SBJ/October 22 - 28, 2001/This Weeks Issue

Spalding gets the ball rolling with MISL deal

What used to be the National Professional Soccer League opened its season Saturday with a new name and ambitious off-field business goals. It also features a new look on the field via a two-year deal with Spalding, which supplies the league's official ball.

Spalding will use what is now called the Major Indoor Soccer League (after a defunct antecedent) as its springboard into the soccer market. Its new ball is a distinctive translucent gold and will be available in MISL arenas this season and in mass distribution next year for around $40.

This marks the beginning of a Spalding soccer push that will culminate in the company's introduction of a soccer ball to market next year that incorporates its Infusion technology, which includes a miniature air pump within the ball itself.

Spalding is known as a basketball company. It is an NBA sponsor and supplies that league with its official ball. So for it to include the MISL as part of its new soccer marketing program is a testimonial for what is essentially a relaunched product. The league will also name its scoring trophy the Spalding Award.

The MISL starts the season with headquarters in suburban New York instead of Ohio, six teams, a single-entity ownership structure (à la MLS or WNBA) and ambitious expansion plans. The league hopes to double its membership next year with a long-rumored merger with the Western Indoor Soccer League and two already awarded franchises in Toronto and Detroit and grow to 18 teams in 2005. The appeal of the MISL is one of accessibility and affordability.

"It's mostly a corporate crowd now for the Big Four leagues," said Commissioner Steve Ryan, former president of NHL Enterprises. "So we position ourselves against that with a game where four tickets cost as much as one for the big guys."

Of course, a TV deal is a prerequisite for growth. Ryan said the league should have TV exposure by the second half of the October-through-May season, via a time buy. He's been talking with ESPN, CNN/SI and other "usual suspects."

The corporate sponsorship cupboard is also bare, although a credit-card deal is imminent. Licensing has been centralized under a master agreement with Accuwrite of Hershey, Pa., which sources products and sells to venues, where the overwhelming majority of sales take place.

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