are alien to their recreational community. Take hockey as Exhibit A. If indoor soccer becomes an accepted local recreational diversion, it's sure to help the pro game at the gate. Moreover, indoor soccer investors have the potential, never previously realized in sports, to profit at all levels of the game. Nobody before could ever, in effect, buy a whole sport. Major league baseball, for example, makes not a cent from Little League. But an MISL team could break even or lose money, and still justify itself financially, by serving as an advertising vehicle that would help bring fee-paying customers into the recreational rinks affiliated with the franchise.
For now, image is vital to the MISL. At one time—and not so long ago, either—any sport that wanted to prove itself had to hype the fact that its stars made big money. Now, in hard times, in the wake of player strikes and with the general perception that athletes are selfish ingrates, that worm has turned. A handful of MISL players, such as Messing and Zungul, do make more than $100,000, but generally payrolls are reasonable; there are no astronomical salaries to irritate fans, and the $2,000-a-month minimum makes indoor players almost human, working stiffs not unlike the fans on the other side of the dashers.
The first thing Terry L. did when he took over the Arrows was to have a large banner made that says NY ARROWS [HEART] LONG ISLAND; the players run around the arena holding it on high after they play. In Baltimore, the classic workingman's town, the whole team goes out to mid-field at the end of the third quarter and, when the attendance is announced, cheers the fans for coming. When Johnny Unitas came to a game not long ago, he told Mitch Burke. "You know, what this atmosphere reminds me of is the way it used to be here between the Colts and the fans 15 years ago."
Finally, it certainly helps that the players are not physical freaks—neither 7-footers nor 300-pounders. In fact, because of the compact playing area, mobility is prized, and the players tend to be cute little devils, much smaller than most professional athletes. Only one member of the Wichita Wings stands more than 5'11"; only two of the Pittsburgh Spirit are that tall. It's also nice that the players have all their teeth and don't hit one another on the head with sticks. Altogether, they qualify nicely as the sex symbols they are made out to be.
Hot is the key word in the league this year—Hot Winter Nights in Kansas City, Hot Legs in Pittsburgh and New York. A tie-in with a cologne manufacturer throughout the league features a "10½" competition, wherein distaff fans are asked to vote for the best-looking players. In New York, the PA announcer constantly advises the women in attendance as to which bar they can visit after the game to meet players.
The MISL athletes don't appear to be the least bit disturbed that they are being exploited as so much meat. In fact, some enjoy the Ken-doll treatment so much that they coat their legs with baby oil before a game to make them glisten. The females who enjoy indoor soccer tend to be leg women. And there are a lot of them. In most pro sports crowds, the proportion of females rarely rises above one-third and is usually closer to one-fourth, but MISL crowds are around 40% female and can go as high as 50% in places like Kansas City, where the most has been gotten out of the sex angle.
Still, the merchandising of neat little young white men in short pants is not universal. In St. Louis, the city with perhaps the most soccer heritage in the U.S., the Steamers draw more of a blue-collar crowd, and the front office acknowledges that it would never dare trot out anything like Pittsburgh's Hot Legs poster. Likewise, we can rest assured that Memphis, run by Kyle Rote Jr. and a group of what he describes as "Christian businessmen," will continue to eschew such base appeals to the flesh. Wichita, which fills its small (9,600-seat) arena to 93% capacity with loyal orange-garbed fans, attracts a middle-aged clientele, the average for both men and women spectators being well out of the 18-to-35 range that the league so prizes.
But the league is finding an audience. In five years attendance has doubled, and this season it may well reach 9,000 a game, about 60% of capacity. This compares quite favorably with its mature indoor rivals, the NBA and NHL, which last season averaged 10,593 and 12,751 per game, respectively.
Charlie Eckman, a certain Hall of Famer in basketball—he is the only man to referee the finals of the NCAA tournament and NBA playoffs, and he coached the Fort Wayne Pistons for three seasons—is the radio color announcer for the Blast and one of the league's most enthusiastic supporters. "Indoor soccer'll be the game of the '80s," Eckman says. "Bet your cherries on it, Leader." Cholly calls everyone Leader.