Shrunken MISL eyes future as play nears

Blast opens tomorrow against Harrisburg

Soccer

October 19, 2001|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

The arrival of the Major Indoor Soccer League tomorrow night comes with a money-making plan and a new perspective.

It's time to attack instead of sitting back on your heels.

When Steve Ryan took over as commissioner of the now-defunct National Professional Soccer League last season, he saw a viable product that, for 17 years, had been linked to a disastrous business model that never worked.

His words: "It was really a failure."

But one year after taking over, Ryan has made sweeping changes as the new MISL era begins tomorrow night with three season openers, including the Blast against the Harrisburg Heat at the Baltimore Arena.

The new league with the familiar name (the original MISL, the first professional indoor league in North America, operated from 1978 to 1992) is run as a single-entity business with the individual team operators each holding a financial stake in the entire enterprise.

Only six of the last season's 10 NPSL teams - Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Cleveland - were able to meet the higher business criteria set forth for the 2001-02 season and the league also applied a salary cap that reduced player salaries. The outline is to rebuild from the ground up.

"We wanted to build on a solid foundation, and that starts at the top with very strong, knowledgeable, hard-working ownership," said Ryan. "The business model we've gone to really builds enterprise value, and the way it has worked successfully is that it gives you both cost-certainty in terms of labor costs and the opportunity to accelerate your revenue."

The league is involved in establishing financial objectives for each team and then working with each to achieve those goals.

Ryan said ticket sales are the key ingredient. The average attendance was 5,017 among the 10 NPSL teams last season; the Blast averaged 5,376.

"Our objective for this year is to grow the business in the range of 20 percent," Ryan said. "That's an ambitious growth number, and we acknowledge that, but it demonstrates the laser-like focus that we all have now on the renevue side in terms of selling more tickets."

To increase ticket sales and attract sponsors, Ryan said the league needs more visibility.

The MISL launched a new Web site; it created a new marketing promotional program called `Kickin' It; it has planned an extravagant All-Star weekend in Cleveland; and, most importantly, it is closing in on a television contract that Ryan said could come to fruition by midseason.

"The league is now projecting a major-league image, which allows us to position ourselves right there with all the other major-league sports that have been so popular," Ryan said. "I honestly believe that we're going to become - rapidly become - the fifth major sport in North America."

Growing coast-to-coast is a must.

Baltimore team operator Ed Hale, who chairs the league's expansion committee, always heard the same questions from potential investors during the previous regime: Is anybody making money?

"And the answer was always `no,' " said Hale, who owned the Blast from 1989 through 1992 back in the old MISL days and then regained ownership in 1998. "Then they would say, `When you figure out what's going to make business sense, give us a call, and we'll get together.' "

The calls are now coming.

Along with the possible return of the previous NPSL franchises in Detroit and Toronto, potential expansion cities include Nashville, Tenn., and Oklahoma City.

A number of franchises from the World Indoor Soccer League, which includes familiar teams like the San Diego Sockers, the St. Louis Steamers and Dallas Sidekicks from the previous MISL, have shown interest in coming aboard. In five years, Ryan envisions an 18-team league with three conferences.

"I think it's incumbent upon each owner to have a profitable situation in their own city, to build their sponsorships and ticket revenues, to build interest in the teams and the sport," Hale said. "If that happens, I think we'll have a lot of people wanting to get into our league."

The salary cap - which is set at $300,000 in-season for the entire Blast roster this year - forced the majority of players to take unexpected paycuts on short notice. Blast general manager/coach Kevin Healey, who had to rework new contracts for all players after the launch of the MISL was announced in early August, said last year's payroll was "a couple hundred thousand dollars higher."

Players make additional earnings by working Blast summer camps, and many have other jobs.

"In the short term, I think it took guys by surprise, and it's sad to say, but I think if we had any more notice, some guys would have not been playing soccer," said Blast team captain Lance Johnson. "Most guys are sucking it up, hoping things get better, and also being prepared if it isn't. We have faith in our owner and have no reason to not believe what he's telling us."

Hale said he advocated a larger salary cap for this year and will continue to do so.

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