Sports leagues scramble for mix of fans and TV

July 11, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

The troubles that killed the Major Soccer League demonstrate the fierce struggle under way for the attention -- and dollars -- of American sports fans.

From slo-pitch softball to half-pint basketball, there has rarely been a shortage of sports leagues in this country. And though a few have succeeded, most have not.

"The highways are littered with the carnage of these leagues," said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based sports marketing newsletter.

Remember the National Box Lacrosse League? The World Team Tennis' Baltimore Banners? Or the American Professional Slo-Pitch Softball League, which boasted teams with names like the Suds and the Bourbons, not to mention the Baltimore Monuments? It lasted from 1977 to 1984.

"It's a tough business," said Craig Skiem, a sports consultant with Coopers & Lybrand in Dallas, an accounting and consulting firm.

One small league that apparently has found a niche is the Major Indoor Lacrosse League. The Baltimore Thunder plays to near capacity crowds at the Baltimore Arena.

But success on a larger scale depends on an elusive combination of fan support, which attracts corporate support and, eventually, television support, Skiem said.

"It's hard for an established sport to get on TV and even harder for a start-up," Friedman said.

The MSL's troubles are all the more puzzling because soccer itself has a promising level of participation from schoolchildren and amateur leagues. Usually, a game that is widely played can attract people to watch it, he said.

But not so with soccer. Several leagues have been formed, but none has reached the point of unquestioned success.

An MSL rival, the National Professional Soccer League, continues in business.

Many leagues are outgrowths of established sports leagues, but with a difference their backers hope will win them fans. The American Basketball Association, for example, popularized the three-point shot and pioneered multicolored balls. It lasted from 1967 to 1976, and included the Baltimore Claws, who never played a game.

The World Basketball League limits itself to players who are no taller than 6 feet 7. It's still in business, but is facing troubles.

The Global Basketball Association has teams in various U.S. cities as well as Estonia and Italy. There's also a Continental Basketball Association and a United States Basketball League.

The NFL probably has as many imitators as any league, from the United States Football League to the indoor Arena Football League.

The World League of American Professional Football has the backing of the dominant NFL, which views it as a beachhead for international expansion.

Less fortunate is the Professional Spring Football League, which didn't get its inaugural season under way this year as planned.

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