By TERRY LEFTON and TRIPP MICKLE
Published August 04, 2008 : Page 08
In late May, MISL owners pulled the plug on the latest iteration of the indoor soccer league. When dissolving it, owners, which include New Jersey Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, were adamant that the seven-year-old league would be back with a new face and structure in a matter of weeks. They all insisted, We will play next season.
Weeks have turned to months, and the future of the league, whether it be under the MISL name or another (as seems more likely), is murky. Officially, owners of the remaining eight teams are unwavering in their declaration that the league will play next season, but they have no timetable for deciding how to go forward.
The only deadline we have is we want to be playing this winter, said Charlie Krause, owner of the Milwaukee Wave.
Among the matters yet unresolved, however, are the timing and duration of the season, whether the league should be regional or national; whether it will retain a single-entity structure or adopt a local ownership model; whether it will have a commissioner and a front office; and how many more franchises could or should be added.
So where is the league formerly known as the MISL?
Limbo is an understatement, said Greg Howes, a three-time MISL MVP, who is waiting for the league to be reborn. There are a lot of guys who had houses and families who are waiting to see what the leagues going to do, so limbo is a weak word.
The owners hope for an MISL renaissance remains.
Its easy to say well play again, but we wont until those differences are bridged, said John Hantz, former MISL chairman and owner of the Detroit Ignition. If you look at our core competency as a league, we had no problems putting a good product on the field. It was everything else, including attendance and sponsorship. I still believe we could call everyone in September and they would be ready to go because of that competency. The problem is, that competency doesnt keep our doors open.
While the league wasnt profitable, economics arent why owners pulled the plug.
The financial condition is fine, said Jeff Rotwitt, a real estate developer and attorney who has won two league titles since becoming owner/operator of the Philadelphia Kixx in 2001. The decision was not driven over spending six dollars vs. nine dollars. It was driven by why you would pursue what is a foolhardy option Financially, we need to decide where our teams should be, how long the season needs to be and when it should begin and end.
These formative issues were not new sources of contention. Baltimore owner Ed Hale (who declined numerous interview requests) put a motion on the agenda of a May board meeting to pull the plug on the league, believing MISL officials had long expressed an ability to discuss any issue. Considering the league was being deep-sixed, there was some discussion, but not as much as you would think, said a person who attended the meeting.
Everyone was just tired, said Hantz, when asked about the motivation for dissolving the league. Everyone, including myself, was talking to molasses. We needed to pull back and open our eyes as to why we started owning a team.
Former Cleveland owner Dick Dietrich, who invested $1.2 million in the league in 2001 and folded the team in 2005, said most ownership gatherings up until his exit three years ago were fractious.
Every issue that ever came up in a board meeting was cantankerous, he said.
One of the most divisive issues going forward is whether the league will be controlled by a commissioner. Some owners were tired of the overhead of a league office based in Westport, Conn., anchored by veteran NHL executive Steve Ryan. Ryan, who would not comment for this story, was hired as commissioner in 2001. The announcement of his resignation came days before the league stated that it was suspending operations.
After the league was dissolved in May, some league executives said they did so to get rid of the owners like Dietrich, who no longer owned teams. Milwaukee Wave Chief Operating Officer Michael Lafferty said, You sat in a room and you didnt know who had a right to vote and who didnt.
However, others called that issue a red herring. Dietrich said he didnt attend meetings or get involved in ownership issues after he shut down his Cleveland team in 2005.
The real tough calls havent been made, so it is easy to say, Im going to play again, Hantz said. How much power will the commissioners office have? Is the league bigger than the teams or are teams bigger than the league? The league has to be the bigger entity.
Not unrelated is the issue of whether the league will continue its single-entity structure, where every owner has a piece of the league, or adopt a franchise model. Interestingly, there seems to be more of a search for agreement here than a real preference.
If you take for granted that many, if not most, sports franchises dont make money year to year, then whether you are single-entity or an amalgam of individual owners is driven in part by the mood of the group, Rotwitt said. We just need to set one path.
How the league will move forward remains unknown. Rotwitt and Hale are leading the effort in the East, while Krause and Hantz are leading the effort in the Midwest. Vanderbeek, whos considered a linchpin, didnt respond to repeated interview requests.
In an effort to control costs and promote regional rivalries, what consensus there is seems to be toward having a more regional league. The fact that the New Jersey Ironmen played the Monterrey, Mexico, team more times than they played the Philadelphia Kixx last season made many in the MISL wonder about the leagues geographic rationale.
Dont underestimate how big that issue is, Hantz said. I dont really know where everyone wants to go, but regardless of structure, I believe it will be much more regionalized.
Some opponents of regionalization say derisively that indoor soccers top circuit will be turned into a bus league. For those trying to control costs, however, there are other considerations.
You want to concentrate your growth in areas that are proximate to create natural rivalries and economical ways of getting to games on a bus, as opposed to dealing with the long-distance travel ramifications of a $135 barrel of oil, Rotwitt said.
Of course, not everyone considers regionality an advantage. You cant have a league with eight or nine cities, said Paul Garofolo, a 13-year MISL club executive, whos now vice president of business development at sponsorship agency Premier Partnerships. You cant go to [A-B vice president of global media and sports marketing] Tony Ponturo and say, Lets do a deal. Hell look at you and say, Youre barely regional.
It all comes down to a question of what the league wants to be. As soon as that is clear, the property once known as the MISL can talk earnestly about playing again.
Im not worried about a timeline, because one thing we do well is put on indoor soccer matches, insisted Hantz, but if we [owners] arent on the same sheet of music, I dont think that matters.
The verdict is still out on PASL-Pro, but its possible that 2-3 strong markets could emerge from this league. In a few years, we may see some of these teams eventually merge with what's left of the remaining MISL teams.
In general, I think for indoor soccer to survive teams need to take a page from the MLS gameplan. Teams should partner up with minor league hockey teams/indoor football/indoor lacrosse and build their own 4,000-5,000 seat arenas. Its going to require a major investment, but without their own facilities its going to be tough for indoor to survive.